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Antonio Canova, ‘The Three Graces’, 1812-17, marble, one of Sir Timothy’s most celebrated purchases

The pieces exhibited in Choice: 21 Years Of Collecting For Scotland have returned to their place within the wider collection. The rave reviews of this selection of works bought by Sir Timothy Clifford during his time as director of the National Galleries have been taken down. One is left to wonder whether the critics’ assessment of Clifford’s tenure focused too much on the works he bought. Certainly the man himself was more than happy that these should be the parameters by which he was judged. The collection did represent an impressive amount of cajoling, arm-twisting and sweet-talking. He raised the £10.25 million that was needed to buy Botticelli’s ‘Virgin and Child’ in 18 days: an amazing act of networking, persistence and vision.

Yet hidden amidst the fulsome praise was a rather mute response to the contemporary art presented in Choice . Perhaps the exhibition did fairly represent Clifford’s tenure, which has been criticised in the past for not picking up enough work by modern artists. Perhaps a gallery director should also be judged on the works he didn’t buy. Clifford himself is bullish in his own defence. ‘Throw your mind back 21 years. When I arrived here, the [Scottish] Gallery of Modern Art had just moved out of the Botanical Gardens into the SGMA and really we could hardly fill it. It was pretty conventional. Indeed we had only started a separate gallery for modern art some 30 years earlier,’ he says. Clifford states that one of his main early achievements was employing Richard Calvocoressi as director of the SGMA. ‘He and I worked together like heavenly twins really, trying to squeeze out work from major collections,’ says Clifford. They approached Sir Roland Penrose (who was friend to Picasso, Ernst and Miro and a Tate Gallery trustee) and purchased work from his collection in 1995. In the same year the gallery was bequeathed work by the champion golfer and surrealist collector, Gabrielle Keiller after Clifford ‘moved in on her’ as he puts it. He also ‘nailed’ the Paolozzi Gift.

Although he admits that some of the work in the ‘Gift’ is not as good as, well, other work in the ‘Gift’, Clifford is unrepentant about the degree of focus that the Dean Gallery puts on his work. The way Paolozzi worked with architect Sir Terry Farrell on the Dean Gallery, turning Hamilton’s gloomy, early-19th-century orphanage into a viable gallery, he says, capped one of his proudest achievements. ‘We turned the SGMA from being rather a footnote in art history to becoming the most important collection of 20th-century art in the UK, outside the Tate. I think that’s quite a contribution to have made in a relatively short time,’ says Clifford.

Toby Webster, director of the Glasgow gallery the Modern Institute, praises the collection as both connoisseur and gallery owner. ‘[The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art] in Edinburgh has got a very good collection that is quite specific. It’s been built up over several years from the surrealist collection, although it does get lost somehow when it moves into Scottish figuration. But it has that basic draw that you understand. There is some kind of concept behind it,’ he says. The Selective Memory exhibition—which has come to the SGMA on its return from the Venice Biennale—carries clear echoes of surrealism and the Keiller and Penrose collections; particularly in Alex Pollard’s work.

John Leighton, who will take Clifford’s place as director, is unequivocal. Works acquired by the director of a public gallery acquires, he insists, ‘are not the best way of judging his tenure’. After all the razzmatazz of Clifford’s final fling, Leighton’s assessment is more sober. ‘Of course acquisitions are where directors put a personal handle on their time in charge; where they can express their personal taste. It’s also easier for the public and the press to appreciate, as it’s quantifiable. What is far harder to judge a director on is the overall quality of the exhibitions he has brought in, the quality of the research, etc. There are any other number of success factors,’ he says.

It’s tempting to think, well he would say that, wouldn’t he? During his nine-year tenure as head of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Leighton had little scope for purchasing. The museum was established in 1973 on a core of over 200 paintings and 500 drawings, and little has been added, which is hardly surprising. On 15 May 1990, a Japanese businessman spent $82.5 million on Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Doctor Gachet’, the highest price ever paid for a painting. ‘His paintings—as you can imagine – are difficult to come by,’ says Leighton wryly.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) 'View from the Balcony', 1888, oil on canvas, purchased by Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam in 2003 
Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) ‘View from the Balcony’, 1888, oil on canvas, purchased by Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam in 2003

But the Van Gogh Museum isn’t just about Van Gogh. A sizeable part of its collection is known by the charmingly literal Dutch phrase, ‘Niet Van Gogh’—‘Not Van Gogh’. The museum bought steadily in this field during Leighton’s directorship. ‘Our ambition was always to raise the quality of NVG. The artist himself collected works by his contemporaries and we’ve tried to build on that: Toulouse- Lautrec and Gauguin, work by Seurrat, Monet and Manet,’ he says.

‘We strengthened some of the symbolist work and we’ve carried it into 20th century with work by Sluijters and Von Stuck.’

When he leaves Amsterdam, a book will be produced, featuring some of the work that has been bought during his time there. ‘I’m supposed to know nothing about it,’ he says.

Of course, these purchases may give some idea how Leighton will ‘express his personal taste’, but anyone expecting him to suddenly fulfil his desire to bag a Michelangelo for the Scottish National Galleries should not get too excited. Leighton is a different character from his ebullient English forerunner: a reserved Ulsterman from a family of architects. ‘It’s extremely important for a collection to grow and not be static,’ he says. ‘But I have a feeling that our purchases will be less spectacular than they were under my predecessor.’

Gallery director Sorcha Dallas represents Alex Pollard, one of the artists from the Selective Memory exhibition. She has been very pleased with the investment that its curators Jason E Bowan and Rachel Bradley have made in the development of the artists—Pollard, Cathy Wilkes, Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan. ‘The whole idea of the project was an investment in the artists’ practice rather than a standard showcase event,’ she says. ‘This was the second stage and they are planning a third, for all the artists to have a solo show in a different European city. Dallas thinks that if the show had simply gone to Venice, it wouldn’t have had a major effect on Pollard’s work. Now though he has ‘a succinct body of work’.

Back in February 2005, when Selective Memory was launched at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Calvocoressi’s introduction was a telling one. The galleries, it must be stressed, had come a little late to the project. The Scottish Arts Council and the British Council had organised the hugely successful Zenomap project at Venice in 2003. However the thrust of Calvocoressi’s argument was powerful. He stated that the Venice Biennale had been lifted out of a slump by the response of the smaller nations of Europe, especially those reborn in the revolutions of 1991. During the 80s, the international art market had passed it by, favouring an art that spoke not of place, but of individual.

If the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s modern collection had ‘lost its way’ as Toby Webster puts it, then here was a senior member of Clifford’s staff giving it fresh impetus. Some critics had a problem with the birthplaces of the artists and curators involved. Should an artist from England, chosen by an English curator, represent Scotland? However, most observers saw the National Galleries’ support as positive.

But although they provided marketing, press and logistical support, they are not yet ready to take the next logical step and buy the work. ‘That needs to start happening,’ says Dallas. ‘Not only should these artists be supported and exhibited in this context, but they should actually be bought, for the collection to be developed. That’s what the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow is doing. They are trying to invest in younger artists, which helps validate what people are doing.’ Webster recently approached GoMA with ‘Tabernas Desert Run’ by Simon Starling. The exhibition of this work earned Starling his nomination for last year’s Turner Prize, which he won in December. The Modern Institute is at a strange stage in its development. The moment Webster is approached by a public gallery, he doesn’t actually need their support. ‘I could have sold [‘Tabernas Desert Run’] anywhere. Simon is much higher-profile everywhere else in Europe apart from Britain, basically. He’s also now starting to be bought by museums. This is not something that’s been happening for a long time, it’s a beginning. You have to prove yourself in your career before you start getting bought by museums,’ he says.

Webster believes the traditional boundaries between public and private collections are blurring. ‘Quite simply, publiclyfunded museums have less money than they used to. Museums in general tend not to take risks—but some do. It’s difficult to quantify. Now you have so many private collectors who have public spaces that show their work. There are foundations, too, and they loan to museums,’ he says. While Clifford’s energetic hoop-jumping over the past two decades has given the Scottish National Galleries a bounty of classic works, Webster thinks there are signs they are trying to bring more sources of work into the fold, keeping one eye on controversies like that at the Tate, where a trustee’s work has been purchased unquestioned.

Of course, it has yet to be determined what exactly will happen with the d’Offay Collection. Webster, for one, is looking forward to it. He believes that his job is to identify the right collection for his artists’ work and that this is hard to do with public galleries in Scotland given their lack of structure in contemporary work. ‘What they do with the d’Offay will maybe give the country a huge and immediate injection. Suddenly you’ve got something you can react to,’ he says. He points out that it is an international phenomenon today, that in cities where there are dynamic art scenes, such as Warsaw, there are also cash-strapped national galleries. Despite newspaper reports to the contrary and although he refers to the proposed venue of the d’Offay collection repeatedly as ‘the shed’, Clifford is also hugely in favour of housing the collection in the VA Tech building in Leith. ‘It’s not archives that are going to make a difference down there. It’s us. Once we are there, doing a great job rather like Tate Modern, a huge new society will grow up round that area. People will want to live there. They will want to get into that café society, they’ll want to get into that artistic community,’ he says. Does he not find it worrying that art should be used as a stimulant to troubled commercial development? ‘I’ve no problem with art being the standard-bearer for regeneration,’ he says.

Clifford will not be there to oversee this next stage. He is off to write a book, for he thinks he is more likely to be remembered. ‘I’ve seen it happen before. You are forgotten very quickly,’ he says. However, if anyone is harbouring a desire to write the story of how the centre of art production became more diffuse towards the end of the 20th century and how small nations used visual art as a means of promoting economic development within their own borders and abroad, there will be a large chapter reserved for Clifford. Leighton has already written himself into this book during his time in Amsterdam. He says that after a reorganisation of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the d’Offay will be his priority.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: www.natgalscot.ac.uk
Van Gogh Museum: www.vangoghmuseum.nl
The Modern Institute: www.themoderninstitute.com
Sorch Dallas Gallery: www.sorchadallas.com