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Art of moving with the times

CHINESE art, Roman antiquities, medieval stained glass, French Impressionists, Dutch paintings, British portraits and so much more.

The 8000 items that make up the Burrell Collection are not so much the jewel in the crown of the cultural life of Glasgow as a crown in their own right, a crown studded with priceless gems. Burrell is a name that bears comparison with Guggenheim or Mellon in the global league of priceless art collections, or, at least, it would if it were better known outside the UK.

Therein lies the dilemma because when Sir William Burrell donated his collection to the City of Glasgow in 1944, there were several strings attached. One was that the collection could not be lent overseas. As a shipping magnate, he was all too aware of the hazards of sea travel. And, though Glasgow City Council won an expensive and controversial court case aimed at overturning this condition in 1997, the change required both a private Act of Parliament and the agreement of the trustees.

As The Herald reveals today, that agreement has now been secured and the council is preparing the requisite legislation. Still, there will be those who are uncomfortable about going against the explicit conditions of this magnificent bequest or of facing the prospect of some of these treasures disappearing periodically from their usual places.

However, there are several compelling reasons why this constraint should be lifted. First and foremost, as Sir William – a modernist of his day – would doubtless concede, in the 21st century, it is no longer relevant. (After all, the other major condition attached to the bequest – that it should be housed outside the heavily polluted city in a rural setting near Killearn – was rendered irrelevant by the 1956 Clean Air Act and the availability of a delightful sylvan setting in Pollok Park.) Today any items loaned out would travel by air and receive kid glove treatment and a level of protection unavailable in the 1940s.

The dilapidated state of the building, now 30 years old, is another important reason for varying the Deed of Gift. With more than £70m to slice from its budget in two years, the city is in no position to fund the multi-million-pound renovation now urgently required. Sending items from the collection on their travels during the refit would help finance the project and future loans would contribute to providing the Burrell with a sustainable future.

Furthermore, it would enable items from the collection to be seen in exhibitions of comparable bodies of work. To date, the travel ban has prevented works from the Burrell appearing in major global retrospectives. Lifting it would bring this work to a far wider audience, which in turn would increase visitor numbers to the museum.

The spread and quality of this collection also says much about a city that once bestrode the world: Glasgow, second city of the empire. The shipping industry that earned Sir William Burrell his fortune may have shrivelled but the city still enjoys global cultural aspirations and his collection will perform the function of a cultural ambassador. Thus the Burrell Collection can continue to let Glasgow flourish.

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