50th Anniversary: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

50th Anniversary: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

As labours of love go setting up the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh is one that has borne considerable fruit. On the eve of the ever-expanding complex’s 50th anniversary, the gallery is laying bare its own hidden history to a generation that may take the leafy splendour of its Belford Road home for granted.

The Scottish Modern Art Association was formed in 1907 following the previous year’s National Galleries of Scotland Bill, which was designed to restructure public art provision in the capital. But, if things had gone according to plan, the modern art gallery the association so craved, but which the bill did not envisage, might have ended up on the site of what’s now an upmarket bathroom emporium in York Place.

‘It was a site opposite the Scottish National Portrait Gallery,’ Anne Simpson, Senior Curator of the gallery’s Archive and Library reveals. ‘The plan was to knock down the office buildings occupied by the Civil Service that were there, and to build a Bauhaus-inspired complex with education-based rooms and somewhere you could show films. It was essentially a blueprint for an arts centre, and the idea was so very much like how the ICA in London turned out in its early days.’

Such anecdotal evidence of the gallery’s prolonged birth has been collected by PhD student Anne Galastro, whose researches form the basis of the self-explanatory exhibition, The Gallery of Modern Art: A History, which she co-curates with Simpson, and which sees in the new year at the Dean Gallery. A scale model of the proposed construction takes pride of place in a self-reflexive but timely acknowledgement to the gallery’s ambitious vision.

The plans for the centre had been drawn up by architect Alan Reiach after being commissioned by Stanley Cursiter, director of the National Gallery from 1929–1948. It was Cursiter more than anyone who lobbied for a national modern art institution. Finally, however, Civil Service bureaucracy got the better of the would-be revolutionary rebuild when their long promised move to St Andrew’s House was filed away for good. Only then did Cursiter’s successors accept the offer of Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Gardens as a temporary home. This gallery was opened to the public in 1960.

It was another 16 years before the SNGOMA was offered the larger premises of the former John Watson’s House it occupies today. By this time the contemporary art world had been turned upside down several times over, and the walls of Inverleith House were bulging fit to burst. Following a large-scale conversion, the gallery as we now know it finally opened its doors in 1984, expanding into the neighbouring Dean Gallery in 1999.

‘We were the first gallery to think about having a collection of specifically modern art,’ Simpson points out a few days before Scottish-based artist Richard Wright scoops the Turner Prize. ‘That was before the Tate. We were really forward thinking, but unfortunately, in terms of getting there, we were pushing stones up hills for quite some time. Even today we still attract criticism, because we’re continually pushing boundaries, which is what we should be doing.’

The Gallery of Modern Art: A History, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, Sat 9 Jan–Wed 14 Apr.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art One

75 Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3DR

Standing opposite Modern Two (formerly Dean Gallery), the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art One is fronted by the giant Landform sculpture by Charles Jencks, a stepped, serpentine mound reflected in three crescent-shaped pools of water. Inside the…