Cities Vie To Be Scotland's 'Culture Capital'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

'ABOUT time, too!" a visitor to Edinburgh's Empire Theatre said with loud, deliberate emphasis.He had just read, on the foyer wall of the theater - until recently serving the city of Sir Walter Scott and David Hume as a bingo hall - a large and classy announcement. The Empire, it said, is to be Edinburgh's new opera house. It will not be just any-old new opera house. It will be absolutely everything it should be for "the European city of culture." The word "the" had clearly been chosen with care. If these promises are fulfilled, it will be a consummation for which Edinburgh, over decades of debate, has devoutly wished. To the west, a mere hour away by car and less by train, is a grand Victorian civic square with multicolored banners hung all around it. At the foot of each of these wind-wafted decorations are printed the following words: "Glasgow: a European city of culture." If there is one word that tends to get bandied about in Scotland's two major cities these days - some say ad nauseam - it is "culture." Edinburgh in the east and Glasgow in the west, like highly individualistic bookends, are kept apart by a tract of rather unattractive land. Across this divide they love to hate each other. Or at least to compete. They certainly toss slogans at each other like sniper fire. And times are such, in this post-industrial period, that "culture" has assumed a major importance in the thinking of city councils searching for new urban identities, money-spinning ventures that might bring in the tourists. Edinburgh is Scotland's capital. It has a high-perched castle everyone falls in love with. It has a supremely dignified "new town" of Georgian buildings and streets. For almost half a century, during three weeks each summer, its unrivaled Edinburgh Festival has been an international arts event. Glasgow, some 50 miles to the west, is far more populous. And, some of its outspoken inhabitants would claim, far more "cultural," too. In 1990 it was officially designated "European city of culture" for the year, an honor more usually given to obviously beautiful and culture-laden places like Paris, Florence, Amsterdam ... or Edinburgh. But Edinburgh wasn't chosen. Glasgow, once black with heavy industry, slum-ridden, mercantile, and indelibly, proudly working-class, won the award by a characteristic display of energy and inventiveness, stimulated by a desperate need to improve the city's image and attract business and tourists. Having won, Glasgow then extravagantly promoted and celebrated for 12 burstingly cultural months. It even began loudly to proclaim itself "European capital of culture." Capital. The word was chosen with care. Another dig at Edinburgh. To quiet, rather snooty, middle-class, Edinburgh, all that noise out west must have seemed like salt rubbed in a wound. Who in Edinburgh had ever thought of Glasgow as "cultural"? The fact is, though, that many more people visit museums and art galleries in Glasgow than in Edinburgh. And Glaswegians go to Edinburgh's art galleries and museums, too, which is more than most Edinburgh people do to Glasgow's. As its citizens never tire of pointing out, Glasgow is the home of the Scottish Opera, the two Scottish orchestras, the Scottish Ballet, and (so goes the spiel) "it has the finest civic art collection in Britain." And Glasgow has long had its opera house, though city officials ar e now beginning to admit that the Theatre Royal, which serves as such, does not actually have the stage facilities or seating for major productions. Edinburgh's enormous, but rather unpleasant, Playhouse already has such capacity (the musicals "Cats" and "42nd Street" have been recent inhabitants), and the Empire, presumably, will also. When post-culture-year Glasgow, still trying harder, brought a United States touring company's revival of "West Side Story" to the city this summer, it staged the show in the only space believed large enough: the Scottish Exhibition Centre. The production was a disaster, even though it had been a sellout in other Euro pean cities. Ticket prices were too high, seating was badly arranged, and the hall was half empty most nights. PART of the problem may have been the recession that has badly affected theatergoing in Britain. The Edinburgh Festival this year suffered to some extent also. And tourism is down in the wake of the Gulf war. But more probably a certain inexperience in Glasgow may have surfaced. Would it have worked better in Edinburgh? Some arts leaders in both cities believe that better cooperation between the cities would make an appealing package to bring people to Scotland (see interviews at right). Yet both governing councils still tend to think and act as competitors. When it suits them, the councils can sometimes make common cause. A joint study is in progress looking at the relationship between culture and tourism. The councils also came together recently to pressure the Scottish Tourist Board, which was, they contended, withholding promised funds for two building projects, one in each city. On the other hand, Glasgow Councillor Pat Lally recently spelled out his rather bitter claim that the proposed new National Gallery of Scottish Art - which everyone seemed to take for granted would be in Edinburgh - ought to be in Glasgow. Edinburgh, he maintained, was already overweighted with national art institutions. It is about to have yet another: the new Museum of Scotland. Julian Spalding, director of the Art Galleries and Museums in Glasgow, nobly argued that the new art gallery didn't have to be in Glasgow (or Edinburgh, for that matter) but that it and the Museum of Scotland should be one and the same institution, placed in "central Scotland." But then Spalding is an Englishman, so perhaps he doesn't fully understand.

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