Glasgow Museums

How do you bring art and politics together in productive ways? After all, art without political consciousness can be remote and insipidly aesthetic, and political art without aesthetic sensitivity can be unsubtle and tendentious. GoMA frames this debate by accommodating a cacophony of voices: there are witnesses, story-tellers, vaudevillians, situationists, protestors and philosophers in Glasgow Museums’ collection, which could hardly be more apt for a city like Glasgow. Local residents are known for their political activism, cultural pride, gallus (and gallows) humour and maverick creativity. Glasgow Museums’ collections honour these qualities, while also encompassing Glasgow’s interest in internationalism, social justice and humanity’s myriad challenges.

False Starts

Since its inception, GoMA has been a focus for debates around art, politics, culture and civic life.  It first opened in 1996 in the city’s grand former Royal Exchange with a populist brief conceived by the then Director of Glasgow Museums, Julian Spalding. Critical responses were harsh, however. Amongst other things, it was felt that the gallery failed to reflect the burgeoning energy of British contemporary art, and in particular it neglected the art being produced on its doorstep (Douglas Gordon won the Turner Prize the same year).

Following Spalding’s departure in 1999, GoMA Curators Victoria Hollows (later Museum Manager) and Sean McGlashan took steps to regain the trust of the artistic community in Glasgow, and ever since there has been a sustained commitment to collecting works of Glasgow artists relatively early in their careers.  The richness of the contemporary collection is thus partly determined by the exuberance of local practices and debates, which it has aimed to capture as they are happening, rather than after the event.

Members of the curatorial team at GoMA are employed in two different departments of Glasgow Life (the City Council’s culture and leisure department became an arm’s length company in 2007).  They are technically responsible for collections and exhibition programming respectively.  However, as the intertwining of the two is philosophical as well as pragmatic, it makes little sense to discuss the contemporary acquisitions for Glasgow Museums’ collection without noting the key currents within the programme at GoMA since 2001.

Art and Social Justice

In 2001/2 Spalding’s successor Mark O’Neill conceived the Social Justice programme as a way of embracing a variety of new challenges that Glasgow City Council faced at that time. Controversially, the Council had agreed to accommodate 10,000 asylum seekers, and council departments were asked to ensure they had access to services, while at the same time helping to improve perceptions of this group within the wider community. 

This directive co-incided with Glasgow Museums’ decision to embed education and learning more firmly within the service, and it offered GoMA a way to move on from the Spalding model and re-establish a connection with art of the highest quality, but also to distinguish GoMA’s “approach, values and practice” from the sensationalism associated with Brit Art.[1] So, from 2001-2009, with social justice as a framing focus, the exhibition programme at GoMA addressed a number of difficult themes under the banner of ‘human rights and contemporary art’ (human rights abuses, domestic violence, sectarian tension and LGBTI rights). 

Undertaking such thematically driven programming was felt to be a risk, but it gave the curators significant experience in combining art and social issues, and dealing with public controversy.  It also gave them many opportunities to instigate and deepen dialogues with particular artists - establishing the trust that would facilitate future acquisitions to be made.

Art Fund International

This track record was crucial when in 2007, GoMA was awarded one of Art Fund International’s five £1m awards, enabling the then curator Ben Harman to collaborate with Katrina Brown, Director of The Common Guild, on a five-year programme of international acquisitions.

Barbara Kruger’s powerful installation was commissioned for “Rule of Thumb: Contemporary Art and Human Rights”, 2005, and focused on domestic violence as it was reported in Scotland and the UK. The work could not be acquired for practical reasons, but the trust that had been established between the artist and Glasgow Museums later enabled the acquisition of a significant historical work through AFI.

Broadly, such high-level international collecting enabled Glasgow Museums to deepen its engagement with themes of marginalized and extreme human experiences. Echoing a core collection interest in interrogating its own objects and histories, GoMA curators sought out works that explored museological, documentary, and archival modes. This international collecting was also intended to create a critical context for viewing works produced in Scotland, and to draw attention to the international dimension of many artists’ concerns and approaches. Now accustomed to treading the line between the austere and the absurd, GoMA curators challenge the audiences' expectations of over-earnestness. The works are rather investigations into the secret lives of objects and images, with insights often arising from an uncanny shudder, a playful tease, a pointed satire or a multi-sensory adventure.


A charged critical space opens up, for instance, between the two screens of Fiona Tan’s “Disorient”: on one the camera lingers over a sumptuous collection of artefacts, while the other shows myriad scenes in contemporary Asia.  Each becomes an intriguing “illustration” as Marco Polo’s memories of the Silk Road are recounted in voice-over. Taken together with the title, the combination provokes a dreamy sense of dislocation.

An interesting effect arises, too, when two apparently objective categories are brought into dialogue in Lothar Baumgarten’s “Unsettled Objects”.  Straightforward photographs of museological exhibits in the Pitt Rivers Museums in Cambridge are overlaid with captions which ostensibly categorise the “use” they are put to, but somehow also conjure a whirl of emotions and requirements projected by an absent, but ever domineering, human.  


The sense of an absent agency might in fact constitute a connection to many other works in the collection.  Some of the more riotous works offer the discomfiting spectacle of “things” developing a life of their own, as with Beagles and Ramsay’s vaudevillean ventriloquist dummies, or Fischli and Weiss’s astounding  “Die Laufe der Dinge”.  Or perhaps equally disturbing, the spectacle of a person sitting vacant, or becoming a “thing” - as seen in David Sherry’s performances “Just Popped Out” and “Electrical Appliance.” GoMA was the first museum in Scotland to acquire performance art. 


In contrast to such animation, there appears to be a sinister stillness and silence in works by Kate Davis and Thomas Demand - except that these are in fact virtuoso simulations, and the elaborate care taken by the artists seems to resist or revoke the closeted violence they depict. Kate Davis’s meticulous drawing of a Suffragette pamphlet “The Militant Methods of the NWSPU”, found in Glasgow Museums’ archives, replicates the disfiguration wrought upon its cover and the face of its subject, Christabel Pankhurst. Rather than restore the pamphlet and its image, “Militant Methods (Reversibility)”, quietly acknowledges the personalized antagonism it provoked. 

Thomas Demand’s innocuous looking “Fotoecke/Photobooth” shows a photographic studio set-up found in the corner of an East German prison used for political detainees, one that reputedly enabled the authorities to irradiate them at the same time. Demand carefully reconstructs the scene in paper, and his rich depth of colour and the remarkable chromogenic surface of his image arguably return an element of restoration and care to the chilling scene.

Women's Works

Art Fund International enabled GoMA to collect a number of significant works by female artists using documentary modes – Emily Jacir, as well as Kruger and Tan – and subsequently this has become a key focus for curator Katie Bruce. Following the acquisition of several works produced in association with the Glasgow Women’s Library, and their presentation in the multi-layered exhibition Ripples on the Pond, GoMA was in receipt of the Contemporary Art Society’s Collections Fund Award in 2015, resulting in the acquisition of “Abstract”, by Hito Steyerl in 2016.

With a raft of new curatorial appointments in 2015, and Glasgow Museums’ collecting policy up for revision and renewal, further new directions are now emerging. 


[1] Richard Sandell, Jocelyn Dodd, Ceri Jones, An evaluation of sh[OUT] – The social justice programme of the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, 2009-2010, accessed 29.12.15 evaluation of shOUT.pdf