James Fenton once wrote a melancholy poem about throwing his life on a skip, and then finding that somebody else had found it worth taking. When I lived in Berlin or Edinburgh, the day when heavy rubbish was put out for Sperrmulltag or the 'Scaffies' was the day the rest of us used to scavenge and shake our heads at the callousness of others. How could anyone get rid of an ankle-length leather trench coat (with Nazi flashes), or an 18th-century fireplace which might have warmed the hands of David Hume?
In one sense, this throwing-out is good, and especially good when the furniture crashing into the skip is mental. Life has become a snowstorm of advice from the media, the bureaucracy, the mailshot hucksters. Freedom means digging yourself out of this snowdrift at least once a year, and the best of all resolutions is to travel light in mind and body. But freedom also means that you, and only you, decide which bits of the past you want to keep. Once you start taking advice about that from professional Heritage Industry grandees, you are lost.
This is the point of the important row which has broken out over Scotland's art galleries. It is about whether collective memory and culture are a national possession or a 'heritage resource' to be exploited for money. It is about whether you think of a country's art and archives as a single educational treasure, or whether you see them as assets to be split up and 'marketed' to produce the maximum return on capital.
The trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland sound venerable, but in fact they are a typical Thatcherite quango: six business people, two art professors, a retired university principal and an ex-Buckingham Palace official all appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland. They decided last year that there should be a new 'Gallery of Scottish Art', situated in Glasgow. This gallery would remove from the National Gallery in Edinburgh its paintings by Scottish artists or of Scottish subjects (some 2,000 out of the 2,900 oil paintings in the collections). Second, the new gallery would absorb the contents of the much-loved National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street, Edinburgh, which would be closed and its purpose-built Victorian home sold off.
Almost everything is wrong with this scheme. Its first blunder is to throw the Portrait Gallery into the skip. That collection is not about art but about history; its purpose is utterly incompatible with the purpose of an art museum. It is a huge archive of faces - painted, engraved, reproduced: the noses, jowls, bosoms and whiskers of Scotland's past. Many of the portraits are poor paintings, some awful. Others, like the Raeburns, are among the glories of the European Enlightenment. That is not the point. They are there because of subject, not quality. They are cells of Scotland's collective memory.
The second blunder was to select Glasgow as the site for the new gallery. It seems that the trustees originally meant to put it in Edinburgh, in the old Dean College above the Water of Leith. But then the Glasgow authorities offered a choice of sites in their own city and promised that luscious Scottish pictures in their own collections would be added to the National Gallery of Scottish Art if it were diverted to Clydeside. Impressed, the trustees changed their plan.
Glasgow's urban revival in the last 10 years is one of the wonders of Europe. To achieve it, the city's leadership has developed a practised rapacity, grabbing at every passing festival, institution or international jamboree which might be located in Glasgow. That rapacity has served the town triumphantly well so far, but hijacking the Gallery of Scottish Art is a grab too far.
It is no use saying that the new gallery would attract an extra pounds 10m or pounds 15m of tourists' spending. If that were true for a Glasgow site, then it would presumably be twice as true if the gallery were in Edinburgh, which gets twice as many visitors. And anyhow, so what? Somebody's pipe dream of 'marketing potential' does not begin to justify removing the main display of a nation's visual art from the capital to another city 50 miles away. Meanwhile, the decision and the reaction to it have renewed that squalid old Edinburgh-Glasgow vendetta which makes sane argument impossible.
Finally, there is something disturbing about the physical separation of 'national' art from 'international' art. The whole point is to do what you can do now in the national galleries of Edinburgh, London or Budapest: look at Scottish, English or Hungarian painting in the context of contemporary Italian, Flemish or French masterpieces, the supreme standards of the period. My own dream is to drift through rooms showing William McTaggart and Joan Eardley and Steven Campbell, zigzagging into a parallel suite of rooms in which works by, say, Boecklin, Marquet and Leger are hanging. Some idiot says that the idea of a separate gallery of Scottish art reveals the parochial nature of nationalism. All the nationalists I know want a unified gallery, a place in which they can feel the reality of Scotland's independent cultural relationship to the rest
It all comes back to this New Year skip, to this choice between keeping and throwing away. Fashionable doctrines which have been chipped should be thrown away, and this year's candidate for the skip is the management of art collections as if they were ratings- driven television companies. What should be kept, on the other hand, are places where art, including bad art, helps people to understand who they are. That means the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It was given to the Scottish public in 1882 by John Findlay, proprietor of the Scotsman, a 'national heritage' in the literal sense of the words. It is now being taken away from the nation, without consultation, or compensation, by a state committee representing nobody.
The sentence is not yet confirmed. The Secretary of State, alleged to be vexed by his impetuous trustees, may yet veto the whole project of a separate Gallery of Scottish Art on grounds of cost. But the lesson for all Britain is plain: official 'heritage management' vandalises our real awareness of the past. When a nation's whole album of portraits goes on the skip, it may be scavenged piecemeal by art dealers, but it will be lost to the culture for ever.Reuse content