Playing with fire m
Somewhere amid all the controversy surrounding Glasgow museums chief Julian Spalding, the city's Gallery of Modern Art is celebrating its first birthday. It has been a baptism in fire.
Words: Susanna Beaumont
IF A WEEK is a long time in politics. how about a year in the politics of Glasgow Museums‘.’ Twelve months after the opening of the Gallery of Modern Art. touted by its creators as the sparkling jewel in Glasgow‘s Museums' crown. there is dismay. disarray and a whirl of political machinations storming across the organisation‘s empire.
At the centre stands Julian Spalding. director of Glasgow Museums And Art Galleries and the man behind the Gallery of Modern Art. Labelled a man of machiavellian tendencies by many of his detractors. he has attracted the image of despoilcr rather than defender of Glasgow's empire of museums. This is somewhat ironic ~ Spalding set out to be a populist and titled his ‘manifesto' accompanying the opening of GoMA Art For People. So what’s gone wrong‘.’
The opening of GoMA in the former Stirling's Library just off George Square last March sparked off fury in Britain‘s art world. Critics lampooned Spalding for purchasing works by Beryl (‘ook and for his themed gallery spaces. named air. water. fire and earth. Adrian Searle in The Guardian perhaps put it most succinctly: ‘lt's a travesty. a mockery. quite the worst arranged collection ofdire purchases l have ever seen . . .‘
This sentiment was shared by the majority of art critics based both in London and Scotland. Glasgow‘s young generation of artists were also up in arms. They believed GoMA failed to support local talent or reflect the vibrancy of the city‘s art scene. one of the most exciting in Britain. This was given further weight when Glasgow artist Douglas Gordon won the I996 Turner Prize. Gordon. like (‘allum lnnes and other Scotland-based artists. has since said he would not want to be shown in GoMA. even if Spalding made the right overtures.
For Spalding. with his avowed sttspicion of the so-called cult of the avant garde propped up by an ‘establishment‘ art market and gallery system. these criticisms further confirmed the art world was self- satisfyingly elite. And with attendance figures for the first year at over 630.000. far out—stripping the projected figure of 300.000. Spalding could well feel vindicated. (By comparison. the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh with its collection of old masters and stately home ambience attracted over 540.000 visitors last year). The figures speak for themselves. even if one Glasgow museum insider said of GoMA: ‘lt‘s new. in the centre of the city — people are curious or just want to use the toilet.‘
But the ramifications of Spalding‘s eight- year reign as director of Glasgow Museums go far beyond Go.\lA. Storms are fast gathering
over the whole empire. There is growing controversy at the city‘s Burrell Collection.
which opened in 1983 to house a collection of
art and artefacts bequeathed to the city by Glasgow industrialist Sir William Burrell. In its first year the Burrell attracted over one million visitors — last year’s figures stood at under 300.000.
In an effort to bump up the museum‘s profile. Spalding is attempting to amend Burrell‘s will — which stipulates that objects may only be loaned to galleries in Britain — to allow loans to public art institutions abroad. Legal notice has been served by Spalding and Glasgow City Coucil requesting a Parliamentary hearing. an unprecedented move in the art world. Meanwhile Pollok House. closed since last September. looks
GoMA's attendance figures speak for themselves, even if one Glasgow museum insider said of the gallery: 'lt's new, in the centre of the city — people are curious or just want to use the toilet.’
uncertain to reopen in June as previously believed. while other galleries have had to cut back opening hours. All this has led to an
outcry from the Burrell trustees. the family of
Pollok House benefactor Donald Maxwell Macdonald. and gallery staff. with members of UNISON passing a vote of no confidence in Spalding in January. The council replied earlier this month at a meeting of its arts and culture committee. when it backed Spalding.
A large Labour majority gave a show of
political support after a rash of media criticism. All this is set in the context of cutbacks in
GLASGOW’S GALLERY OF MODERN ART
Putting a brave face on it: Julian Spalding defends purchases like Beryl Cook's By The Clyde
City Council funding. including a cut of 6 per cent for Glasgow Museums. Spalding‘s cost- cutting proposals include the loss of 22 staff members. after voluntary redundancies, including curators and conservators. Yet a campaign spearheaded by museum staff argues that their proposed budget meets the required 6 per cent cut while retaining services and skilled staff. Under the heading ‘Glasgow Museums Destruction: Political 0r Financial Causes’ an anonymous fax sent to The List claimed that requests to discuss their budget with Spalding and councillors had been refused.
What adds fuel to the debate is that Spalding is increasingly seen as the autocratic ruler of his empire. weeding out staff and restructuring not just in the name of economics but as a means to further his position of splendid all-controlling isolation. There‘s also a political edge to it all. There is no doubting his track record — he headed Manchester City Art Gallery and Liverpool‘s National Museum of Labour History — but Spalding was a political appointment. His politics have allied closely with those of Lord Provost Pat Lally. who in 1989 was council leader when Spalding was appointed. It is an alliance which still holds strong.
Arguably the budget of £7 million provided by Lally for the founding of the Gallery of Modern Art was motivated by politics — which can often work in a city’s favour. Yet with increasing in-fighting and budget cuts. it seems Spalding’s empire — Britain‘s largest collection of municipal-run galleries — is in danger of being squandered at the expense of personal crusades.
21 Mar - 3Apr l997THE lIST17