Julian Spalding was the most influential figure in Scottish culture for a decade. Now he’s publishing his memoirs and has scores to settle. He tells all to our Writer at Large

JULIAN Spalding is in impish form. At ease in his Paris home, his mind leaps between targets. A withering putdown here, a stinging barb there. What else could you expect? Controversy is in Spalding’s soul.

After all, the mere act of his arrival in Scotland led to demonstrations, and calls to “Get Spalding Out”. For 10 years, he was the most influential figure in Scottish culture, described as our national impresario and an “arts supremo”.

He became the “first Englishman” to run Glasgow’s museums and art galleries, incensing a hardline fringe of Scottish nationalism. Spalding’s legacy, though, will remain imprinted on Glasgow for centuries: he created the Gallery of Modern Art, the greatest achievement of his long career.

Now retired, his memoir, Art Exposed, is about to appear. It’s as caustic as our conversation. Spalding has scores to settle, and glides effortlessly into a favourite theme: his loathing of conceptual art by the likes of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. Spalding describes the work of Scotland’s Rachel Maclean, for instance, as “trivial mockery of trivia”.

Unmade beds, sharks in tanks, “shit in tins” – a work by Piero Manzoni – and many Turner Prize entries simply “mean nothing”, says Spalding.

He sees himself as “the little boy with the naked emperor”, shouting “you’ve got no clothes on” while the art world nods along.


Julian Spalding has a new book coming out soon

Julian Spalding has a new book coming out soon



Even worse, Spalding feels, “this stuff earns millions. It’s tremendously promoted and marketed. Poets die in the gutter but artists who don’t even paint become multi-millionaires”. To say he’s gone against the tide is the epitome of understatement. “I was in the tent, but pissing in, not pissing out,” Spalding laughs.

Conceptual art “took over the museum world”. Galleries became “the art market’s bankers. By putting this stuff in our collections, we were authenticating it”. The commercialisation disgusted him. “I became determined to challenge it. How could I put on stuff I didn’t believe had any merit?”

Emin’s “unmade bed is just an unmade bed”, he says, like “something chucked out on the street”. Works like Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree – a glass of water on a shelf – “just aren’t art”. He detests the notion that “anything can be a work of art if an artist says so. That’s just nonsense – it’s fake religion, a con trick”.

It was conceptual art’s “ghastliness” which made Spalding start the national Campaign For Drawing charity. “Nobody was taught drawing anymore. My idea was let’s get back to basics.”

So, what art does Spalding like? He worships Hieronymus Bosch and Francisco Goya. Both explore the darkest recesses of the human condition. “They’re the greatest,” he says. Their work has “meaning”.

The sculptor Jean Tinguely, who explores war crimes and humanity’s destruction of the planet, and Niki de Saint Phalle, famed for sculptures anatomising women’s lives, are lavished with praise.

Such art is “lasting, it communicates emotion, creates profound feelings about what we’re doing with our lives”. As does David Hockney, whose paintings are invested with the “pain” and “liberation” of his sexuality. Spalding finds Peter Angermann “exciting and wonderful”. Angermann’s painting Near And Far, for instance, depicts Westerners lounging at home while atrocities happen around them.

Spalding also admires Beryl Cook. “She’s not a great artist, not very profound, but she’s a real observer of people and she’s funny. Art doesn’t have to be solemn.”

He championed Martin Handford, best known for creating the global Where’s Wally? franchise. Handford isn’t just a wildly successful illustrator, he’s a gifted artist whose early work The Battle Of Chacabuco entranced Spalding.


SPALDING has divided opinion his entire career. When he arrived in Glasgow in 1989 as director of the city’s museums and galleries, he faced angry demonstrations.

“It was ‘Spalding Go Home’. An anti-English march. We’ll ‘send them home to think again’, and all that,” he recalls.

A Scottish nationalist hardcore fringe took exception to an Englishman becoming the country’s effective head honcho for art and culture. “I was really surprised, upset.”

Scotland’s celebrated writer Alasdair Gray “was tremendously against me”, Spalding says. Gray once controversially spoke of English “settlers and colonists” administering Scotland’s arts. “There was a whole group who were really anti-me.”

Spalding adds that “of course” anti-English sentiment exists in Scottish society.

Today, though, he laughs off the demonstration as just “Glasgow’s way of saying hello”. Ironically, the antagonism made his name as one of Britain’s leading cultural figures.

Ever full of surprises, however, it seems Spalding actually had much in common with those who hated him. He voted Yes in 2014. Spalding still has a home in the Borders.

He came to Glasgow thinking Scotland was “basically an extension of England”, but quickly realised he was terribly wrong. Spalding learned how uniquely different Scottish culture was to English culture, and was rather upset he’d been deprived of this knowledge at school and university.

Despite what he calls his “aspirational accent”, he was raised on a London council estate, and with politics which “lean left”, he came to regard Robert Burns as a “genuine working-class poet”. Paintings by the Glasgow Boys and designs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh – “a great world genius” – emerged from a “very distinct culture” to England, and could have been created “nowhere else” but Scotland. Modern Scottish painters like Ken Currie, Peter Howson and Adrian Wiszniewski “come from a real painting culture that isn’t understood in England. England doesn’t do this full-blooded stuff. There’s real strength to Scottish creativity”.

In a way, Spalding came to “understand” the people who were “against me and Englishness”, and “why they were resentful. Yet at the same time I was a real enthusiast for Scottish culture”.

The protests were, he now feels, a “cry for Scottish identity”. The demonstrators were effectively saying “we have our own culture, our own history”. Spalding even feels “a lot of Scottish anti-English feeling is legitimate because the English are just ignorant about Scotland, treating it as an extension of themselves. I’ve great admiration for Scotland, though it’s an absolute mess at the moment”.

Although he voted Yes, he’s “now very uncertain” about independence. After “bloody Brexit”, a border with England troubles him. “Britain has to be Britain while we’re outside Europe.”


In this posed photograph workers hang Salvador Dalis Christ Of St John Of The Cross at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. The painting has been returned to its original home to mark the reopening of Kelvingrove on July 11 following a

In this posed photograph workers hang Salvador Dali's Christ Of St John Of The Cross at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. The painting has been returned to its original home to mark the reopening of Kelvingrove on July 11 following a



HIS love of Scottish culture set Spalding on the path to create Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). Astonishingly, it cost just £6 million. “That was all the city could afford. People would laugh now.” Today, he’s “critical” of GoMa as it has just “become an exhibition space”. GoMa was meant to be like an “artistic park”, where visitors viewed permanent works they loved – “their favourite things” – with just a small exhibition space.

GoMa now “saddens me”, Spalding says, adding: “I’d a vision that’s no longer sustained and, of course, a lot of the art in it I just think isn’t art.”

Didn’t he like the Banksy exhibition? “I admire Banksy, but at the same time I’ve reservations.” Banksy’s works are “one-liners”. He’s glad Banksy came to Glasgow, but feels the show could have gone elsewhere, perhaps the Burrell, he suggests.

Why The Burrell? It needs more exhibitions, says Spalding. “It’s empty.” After it’s revamp, the Burrell has “hardly changed”, he feels. There’s a “huge amount in store” that’s not on display, “almost twice as much”.

“Hardly anyone uses” the Burrell’s expensive interactive displays. “They don’t work in museums.” Instead, highly-trained attendants should explain the exhibits to visitors. Spalding instituted that very employment policy – “transforming attendants’ jobs” – while in Glasgow, but it was “destroyed” after his departure. It created “dream jobs” for staff, providing a route to becoming curators. Visitors loved “human contact”.


ST Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art at Glasgow Cathedral was also a Spalding creation. When he arrived, he was stunned by the city’s sectarianism. He had two technical teams divided on sectarian lines, based on which school they had attended. “It was like going back to the 17th century,” he says. He made the teams work together and “there was no problem”.

Sectarianism was preoccupying Spalding as he developed the Museum of Religion. He decided to shift Salvador Dali’s Christ Of St John Of The Cross – “Glasgow’s most famous painting” – from Kelvingrove Museum to St Mungo’s. Labour councillors “from the Catholic community were so pleased”, he says, as the painting was moving to the city’s east, where there’s a higher concentration of Catholic citizens. Spalding ensured, however, that the museum deliberately focused on all religions, not just Christianity.

Shifting the Dali from Kelvingrove caused a “kerfuffle” but he didn’t care. Today, Kelvingrove, after its makeover, “is a mess, people wander through bewildered. It’s a hodgepodge”.

He regrets not turning Kelvingrove into what he calls “an encyclopedic museum”, where visitors could ask to see anything in the stores: spoons, fossils, paintings, porcelain, you name it. Kelvingrove’s stores, like all Glasgow’s museums, are filled with unseen treasures. There’s “an extraordinary collection of Japanese art” given to the city in the 1890s in return for Glasgow sending engineers to Japan to teach shipbuilding. It’s never been shown.

However, Spalding had a choice: turn Kelvingrove into this “encyclopedic museum”, or create a Scottish Gallery of Art and Design, which was his big dream. He couldn’t do both – money was tight – so he chose the latter. In the end, the scheme failed. That remains his biggest regret. The idea for a Scottish Gallery of Art and Design crystallised when he discovered that the entire Charles Rennie Mackintosh Ingram Street Tea Rooms were just “piles of wood in storage”. There were even plans to burn it. Spalding had it restored and exhibited the famed “White Dining Room”.

He wanted to combine the best artefacts from Scottish museum stores, including Edinburgh’s National Museum, and create a bespoke Gallery of Art and Design at Glasgow’s Old Sheriff Court.


Donald Dewar, then Scotland’s Secretary of State, backed the idea, funding was found, and it looked set to go. Then, in 1998, Dewar suddenly said “no”, Spalding explains. “I don’t know why, he never explained it to me.” He suspects Dewar “was frightened of Scottish nationalism” and a Gallery of Scottish Art and Design could have been“playing into the national card”. Dewar was “fantastically intelligent, a funny man, but weak, a leader who wanted to be led. It was pathetic. I was really upset about it”.

There was also an “Edinburgh lobby”. Edinburgh MP and former Conservative Scottish Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, “complained” about the plan, according to Spalding, saying “why should visitors to Edinburgh have to go another 40 miles to see Scotland’s art?”.

“Such small-minded people,” Spalding says. “I was furious. The whole point of tourism is to get people to spend more nights in Scotland. This was exactly what should have been encouraged.”


St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow Castle Street which reopened to the public wednesday after closing due to the pandemic STY.. Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..14/9/22.

St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow' Castle Street which reopened to the public wednesday after closing due to the pandemic STY.. Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..14/9/22.


V&A Dundee

WHY doesn’t V&A Dundee fulfil the role envisioned for Scotland’s Gallery of Art and Design? “It’s nothing,” he says dismissively. “It’s an extension of the V&A [in London]. It has token representation of Scottish art and design. It doesn’t tell the full story. I like the building from the outside – inside it’s just two containers. It’s disappointing, totally confusing.”

Dundee, he says, isn’t getting the London V&A’s current Coco Chanel exhibition, even though the French designer used Scottish fabrics.

If Dundee’s V&A leaves Spalding cold, then pity Glasgow’s Transport Museum. “Let’s not even talk about it,” he says. “Putting cars up the walls – it’s just stupid. It’s a silly building.”

Despite his harsh critique of many city museums, he loves the People’s Palace. “It’s a fabulous asset to Glasgow, an absolute treasure.” What shocked him, though, during his tenure was how both the People’s Palace and the Transport Museum failed to collect exhibits linked to shipbuilding – key to Glasgow’s social history. The People’s Palace said “that’s the job of the Transport Museum”, and the Transport Museum told him “we only collect machines”. He believes many shipbuilding artefacts which could have been collected are probably lost. “It’s sad.”

Both the People’s Palace and Winter Gardens desperately need funding. Spalding, however, detests the idea floated by Glasgow City Council that visitors from outside the city pay for museums. It’s a money-loser, he believes, “a barrier that reduces your audience”. Let the public in free and they’ll spend in gift shops and cafes, and pay for additional exhibitions. “Free museums earn money.”

And how would museums know who was Glaswegian, he asks. “Local identity cards?” “Anyway,” he adds, “museums are owned by everyone, this stuff is ours.”


IF Spalding had power today, he’d push for a Glasgow museum on the history of racism. Unlike many, he doesn’t support a museum solely focused on slavery. He thinks the project should be much bigger. A slavery museum, he believes, would metaphorically be Scotland just “saying we were wrong, and beating our chests … Leaping onto a bandwagon. It’s not about creating real understanding”.

However, a museum exploring the history of racism – in a city built on slavery – would, he says, “be a great museum for the world. People would leave with real understanding”.

While Spalding favours repatriating looted art, there are limits, he feels. Great artworks should definitely be returned. So back to Greece with the Elgin Marbles. “They should’ve returned ages ago.”

Repatriating the looted Benin Bronzes – divided amongst the British Museum and Scottish museums – is more “complex”. The British Musuem’s “masterpieces” should definitely return, but the lesser artefacts in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh should stay.

“One Benin Bronze is doing more for awareness of the great achievements of African sculpture sitting in Glasgow than going back. I’m against token repatriation which deprives people, makes us less aware of world cultures. Benin culture needs seen around the world. So I don’t think everything should go back.”

He opposed the high-profile return of the Lakota Sioux ghost shirt to native Americans. It was sold to Glasgow by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Spalding believes it “probably isn’t” a ceremonial ghost shirt, “just an ordinary Sioux shirt”. He claims that as there are “other ghost shirts in America, it would have done more for [native American people]” if it stayed in Glasgow, in terms of telling their cultural story, than it did by returning.

During his tenure, he repatriated the skulls of indigenous Australians which were displayed in Glasgow until the 1960s. The display, Spalding said, claimed “the shape of the Aboriginal skull was interim between modern man and early mankind. Can you imagine?”

He considered reconstructing the display at Kelvingrove after the skulls were returned “to show how ignorant we were”.

Spalding says he later discovered the skulls hadn’t been buried or kept with their ancestors but left in storage in Australia. “I was really upset by that,” he adds.


SPALDING explains that his time in Glasgow came to an end in 1999 when the job of director of museums and galleries was scrapped by the city council, along with the jobs of the directors of parks and recreation, libraries, and performing arts. Spalding says he and the other directors were called into the office of Frank McAveety, then Labour council leader, and told they hadd “three months to go. That was the end of our careers – goodbye”.

Key directors’ jobs became subsumed into Glasgow Life, and answerable to its chief executive. Glasgow Life’s first boss was Bridget McConnell, wife of former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell. The couple are now Baron and Baroness McConnell.

Downgrading key director posts, Spalding says, meant Glasgow declined culturally, especially when set against Edinburgh.

“Edinburgh has raped Glasgow,” he says. “Glasgow was suppressed. It’s a great city that’s been downgraded. It was a political choice.”

The city’s cultural leadership was “beheaded”. The posts which exist today running museums, galleries, libraries, and the arts have nowhere near the same clout, he claims. He answered directly to the city’s political leaders, not the head of Glasgow Life. Meanwhile, the board of the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh answers to the Scottish Parliament.

The result has been “the elevation of Edinburgh. This is just the wrong way to view Scotland. It has two great, very different cities, and both should be given their head”.

During his career, Spalding met some of the 20th century’s greatest artists: Hockney, Bowie, Henri Cartier-Bresson are just a few. All, he believes, share one trait: “They live absolutely vividly now. They make you feel alive. They have this intensity of feeling, an observing intelligence.”

Bad artists also share a common trait: “They’re not artists, they’re boring. Not alert. Interested only in themselves. It’s ‘what’s in it for me’. They’re not seeing you.”

And “seeing” matters to Julian Spalding. “It’s what artists are meant to do,” he says.