They'll take the low road

The plan was to create a museum by, and for, the `people'. Instead, Glasgow's new Gallery of Modern Art is `an aesthetic and intellectual disaster'. But where did it all go wrong?

Tim Hilton
Saturday 06 April 1996 23:02

GLASGOW is fortunate in its Royal Exchange, a fine early-19th- century building in a commanding position at the centre of the city. Formerly used as a library, it has now reopened as the Gallery of Modern Art. Here is a bold venture on the part of the Glasgow City Council - and it was also adventurous of Pat Lally, the Leader of the Council, to entrust the formation of the new museum to Julian Spalding. After an earlier career in Sheffield and Manchester, Spalding (an Englishman) has been Director of the Glasgow Museums since 1988. His partnership with Lally has no counterpart in any other British city. As Spalding explains, Lally "called me into his office and said, `You said you needed more money for buying modern art - would three million pounds do?' "

Lally trusted Spalding, and he must take some of the blame for the new museum, but it is Julian Spalding alone who has assembled the work that now belongs to the Gallery of Modern Art. It's a shambles. I write those words sorrowfully, but there are some things that must be said. Glasgow has donated its money to an aesthetic and intellectual disaster. I don't know how much has been spent, or whether more money will be given; but if the Gallery of Modern Art is to thrive Spalding's policies should be reconsidered. In fact reversed. The only good thing about the GoMA is its location. The art it contains is generally third-rate, and the decent art is trivialised. It's badly displayed. There's no solid rationale behind the collection and it doesn't look to the future.

How does one set up an instant new museum? For top status you would of course need much more than pounds 3m, a sum that could be spent on just one painting. Working within economic constraints, however, it's still possible to go ahead. You simply decide on the scope and probable growth of the museum (for all museums grow). Here the GoMA has been timid. Glasgow should have decided to have art of true global importance in its care. The management should also have developed facilities for loan exhibitions, borrowed from elsewhere in Britain and the world. Such shows keep a museum lively. They spread knowledge and bring in revenue. But there's no sign of this approach. It seems that the gallery has begun its life with a blinkered determination to be provincial.

As for the formation of the collection - the kindest word I can find is haphazard. Spalding decided on a rule. He would only purchase living artists. This sounds OK at first and quite radical, but in the long run may not be wise. As we all know, artists who lived earlier in the century are often just as good, and as cheap to buy, as our contemporaries. There are more subtle reasons for including previous artists. If you buy retrospectively you tend to raise standards throughout all departments of a museum (in conservation first of all). Scholarship is thereby promoted. Educational programmes make more sense. Most of all, perhaps, a Director who shows an interest in the art of the past looks serious enough to encourage bequests.

I can't imagine anyone wishing to donate or bequeath work to the GoMA as it stands. It would be like saying that your possessions weren't really up to the mark. And then there's this hostile GoMA atmosphere, with a continual sub-text - top text often enough - of dislike: felt towards Edinburgh toffs, elitists from London, art critics who are by definition phoney, art dealers who surely are venal and in league with each other. This childish attitude bodes ill for the future of the GoMA. Contrary to Spalding's view, dealers are often shrewd and pleasant people who are inclined to help public galleries, especially new ones. Spalding should have taken advice from many art-world professionals, especially those (like dealers) who have definite tastes. Alas, he appears not to have consulted any taste other than his own.

He claims that he has founded a populist museum, with art by, and for, "people" (as though this were not so of all art). So it's a paradox that the collection has been made with such egotism. Spalding's views may be examined in a book he has written about the birth of the GoMA. It's contradictory from beginning to end. On the one hand he claims that "almost any Glasgow taxi driver" is blessed with love of art and innate good taste. On the other hand he feels that he has some special understanding of abstraction. Thus the tone of Spalding's writing wavers between false mateyness and a falser superiority. He's like an uneasy schoolteacher, at home with neither adults nor children.

It's tedious to go on about the book. I merely note that populism of Spalding's sort is bound to be inconsistent. His confusion is evident on the walls. The GoMA has divided contemporary art into four categories. They are earth, air, fire and water. Each of the four floors of the museum displays work said to have affinity with these elements. The scheme doesn't work. Why not think in more normal terms about the real categories of art that the museum has acquired? For instance, abstract painting, photography, Scottish painting, joke sculpture and pseudo-primitive art.

Disobeying his own rule about living artists, Spalding gives much space to his friend, the late Francis Davison (1919-84), who made collages from torn strips of paper. Spalding thinks he was a great artist. With all respect to Davison and his widow, Margaret Mellis, whose driftwood sculptures are prominently displayed, he was never more than minor. The gallery is on surer ground with the appearance of a recent canvas by John McLean. There are three paintings by Bridget Riley. Punjab of 1971 is the best of them. The earlier and beautiful Arrest III, painted in emulsion on linen in 1965, badly needs cleaning and should not have been shown in its present condition.

Naturally enough, Scottish painters are given prominence. The most distinguished of them is Alan Davie, nowadays a veteran artist. I still think his earliest work to have been the most adventurous of his career, but the cabbalistic signs of his rather private painting of the last two decades has a distinct voice. A sharp personality is what we miss in the generally over-praised figurative painting of such Scots as Stephen Campbell, Peter Howson and Ken Currie. I was disappointed not to see a painting by Callum Innes, the most original artist to have come out of Scotland in the last 10 years. A tea-room at the top of the building has been decorated in winsome style by the Polish Scot Adrian Wiszniewski.

One would have thought that a new museum would take the opportunity to create a department of photography. Camerawork is not difficult to purchase, there's lots of it, and photographs can speak of the world in a way that (I imagine) Spalding would like. He has bought some prints, notably by Sebastiao Salgado and Nick Waplington, but this section doesn't add up to much. The sad fact is that nothing adds up in this museum because it's all so random. There are five paintings by Beryl Cook. One would surely be enough. All the sculpture, without exception, manages to detract from the achievements of recent three-dimensional art. The piece by Niki de Saint-Phalle, a sort of Pop Art mosaic on the pediment of the building, apparently breaches planning regulations and may have to be taken down.

! Gallery of Modern Art: Queen Street, Glasgow (0141 331 1854); open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 11am-5pm; admission free.

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