Stirling has not been noted as a centre of artistic excellence, but

Clare Henry finds Elspeth King is just the person to put it on the map

IS Stirling a cultural desert? If so, can things change? One look at

the really superb exhibition, Patrons & Painters, at Stirling's Smith

Gallery till November 5, proves anything's possible.

Elspeth King, former supremo at the People's Palace, now director of

the Smith, is addressing the challenge head on. Her plans are

predictably ambitious, and will be presented at a public meeting there

at 7.30pm on Thursday. She is determined to make the gallery ''a centre

of excellence; a major visitor destination as good as the castle''. Her

upbeat slogan is ''You've not seen Stirling till you've seen the


Plans include an extension (designed by the original architect in

1874), upgrading the building inside and out, commissioning art and

sculpture, and changing the crazy, outdated policy which bans buying art

made after 1930. ''We're going for Lottery cash with a great bid and

help from Stirling Initiative and Forth Valley Enterprise. About #3m

should do it!'' she says.

King took on the gallery last April. The Smith has a record of ups and

downs. In the early 1980s it was threatened with demolition to make way

for a car park. That battle won, it went on to establish a name for

artistic enterprise (Scottish Amicable's Smith Biennial and Matilda

Mitchell's Friends were high points) before again slipping.

Meanwhile, Stirling's MacRobert Centre and Art Gallery (which got off

to a well-financed flying start in the 1970s with great exhibitions like

Penrose's Surrealism and J D Fergusson) also fell on hard times.

Currently minus a gallery curator, its present shows -- Edward Summerton

and the Scottish Sculpture Open (to December 9) -- have suffered,

lacking the fanfare opening necessary to attract viewers to this

out-of-town university campus.

Geographically midway twixt Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, and Perth,

Stirling should be an ideal spot, and King is just the person to put it

on the map. Her next show, Stirling's Story and the Jacobites, features

''fabulous stuff from the store never seen before''. Meanwhile Patron &

Painters takes advantage of Stirling's location by inviting young Dundee

and Glasgow artists to exhibit -- and sell -- alongside top-notch

artists collected by local businessman John Rae.

Rae shows just what miracles can be achieved from scratch in five

years. And he is keen to encourage others in his new-found passion. Rae

took to art in a big way during 1990, Glasgow's year as European City of

Culture. ''Till then I'd been collecting traditional stuff, but I got

bitten by the New Scottish Art bug.'' A fast mover, he rapidly amassed a

stunning collection by luminaries like Howson, McDonald, Banks,

Mulholland, and Macpherson. ''I just buy what I like, as long as it's

Scottish. You should help the local economy if possible. Some folk are

frightened by modern art. That's nonsense. With so much variety, there's

something for everyone.''

Right from the start Rae's purchases have been courageous -- even

outrageous. Big, bold, often with an uncomfortable edge, despite the

fact he buys for his own home, Rae always chose with an eye for

excellence, never for decoration. Howson's oils of Barlinnie Boys

running wild emit an electric charge, while Craig Mulholland's Royal

Infirmary glowers ominously. Two brilliant large nudes by Jenny Saville

and Paul McPhail were commissioned long before the artists attained

international stardom, pre-empting both the National Galleries and

Glasgow Museums.

Rae is involved with the Princes Youth Business Trust so has combined

his love of art with fund raising. Young artists, generous as ever, are

giving 25% to the Princes Trust, despite the fact that with recent

despicable government cuts (30% in three years) most must take out loans

to supplement their ever diminishing grants. It's a wicked, topsy-turvey

world when students are asked to live on #26 a week (top 1995 grants are

#1820, or #1390 if living at home) while income support has risen to

#36.80 plus Housing Benefit -- which students don't get. The Princes

Trust sees the results of graduates average #6000 debt to the

Government's Student Loans Company, a debt which is predicted to rise as

grants are cut next year.

Patron & Painters is beautifully presented. Rae's 50 pictures lead

straight into 90 bargains by the well-established Steve Campbell, Lesley

Banks, Jim McDonald, Carol Moore, and Jim Tweedie. Don't miss Richmond's

Dillion, Harper's Desire, Whyte's #500 Intimate Gesture, Telford's Sewn

Cloth, Faulkner's #450 heads, Gilbert's Fool, McIntyre's nudes,

McGregor's Glenbrook, Kay's Containment, Cook's #95 Golda, Black's #75

drawing, Waugh's icy landscape, and Jeffrey's pretty children. All for


Coincidentally Edward Summerton, at the MacRobert till Saturday, first

caught my eye as a student when I judged the Smith Biennial in 1983. We

gave him first prize. He has not disappointed. His imaginary world of

relics embedded in ice speaks of isolation and endurance, both physical

and spiritual. Boldly painted pagan and Christian totems imply modern

ritual built around age-old basics: cloth, fish, knife, leaf. ''His

personal vocabulary uses the clarity of Magritte and the mystery of De

Chirico together with his own visual poetry and humour,'' says Professor

Will Maclean. Praise indeed. His oils are cheap. Rae and the rest of you

should buy.

The 8th Scottish Sculpture Open is more ''open'' than ever this year

with artists from the UK and abroad. After its usual premier in

Aberdeen's Kildrummy Castle, Stirling University campus is its

''southern'' venue, a park long under-used and begging for sculpture.

This should be encouraging, but sadly, overall has produced a

lacklustre display, with too much mundane work among the 14 sculptures

scattered round the lake.

Among the best, two pieces stem from artists invited to Lumsden's

Granite Carving Symposium: Swede Bjorn Fjellstrom's polished Point T-36

is really beautiful and the construction by Japanese artist, Mashiba

works well. Artists' statements help. Iain McColl's vivid description of

the inspiration behind his three black, scarey, 15ft-high Fish Head Gang

is memorable. As official assistant war artist to Bosnia (and about to

return there with Edinburgh Direct Aid) he translates the cocktail of

fear he endured from the ruthless, drug-soaked bandits who terrorise

convoys between Split and Vitez with violence, torture, and even


Pete Bevan's Gazebo is a seriously innovative, elegant, and unique

redefinition of sculpture, while Diane Maclean's giant shoe, with its

hints of medieval tower, moat, and bridge, has a nice light touch. I

also enjoyed Charles Poulsen's expert subversion of soft pillows and

hard concrete which reminds me of Anne Bevan's work.

McColl has generously given a picture to support Tod Garner's new

ceramics gallery which opened this weekend in Glasgow's Parnie Street.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh Direct Aid plans a fund-raising art exhibition next


There was a time when farmers, shipyard, and steel workers were ''the

salt of the earth'. In post-industrial society it's often artists who

work long and hard in back-breaking conditions contributing energy,

craftsmanship and skills, helping the sick, the poor, mentally ill --

even the Bosnian war effort. Glasgow has reinvented itself on the back

of culture. A strange but true late twentieth-century turnaround.

Rae shows just what miracles can be achieved from scratch in five