Scotland's art belongs to Glasgow

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The Independent Online
THE NINE men and one woman who manage Scotland's art sat surrounded by portraits by Raeburn. In front of them stood the curators and staff of Edinburgh's three national galleries, who had packed in expecting to hear that the new National Gallery of Scottish Art would be built in the country's capital.

But when Angus Grossart, the chairman of the Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), rose he shocked them by saying: 'Life is about decisions. We have to make a choice. The preferred location for the gallery is Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow.'

Julian Spalding, the director of Glasgow's art galleries, who was at an awards ceremony 50 miles away in Perth, at first did not believe the news.

'I was very surprised,' he said. 'I had not bothered to go to Edinburgh for the announcement because I thought that the traditional power of the capital would prevail. I knew at once that my life would never be the same again.'

The trustees decision last Tuesday marked the end of the latest battle in a historic war between Edinburgh, Scotland's quaint capital and Glasgow, its brash, energetic industrial neighbour.

Hostilities date back to the 19th century after west coast tobacco barons and shipbuilders eclipsed Edinburgh's bankers and lawyers and the two cities began fighting for economic and cultural hegemony.

When the idea of a new pounds 30m gallery devoted to Scotland's art was first mooted in 1991, the art world concluded that it would be sited in the capital, home to the National Gallery, Portrait Gallery, Modern Art Gallery and the world's biggest annual arts festival.

But Glasgow, fresh from its success as European City of Culture, decided to take on the east coast establishment.

Civic leaders proposed four sites for the new museum, including Kelvingrove Park in the city's West End. Edinburgh quickly countered by offering eight sites, including the Dean Education Centre opposite the city's Modern Art Gallery.

After the development consultants hired by the NGS, rejected the Dean Centre and recommended Kelvingrove in a report published in July 1992, the trustees ignored their advice and restored the Dean Centre to their shortlist of two, along with the Sheriff Courthouse site in Glasgow.

Angered by that decision, Julian Spalding secretly joined forces with Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow Development Agency to commission architects Terry Farrell and Sir Norman Foster, two of Britain's most distinguised architects, to draw up plans for a new gallery in Kelvingrove Park.

'When we invited the trustees to a presentation they were very surprised to find that we had designs for two stunning buildings in Kelvingrove,' Mr Spalding said.

Glasgow city councillors raised the stakes further by making it clear that if Edinburgh was chosen, they would not release important municipal works by the Glasgow Boys, a late 19th century school, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Eventually the trustees voted to go west. The promise of a pounds 10m grant from the EU to Glasgow, coupled with higher projected visitor figures are thought to have swung the decision.

Trustees this week refused to discuss their deliberations. But a source close to the board said: 'There was a great deal of argument and a split. For some the loss of the gallery to Glasgow is like a bereavement.'

Others condemned the decision which means that most of the works in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh's Queen Street will move to Glasgow and the gallery will close.

Lord Perth, recalling pictures on display, said: 'I beg the trustees to change their minds and call in aid Mary Queen of Scots, John Knox, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and all the great men and women of Scotland who have lived in Edinburgh.'

But as Glaswegians celebrate, some in the art world are warning that the new gallery will harm Scotland's art.

Simon Tait, of Arts Management Weekly magazine, said: 'It is a silly idea.

'There is no national gallery of English or Welsh art so why have one for Scotland? The new gallery panders to Scottish provincialism and will be boring. Just imagine row upon row of Raeburn and Bellany. It would be better to see Scottish art in an international context.'

(Photograph omitted)

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