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Whimsical New Gallery Is the Talk of Glasgow

Director of the city's first museum of modern art invites controversy with his iconoclastic style, collection of works

Who wants to be thought elitist? Not Julian Spalding, director of Glasgow's public museums. A new gallery has just been added to his responsibility. Nicknamed GOMA, it is Glasgow's first Gallery of Modern Art. Mr. Spalding sees it as a tribute to the city's nonelitist openness to art.

Glasgow, in his opinion, is not a place for elitists. True, its inhabitants have a reputation for being direct, friendly, spunky, humorous, and mainly working class. But these generalizations have, all the same, quite an element of myth to them.

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Spalding (neither a Glaswegian nor even a Scot, but English) has his local reputation to think about: He goes along with the myth.

He writes in the new gallery's guide: "Glaswegians are naturally cultured people; it would never occur to them that art was elitist, it is just part of life.... Glasgow is naturally artistic and naturally egalitarian. What better place for a Gallery of Modern Art?"

Glasgow has never thought to have such a thing before. Until Spalding's advent in 1990, not much contemporary art was collected here. There was no money for it. But there was also little desire for it.

This changed when Pat Lally, then leader of the city council (now lord provost) had an idea. The down-to-earth, bumptious politician with whom Spalding has struck up an effective relationship, helped set up a capital fund of 3 million ($4.5 million). The annual interest from it goes toward buying art by living artists.

Spalding has been hard at it since 1990, and now his unpredictable, even whimsical, collection (except for some 60 works that wouldn't fit) is on view in its new home.

The director is fond of provocative catch-phrases like "Art is entertainment" or "Art is for people." He also likes to suggest that the current favorites of the London art world, the Turner Prize winners, as well as some of Scotland's recent young artists, are making art "about nothing." By contrast, his new art gallery is, he writes, for art that is "about something."

He writes such things in the book and he said such things at the Gallery's opening for members of the press.

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His speech sounded like a manifesto. The assembled group was not impressed. Although some critics have taken a balanced view of the unexpected mixture of works, more of them indulged in displays of indignation. Some may have felt insulted that they traveled from "the south" to see an art gallery that was still a building site: GOMA opened at the end of March, well before it was finished. Even now the basement gallery, which promises to be an exciting bonanza of computer, video, and other kinds of interactive art - has a notice outside the door saying "Coming soon." (It is now scheduled to open at the end of this month.)

GOMA has taken up residence in one of the city's most impressive, classically colonnaded and pedimented buildings, once a wealthy merchant's mansion, later metamorphosed into the Royal Exchange, and most recently into a library.

Nobody is likely to argue that this four-storied building is now put to fine use as an art gallery. But there have been plenty of arguments about the kind of art in it - and its arrangement.

In its first month, the gallery, which is free, has attracted an impressive number of visitors, but also a great deal of critical flack. Spalding is naturally an impish beamer, but lately he has been beaming as broadly as a Cheshire cat: He apparently relishes both the crowds and the flack. (Indeed, it may well have crossed his ingenious mind that flack and crowds are not necessarily unconnected.)

But he has had to withstand some nasty mud-flinging. Some of the worst is in Glasgow itself. The art critic of the Herald, the city's upscale newspaper, persistently demands his disappearance. She presumably hopes he will take his grin with him.

Ken Currie, one of the Glasgow artists with an international reputation who is represented prominently in the museum's ground-floor ("Earth") gallery by a large painting of Goya-like somberness, has also taken up cudgels against Spalding's new place. The Herald quotes Currie as saying: "It's devastating. We have a monstrosity on our doorstep.... The guy's got to go."

And yet, Spalding, in his introduction to the gallery book, has given spacious appreciation to Currie's dreamlike picture "The Bathers." He writes that "like all good art, 'The Bathers' is a complex, subtle and moving image - one that makes one want to go on looking at it and absorbing what it has to say for a long time. It makes a stand against the superficial dips into feeling that are provided for us by the modern media, by its sheer scale, its laborious craftsmanship and its unrelenting, unapologetic concentration on its subject."

It is unfortunate then that this painting has been insensitively hung on a badly warped screen. It is also poorly lit. The lighting is dismissed by Spalding as a "teething problem." But it is the reflections of daylight from the gallery's windows that are the chief problem, and the building, although it has been brilliantly converted into a gallery, was never intended to be one. Its exterior is sacrosanct: The windows must remain. Similarly permanent interior columns make the display of large paintings extremely awkward.

Spalding's praise of the Currie painting more than suggests his distaste for superficiality. It is, like many of the paintings in the collection, not an easy or a potentially popular work. And yet superficiality and populism are what Spalding is most vigorously accused of. "In the house of fun" was the headline of one critique.

The truth is that Spalding likes to be controversial. Some of the works he has chosen are distinctly populist. One favored artist, Beryl Cook, has been particularly singled out for critical ire. And her several works displayed here are not the only ones that look more like the kind of thing found on birthday cards or seaside postcards, than in a serious art gallery.

"He is in the entertainment business," says Martin Hopkinson, a curator of the Hunterian Art Gallery at Glasgow University (which has its own collection of 20th-century art). "He is perfectly open about it. It may not be my taste ... but the Gallery of Modern Art is certainly ... unlike any gallery I have been in before."

But Spalding, who shows no more signs of respect for academics in the art world than he does for critics, is his own man. He denies being a populist. He denies being an elitist.

The immediate popularity of his (or rather, Glasgow's) new gallery in spite of its many difficult and even obscure works of art, suggests that he manages, in reality, to be a bit of both.

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