Scottish Artworks Slated to Go West

Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland have chosen to shift rarely seen native works from Edinburgh to an elaborate new gallery in Glasgow

`THERE are a lot of very angry people,'' Duncan Macmillan says.

Dr. Macmillan, a noted historian of Scottish art, is talking about people in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. Macmillan is curator of the Talbot Rice Gallery at Edinburgh University.

Residents of Glasgow, a much larger Scottish city 45 miles west of Edinburgh, on the other hand, are not angry. In fact, they could hardly be more pleased.

``It's the right decision,'' Kevin Kane of the Glasgow Development Agency (GDA) says with certainty.

The decision concerns the location of a projected new National Gallery of Scottish Art. On Nov. 30, the trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland (to date there are three National Galleries, all in Edinburgh) - announced their preference, after more than two years' study of various competing ideas, for a site in Glasgow as the place for the proposed multimillion-pound gallery. Glasgow offered its site gratis. It is near the city's own main art galleries at Kelvingrove.

Planned for opening in January 1998, the new gallery will house and exhibit the National Galleries' large collection of Scottish art. Much of this is never seen by the public - or even by art specialists - because there is insufficient display space in the existing buildings. Much of the art has long been of little interest.

BUT according to James Holloway, assistant keeper of the National Portrait Gallery, there has been a complete change of attitude in recent years, particularly toward the period of Scottish art in which the National Galleries' collections are strongest: the 19th century. Today he looks on paintings of this period, which he used to relegate to the darkest, most forgotten basement, as ``old friends.'' He is sure they should be seen in public.

There are about 2,900 oil paintings in the collections of the National Galleries. Of these, 2,000 are either by Scottish artists or relate to Scotland.

Mr. Holloway acknowledges that Edinburgh people are ``going to feel cheated'' by the decision. It will mean that 95 percent of the Scottish art now in the capital (albeit much of it in storage) will move to Glasgow. A select number of works will be retained in Edinburgh at the National Gallery on the Mound and in the National Gallery of Modern Art. But the National Portrait Gallery will cease to exist as such. And Mr. Holloway (among others) will find himself ``becoming a Glaswegian.'' He sounds quite happy at the prospect. And he is confident the new gallery will give Scottish art the prominence it deserves.

In choosing the Glasgow site, the trustees have also chosen to have a brand new building - architect not yet selected - instead of various suggestions in both cities for the refurbishment and use of available buildings.

Macmillan, however, is convinced that the motive behind the project is just the opposite of giving Scottish art prominence. ``It does no service to Scottish art and nothing for our self-respect,'' he argues. He says the whole premise of a separate gallery for Scottish art, wherever (but particularly in Glasgow, away from the collections in Edinburgh), is flawed.

Holloway points out that the new gallery will aim to set Scottish art in a wide European context by showing not only Scottish artists, but also works made elsewhere that are connected with Scots and Scotland.

Macmillan, however, contends that the real reason for this separate museum comes from an unspoken sense of the inferiority of Scottish art in National Gallery circles.

The National Gallery has a superb collection of great old masters, from Titian and El Greco to Cezanne, and the Gallery of Modern Art is strong on mainstream European painting of the 20th century.

In a vigorous article by Macmillan in Edinburgh's The Scotsman newspaper, he writes: ``It seems to me vital that we should be able to see our [Scottish] artistic heritage in the context in which it belongs, that of European art.''

He states that the National Galleries have been ``misused'' and that they should primarily be for Scots and to help Scots ``measure'' their ``own achievement.'' The National Galleries are ``a vital part of our national identity. We should treat them with care. It is for us that they exist in the first instance. It is not for the tourists.''

This last comment hits at one of the reasons the trustees chose Glasgow over Edinburgh: Glasgow can boast far greater numbers visiting its own museums and galleries than can Edinburgh. Though these visitors are both tourists and locals, it is as a ``tourism project'' that Kevin Kane, who has been project manager for the GDA's bid for the gallery to be in Glasgow, talks of the gallery.

For this purpose, Glasgow hopes money from the European Community will be forthcoming. This money would not be available to Edinburgh, and the possibility of it for Glasgow, though unconfirmed, was also an attraction to the trustees. Sources for further funding remain unknown. So far, no British government money has been offered and may never be, and private money for the arts in Britain is less and less available. The new National Lottery is expected to produce some funding.

MACMILLAN'S Scotsman article was headed, ``Think again: before it is too late,'' and his idea is a radical re-think. What he proposes, instead of a gallery of Scottish art, is a gallery more like the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, devoted to a period (the 19th century) rather than the art of one geographical area. He suggests a gallery of art from 1720 to 1950, based in Edinburgh but displaying works from everywhere, not just Scotland. This would decimate the National Gallery of Modern Art. But Macmillan argues that this National Gallery could then concentrate on truly contemporary art and patronize new work (post 1950) rather than building a collection of art going back to 1900, as it does now. It could be genuinely ``modern.''

Holloway calls this is ``a balmy idea.'' He points out, for one thing, that the three existing National Galleries are ``very weak'' in 19th-century art from other countries, - from France, Germany, and even England. ``We have no pre-Raphaelites at all, for example.'' So a range of non-Scottish works would simply not be available for the multinational gallery of 1720 to 1950 that Macmillan proposes.

``And anyway,'' Holloway says, ``I think it's very unlikely that in a few months the trustees are going to go back on their decision.''

If they did, there might well be some ``very angry people'' in Glasgow.

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