The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) was established in 1960 - the youngest offspring of the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS). Before that date, NGS didn’t acquire the work of living artists, so SNGMA has built its collection of modern and contemporary Scottish and international art (from c1900 to the present), in a relatively short timeframe. There have been three directors, and each has tackled the challenge of how to collect in a different way (and with different levels of funding available to them). The early acquisitions during the 1960s, 70s and early 80s by the first Keeper, Douglas Hall, laid important foundations for what was to come later, namely the acquisition in 1995 - through an HLF grant and a significant and generous bequest - of two unparalled private collections of Surrealism and Dada.
Mingling Old and New
Hall built an understanding with Roger Penrose, who had been responsible for bringing Surrealism to the attention of British audiences in the 1930s, and had, himself, amassed an extensive collection. From 1982 onwards, SNGMA began purchasing works from his collection, as they were offered. Hall also made contact with Gabrielle Keiller, a passionate collector of Surrealism, and latterly an Eduardo Paolozzi enthusiast. When Richard Calvocoressi became keeper in 1987 he took up these relationships in earnest, and focused funds (including a £3million grant from Heritage Lottery Fund) on the acquisition of many more works from Penrose’s collection, as well as exhibiting, and ultimately securing the bequest of Keiller’s collection.
Containing several definitive and influential works, as well as important archival material from these key 20th century movements, their presence within the SNGMA collection has served to draw out distinctive themes, and produced a compelling context for acquiring and exhibiting newer works of art. Simon Groom, who became Director in 2007, strengthened SNGMA’s commitment to showing current artistic practices - in particular by Scottish artists - and often intermingles old and new in order to bring fresh perspectives to objects or ideas that may have grown familiar.
The founding Surrealist, Andre Breton had his own fascination for re-animating historical objects, and this has often intrigued contemporary artists. In 2011, SNGMA initiated an artist fellowship programme, funded by Creative Scotland, inviting artists to explore the collection, archives, libraries, etc. Nick Evans spent seven months within SNGMA researching a longstanding interest in the West’s conceptions of the primitive and the exotic. He developed the installation work ‘Oceania’, referencing Breton’s 1948 exhibition of Oceanic artifacts, which was then acquired for the SNGMA collection.
In 2013, SNGMA also had the opportunity, through the Contemporary Art Society, to acquire ‘Trick Brain’, by Ed Atkins. Presenting existing filmed documentation of Andre Breton’s apartment, which had been used in the promotion of the controversial auction of his estate in 2003, Atkins adds an ‘esoteric’ voice-over, ruminating about the secret life of collections and capital.
Art in Rooms
A strong feature of SNGMA’s activities since the mid 1990s has been its partnerships, which are acknowledged by the curatorial team as productive catalysts for the organization.
The national collection is arguably unique in Scotland in also owning a good number of complex, room-sized installations - many of them by artists who have been chosen for Scotland + Venice. Scottish Arts Council (now Creative Scotland), the British Council, and SNGMA established the Scotland + Venice partnership in 2003, and it has provided a significant international platform for many of Scotland’s artists. Ambitious sculptural installations have tended to dominate Scotland’s biennial presentations in Venice, inspired, perhaps by the distinctive Palazzo settings.
SNGMA’s current homes on Belford Road may be infused with neo-classicism rather than the theatrical baroque of a Venetian Palazzo, but there is no doubt that William Burn’s 1825 building (now Modern One) similarly offers a seductive sequence of well-appointed rooms. Ever since SNGMA moved in to Modern One in 1984, it has had to work to re-assert its modernity in the teeth of such a strong historical setting. Just as the collection objects are revisited by artists, so are the galleries’ rooms. Installations by Jim Lambie, Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Cathy Wilkes and Claire Barclay have carefully overlaid classical with contemporary - responding to the spaces, but introducing distinct, dissonant sensibilities within them, and exploiting the disconcerting power of contrasting cultures existing simultaneously.
The strength of SNGMA’s Surrealist and Dada holdings and the scope for siting striking installations within classical constraint, undoubtedly played a part in persuading Greek collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos to loan iconic works from his own collection in 2012 for the exhibition "From Death to Death and Other Small Tales”. At first senior curator Lucy Askew and chief curator Keith Hartley thought they might present the two collections separately, but as can be seen in the exhibition film they quickly realized the power of pairing works from each collection, particularly as the human body emerged as a palpable concern in both collections. A work by Sarah Lucas appeared in a room with nudes by Balthus, Dix and Picasso for example, and Robert Gober’s cot was seen next to Max Ernst’s Freudian painting Max Ernst Showing a Young Girl the Head of his Father. Each practice was revealed in a dramatically new light next to the other, with a shared sense of profanity and poignancy.
In 2008, NGS and Tate negotiated the acquisition of Anthony d’Offay’s private collection. In consultation with d’Offay, they established ARTIST ROOMS, an autonomous collection that would not only sit within their respective institutions but also be shared nationally with a strong learning agenda. By early 2016, ARTIST ROOMS held significant bodies of work by 40 renowned artists, including Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, Douglas Gordon and Phyllida Barlow. Alongside their joint responsibility to hold this collection for the nation, NGS and Tate initiated ARTIST ROOMS On Tour in 2009, ensuring that works are almost continually on display at scores of venues around the country. In-house practices around commissioning, curation, conservation, education and loaning had to be compared and harmonized, at least in relation to this collection, and so acquiring ARTIST ROOMS has proved transformational, producing much closer ties and sharing of expertise between the two institutions.
Commissioning and Performance
ARTIST ROOMS encompasses such an extensive array of work by influential, senior artists from across Europe and North America, that the acquisition has arguably freed the curators somewhat, to focus on collecting from within Scotland, and to explore more emergent practices. Reflecting a new wave of artistic activity (and arguably extending one of the collection’s theme of physical/psychical presence), curators have been taking steps to feature performance within their programme, inuring audiences and NGS’s own departments to the richness of performance, as well as identifying some of the associated challenges. A recipient of Art Fund’s New Collecting Award in 2015, SNGMA curator Julie-Ann Delaney has been funded to research their first performance acquisition.
ARTIST ROOMS On Tour has developed and strengthened partnerships with arts organisations up and down the country, and in the run up to the Commonwealth Games 2014, as one of the main partners and initiators of ‘GENERATION: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland’ (together with Glasgow Life and Creative Scotland), NGS, led by the curatorial team at SNGMA, invited visual arts organisations across Scotland to propose exhibitions related to their theme.
GENERATION was ostensibly reflective – it sought to present the practices of a generation of artists that had emerged over the last 25 years – but it also galvanised the production of new work, with a large number of new commissions being produced. SNGMA went on to acquire two such works made specifically for Modern One – by Claire Barclay and Alex Dordoy – at the end of the run in 2015, along with works by Henry Coombes, Torsten Lauschmann, and David Shrigley.