Wyllieum Gallery at Greenock Ocean Terminal opens

The Wyllieum, a new space dedicated to the work and legacy of one of Scotland’s most beloved and well-known artists, George Wyllie (b. Glasgow, 1921) opens this Spring in Greenock’s Ocean Terminal visitor centre. It is the first new purpose built museum and gallery to open in Scotland since 2018.

I Once Went Down to the Sea Again runs from the 26 April 2024 to 11 August 2024 and brings together, for the first time, the largest selection of George Wyllie’s Spires ever shown in a single exhibition, alongside previously unseen archival documents, photographs and drawings.  

George Wyllie’s Spires are amongst the most considered and well-developed bodies of work produced during his career. First appearing in his ground-breaking live work, A Day Down A Goldmine (1982), these simple sculptural forms – a three-legged base with a vertical pole, held in balance by a rock or stone – draw inspiration from Wyllie’s full and varied life. The strong vertical form and gimble used to create balance are borrowed from Wyllie’s deep love of all things maritime; their ability to sway and move in the wind creates a simple rhythm reminiscent of a flag, sail, or ship’s mast.  

Co-curated by Will Cooper, Inaugural Director of The Wyllieum, and sculptor Sara Barker, I Once Went Down to the Sea Again, will launch The Wyllieum’s new gallery space in the City Deal funded Ocean Terminal visitor centre, alongside a series of talks, events and workshops. In keeping with Wyllie’s own approach to his work, The Wyllieum is a free, welcoming space of inspiration and invention, posing questions around what art is and can be.  

Wyllie’s Spires mark an important point in his career: developed in the early 1980s, they show the influence of fellow sculptor George Rickey, who Wyllie had met in 1981. Time spent at Hand Hollow, Rickey’s Massachusetts studio, taught Wyllie that artworks had the potential to communicate abstract and quasi-spiritual ideas; and proved the genesis of his sculptural spires. 

Wyllie began making the Spires in 1982 and, over the following decades, developed spires for sites across the UK, Europe and America. These included 32 Spires for Hibernia, first shown bridging a stream outside Derry, with half of the spires in Northern Ireland and the other half in the Republic. Over time, these became akin to monuments – simple works used to mark a specific time or place. However, unlike the traditional sculpted monument depicting a political hero or person of military significance, Wyllie’s Spires were designed to celebrate “wherever they stood”, allowing the user of these works to memorialise whatever we each value: to celebrate the everyday, mundane and happenstance. They remove pomp and ceremony, instead opting to focus our attention on our everyday interactions with places, people, and events. 

In this spirit, Wyllie produced these to celebrate his wife Daphne, to mark his good friend Beuys’ favourite place in Scotland (Rannoch Moor), and to embellish his garden studio (Studio Spire). The two portable spires included in this exhibition lived in the back of Wyllie’s car, ensuring they were never far from his grasp should something need memorialising. 

Situated in Greenock, on the mouth of the River Clyde, The Wyllieum is close to both Wyllie’s home in Gourock and place of work, The Customs House. The purpose-built gallery is housed in the new Greenock Ocean Terminal Visitor Centre, a Glasgow City Region City Deal project on the town’s waterfront.  

The £20.1 million project includes a brand-new pontoon alongside the visitor centre, which was designed by renowned Scottish architect Richard Murphy OBE, and was officially opened in September last year. It is owned by Inverclyde Council and was built with funding from the UK and Scottish Governments via the Glasgow City Region City Deal.

The Wyllieum also houses a shop specialising in homewares, books, crafts, and objects developed by The George Wyllie Estate; and shares the building with Scotts Greenock, a new flagship restaurant by local entrepreneurs Buzzworks and Peel Ports’ cruise ship arrivals and departures area which brings more than 150,000 tourists directly into Greenock each year.

Inaugural Director Will Cooper said, “George Wyllie started making art full time after a career that included stints in the royal navy and 30 years as a customs & excise officer in Greenock. His decision to become an artist in his retirement is an inspiration for us all. His incredibly diverse artistic output included anxieties about the banking system and the role of European colonists in the formation of modern America; and many of his themes have become even more vital over time. I am in awe of the dedicated hard work of impassioned supporters who have turned their love for George into The Wyllieum. Our opening programme is hugely exciting – we’ll open the gallery with I Once Went Down to the Sea Again, a survey of one of George’s most ambitious projects. Bringing Sara Barker in to co-curate the show will ensure these works are brought into the 21st century. I can’t wait to welcome visitors into our building!”

Chair of The Wyllieum Board, Michael Dale:I first met George Wyllie in 1984 when I was director of the Edinburgh Fringe and I like to think I was the first person to commission him to do a large-scale outdoor event, for Fringe Sunday in 1984. We worked together over the next 25 years on various public installations including the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988. As a result, when I was asked to be a Trustee, I was very pleased to take on a role to promote the man, his work and to find a way to honour his memory through Art in the new Gallery. Now, as Chair, it is most important that we work together to create a destination in Inverclyde, his home, to inspire and entertain the many people who like to go and see culture on an accessible level, just as he would have wanted. The gallery will open in 2024 thanks to the efforts of many people, and it is our responsibility to combine with partners across the region to sustain the legacy of this remarkable man.” 

Councillor Michael McCormick, convener of Inverclyde’s environment and regeneration committee, which oversaw the Greenock Ocean Terminal visitor centre development, said: “The Wyllieum has an important part to play in the success of the visitor centre and we hope that cruise ship passengers, and other visitors to the area, will enjoy finding out more about George Wyllie and his art. The Greenock Ocean Terminal Visitor Centre was built to encourage more cruise ships to dock at Greenock and for the area to benefit from the resulting increase in passengers. Having the Wyllieum now open in the building alongside Scotts Greenock is a fantastic reason for passengers to stay in Greenock and for many more visitors to come.”

Provost Drew McKenzie said: “The Wyllieum is an important part of the overall Greenock Ocean Terminal building and I’m delighted that it’s now officially open. I know the members of the Wyllieum board have worked tirelessly to make this happen and I’d like to thank them for all their hard work. George Wyllie was a proud adopted son of Gourock and it’s fantastic that there’s now a place for people to visit, right here in Inverclyde, to find out more about him and to celebrate his life and work. Inverclyde Council is proud to support the arts and we believe the Wyllieum is yet another reason for visitors to come and discover Inverclyde.”

Roland Grain, Chief Investor at Ardgowan Distillery, said:  “Investing in arts and culture is something I’m very passionate about in my homeland, Austria, and the opening of the Wyllieum presented a great opportunity for me to do the same here. Myself and the team at Ardgowan Distillery are passionate about supporting our local community any which way we can. For us, it is not just about the whisky, it is also about leaving a positive legacy for generations to come and nurturing tourism and local employment in the wider Inverclyde area. We would like to extend our warmest congratulations to the Wyllieum team and wish them every success.”