50 years of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

  • Old Gallery of Modern Art brochure cover Old Gallery of Modern Art brochure cover, by unknown

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art was the first gallery in Britain dedicated to collecting modern and contemporary art for the nation. Fifty years on from this pioneering beginning, the Gallery still strives to build on its international reputation through its collection and creative programming.

Calls for a museum of work by living artists grew loud in the 1930s, and proposals were made, but the War came and dampened these hopes. The idea rekindled after the war and, by the mid-1950s, plans for a Gallery of Modern Art had been accepted. The Gallery finally opened in the summer of 1960 in Inverleith House, a Georgian building set in the middle of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden.

  • Inverleith House with Moore sculpture Inverleith House with Moore sculpture, by unknown
  • Inverleith House interior Inverleith House interior, by unknown

Today, the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art amounts to over 5000 works, spanning the period from about 1890 to the present day, and encompasses work in a wide variety of media, from paintings, bronzes and works on paper, to kinetic sculpture and video installations. Nearly all the works in the collection have been acquired since 1960. Prior to this, the National Gallery of Scotland did not collect the work of living artists; indeed there was an unwritten policy that an artist had to have been dead for at least ten years to qualify for inclusion in the collection.¬† (This ‚Äėrule‚Äô stemmed not from a dislike of modern art, but was conceived as a way of controlling the growth of the collection).

There is in fact some overlap between the collections of the National Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art, with the National Gallery displaying a few early twentieth-century works of Victorian character and also major Post-Impressionist works of the 1890s by Gauguin and Cézanne, for example. In all, thirty-eight paintings and sculptures and about 500 graphic works were transferred from the Scottish National Gallery to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art when it opened. Furthermore, in line with the National Gallery’s policy of collecting work by important artists from a global perspective, it was intended that the new Gallery of Modern Art should acquire international works of similar stature, and not simply represent Scottish art. This is a policy that the Gallery continues with to this day.

  • GMA 21 GMA 21, by Oskar Kokoschka
  • GMA 26 GMA 26, by Samuel John Peploe
  • GMA 13 GMA 13, by Sir Jacob Epstein

At first, the Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, David Baxandall, ran the new Gallery with his Assistant Keeper (later Director) Colin Thompson, but in 1961 Douglas Hall was appointed Keeper of the Gallery of Modern Art.¬† Hall remained Keeper until his retirement in 1986, and the quality and depth of the collection are due in part to his pioneering efforts. The initial purchase grant accorded by the Treasury to the Gallery of Modern Art was ¬£7,500, a sum Baxandall considered hopelessly inadequate for the job of ‚Äúillustrating the more important moments in the development of modern painting... from fauves and cubists onwards‚ÄĚ. Given these limited resources, the collection could never hope to represent every major artist, nor could it offer a complete history of the development of modern art.¬† But rather than fall to the temptation to quickly fill the Gallery with less expensive works, Hall chose to buy selectively and plug the gaps with loans from private collections.¬† Therefore, many of the early purchases were of British, and particularly Scottish art, and foreign art was represented primarily through prints and works placed on loan.

By 1970 the annual purchase grant had risen to ¬£72,000, and that year the Trustees took the decision to set aside ¬£25,000 per annum ‚Äúfor buying expensive works historically essential to the collection‚ÄĚ.¬† This was a decisive factor and led to numerous major acquisitions, such as a landscape painting by Andr√© Derain, The Candlestick by Georges Braque (the Gallery‚Äôs first cubist work), and Roy Lichtenstein‚Äôs In The Car in the early 1980s. However, with the collection growing, it became apparent that Inverleith House was not large enough.

  • GMA 1280 GMA 1280, by Andr√© Derain
  • GMA 2502 GMA 2502, by Piet Mondrian
  • GMA 2133 GMA 2133, by Roy Lichtenstein

Always seen as a temporary home for the Gallery of Modern Art, in 1984, the Gallery moved from Inverleith House into much larger premises in the former John Watson’s School, an imposing neo-classical building, designed by William Burn in 1825 as an institution for fatherless children.

  • Gallery of Modern Art without landform Gallery of Modern Art without landform, by unknown

Lying to the west of the city centre, the building offered approximately four times as much exhibition space as Inverleith House, and also provided room for more staff, conservation workshops (shared with the National Gallery and the Portrait Gallery), a print-room, café and shop.  The extra space also meant that the Gallery could take or organize loan exhibitions on a regular basis, and the extensive grounds have proved an ideal location for the siting of large sculptures.

  • GMA 1098 GMA 1098, by Henry Moore

In 1994 the adjacent building on the opposite side of Belford Road, originally an orphanage designed by Thomas Hamilton in 1831, was offered to the National Galleries by Lothian Regional Council to house a generous gift by the Edinburgh-born sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi of a large collection of his work. This effectively doubled the size of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and offered a greater degree of flexibility in displaying the permanent collection.

  • Dean Gallery exterior Dean Gallery exterior, by unknown
  • Paolozzi Studio Paolozzi Studio, by unknown

Over the years, bequests and donations, such as Paolozzi’s, have been an important source in expanding the Gallery’s collection. In recent years, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s holding of Dada and Surrealist art expanded dramatically, principally from the collections of Sir Roland Penrose and Mrs Gabrielle Keiller. More recently, the National Galleries of Scotland jointly acquired with the Tate, ARTIST ROOMS, a gift by Anthony d’Offay of over 700 works by some twenty-five important post-war artists. In this light, the breadth and quality of the collection has expanded in often unexpected, yet exciting ways.

Therefore, it has been through a combination of deliberate policy and good fortune that the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has become a respected institution with such a diverse and significant collection of works from both international and Scottish artists. Even in the economical climate of 2010, the Gallery continued to push boundaries with works by two contemporary Scottish artists installed in the grounds; the commission of a work for Modern Two by 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright; and a huge exhibition of the Surrealist collection in the summer.

  • THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE, by Nathan Coley
  • Richard Wright in Dean Gallery stairwell Richard Wright in Dean Gallery stairwell, by unknown
  • GMA 3887 GMA 3887, by Ren√© Magritte