Glasgow's Date With Culture

Museum chief Julian Spalding gears up for world attention in key year 1990. ART: INTERVIEW

IF you mention the magic year ``1990'' to anyone working in the museums and art galleries here in this largest city in Scotland, their eyes tend to shoot skyward. That's because 1990 isn't just next year: It is Fate; it is an emotive, rather desperate, certainly confusing shadow looming on the horizon. It focuses the mind like a tax deadline, and it's getting dangerously close.

Briefly, 1990 is the year that Glasgow is to be designated `European City of Culture,'' an honor given by the European Community's ministers of culture to focus attention on the contributions of a particular city. And Julian Spalding, Glasgow's new-broom, full-speed-ahead director of museums and art galleries, intends somehow to transform the nine institutions over which he has presided since April. He wants to change them from 19th-century to 21st-century organizations, and he intends to do the conjuring trick by next year.

When first announced, the ``City of Culture'' decision was greeted with surprise, if not downright snickering. Here was this once heavily industrial, rough, tough, working-class metropolis chosen to follow in the footsteps of such sophisticated cities as Amsterdam and Florence.

But Glasgow is ferociously intent on wiping condescending smiles from all incredulous faces. Some suggest the city is, in the process, ferociously bent on overkill. Whatever one's view, it is clear that Glasgow will be overflowing with culture next year - high culture, middle culture, low culture.

There are, of course, those who argue that culture came to Glasgow long ago. They point out that the city already has an impressive orchestra, ballet, opera, chorus, theater scene, and - for a provincial British city of under 800,000 - an extraordinary number of museums and galleries. So why the need, they ask, for more exhibitions and concerts and events next year than the city has buildings to house, people to organize, sponsors to pay for, or visitors to enjoy?

But Mr. Spalding is not one of the doubters. Though he admits overhauling the museums is ``a very difficult job, actually,'' one that has given rise to ``some problems,'' he is sanguine. He believes the focus of 1990 offers a fine opportunity to get funding to install elevators and fire escapes, to refurbish and re-hang galleries, to complete unfinished exhibition spaces, and to stage a highly ambitious series of shows, among them one on Degas and another on Van Gogh and his contemporaries.

Spalding is rushing forward, and his staff, long used to slower and gentler procedures, are reeling. Generally, they applaud his changes but wish he had been able to start three years ago. They complain he has little awareness of the history of the museums and that he doesn't communicate well with them. They also complain of overwork.

Spalding himself seems largely unaware of such rumblings. Looking younger than one might expect for someone who has been in the museum field for more than 20 years, he shows great enthusiasm for museums in general and Glasgow's in particular.

His central belief is that museums have ``lost their way, in relation to modern society.'' He feels strongly that they ``should be aiming to re-establish their importance.'' He is convinced that attendance can and should be ``tripled.''

In a recently published survey, a number of Britons said they thought museums are like ``monuments to the dead.'' But Spalding - fresh from Manchester, where he was director of the city art gallery (having previously worked in Sheffield and Leicester), does not. He believes that these once enormously successful Victorian ``places of popular education'' are still ``the people's university.''

He says, ``They used to be visited by huge numbers of people - hundreds of thousands.'' But in Manchester he found that museumgoing had ``largely died down.''

In Glasgow, however, he feels, ``the tradition of museum visiting still exists.'' And in fact there's little class-consciousness about visting museums here. Families come regularly, often with noisy enthusiasm, to Kelvingrove, the ``great general museum'' that is the core of the city's museums system. Some 800,000 people come through its exceptionally heavy doors each year.

That's not enough for Spalding. Nor, apparently, are the 3 million people who annually visit all the museums under his wing (see story at left); he believes there must be many more to attract. He points out that Glasgow is a peculiarly self-sufficient place: It ``doesn't look to London for its culture in any way; it doesn't even look to Edinburgh.''

One of the director's highest priorities is to make the museums more effective communicators. Visiting is ``a very passive experience at the moment,'' he argues. ``The curators and all the knowledge are hidden away behind the scenes.'' There are, of course, enthusiastic volunteer guides, but Spalding wants them to have more training. Most of all, he wants to make the curators directly available to answer the public's questions.

To this end, he plans ``information centers'' in each department, to be staffed at all times. There will be reference books available, small displays, things to handle, videotapes, recordings, and possibly demonstrations, such as a ``taxidermist at work.'' ``There will also be a children's museum within the museum,'' Spalding adds. He plans to set up these information centers - ``quite big areas'' - by re-allocating existing staff, rather than employing new people. One curator suggested that it might be difficult to be available to answer a question from a museumgoer if she is hanging an exhibition or traveling to some distant country to research a future show.

Has anyone, I asked Spalding, tried information centers in museums before, to his knowledge? His answer is categorical: ``Nobody's done it.''

Time will tell if Glasgow is to be the first - in 1990.

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