NIKKI, a young carer who was having trouble meeting her rent, interrupted her tale of woe to express anger at the proposal last year to sell off Kelvingrove Museum's Salvador Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross: “Ah wiznae havin’ that. Who do they think they are, eh? That painting belongs to us.”

It didn’t matter that she might not even have seen it, or at least not for a very long time. It was enough merely to know that this painting lived in her city and that somehow it was now sewn into the folds of Glasgow’s identity. Something grand and noble and beautiful to sit alongside the edgier elements of the city’s character. And that she could visit it any time she liked and not have to pay for the privilege.

The call to sell Dali’s startling masterpiece had come from a trade union leader, exasperated by the budget cuts to the city’s essential services. At the time it might have seemed a reasonable concept. Dali’s ethereal, suspended Christ would be expected to fetch upwards of £70m. In a city whose poorest neighbourhoods will soon bear the brunt of the cost-of-living crisis this might have seemed a fair trade, involving a piece of cultural ephemera of no earthly benefit to Glasgow’s many disadvantaged citizens.

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Nikki’s response though, was much more representative of the public appetite. The ordinary citizens have been granted very few gifts as beautiful and valuable as the Christ. Why should these be the first to go? Can they not be allowed to appreciate and treasure great art too?

It’s now 70 years since Glasgow bought this picture, one of the world’s greatest and most instantly recognisable religious paintings. It’s the single most defining work in the collection of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, a place of genuine international importance and one which causes Glasgow’s citizens to strut and to walk a little taller.

Next month marks the 120th anniversary of Kelvingrove’s official opening by Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Samuel Chisholm, who described it as “a palace of dreams”. The Duchess of Fife had performed a curtain-raiser the previous May, but 1902 is considered its real opening. It’s long since gained a reputation by scholars and artists as the home of one of the finest municipal collections of art in the world.

The respected literary and art critic Jackie Wullschlager described the Kelvingrove art collection as “the finest civic collection in the UK”. In a 2013 article for the Financial Times celebrating the gallery’s stunning Italian collection she wrote about the industrialists whose spectacular bequests in the late 19th provided the nucleus of Glasgow’s art treasury.

The main benefactor was the coachbuilder, Archibald McLellan who said that art “is conducive to the elevation and refinement of all classes”. Ms Wullschlager wrote: “McLellan bought a Botticelli, the elegantly linear Annunciation … before London did.” And then she added that it cost, ahem … £4 12s.

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THERE’S never a bad day to visit Kelvingrove and today seems as good as any. And, not for the first time, I reproach myself for not having visited much more often. It’s also the last week of the John Patrick Byrne exhibition, the first retrospective of his work in 20 years. And again, I find myself regretting not having come to this earlier, for this great artist’s magnificent pictures surely demand to be seen over and over again.

A group of schoolchildren are at the start of a guided tour of Byrne’s exhibition and so I tag along near the back for the start of their journey round these paintings, perhaps to experience them through eyes not yet care-worn by cynicism and the performative wisdom of misspent years.

For many of them, it seems, this is their first visit to a major art gallery and their teacher is explaining to them why Byrne’s work is for everyone. “Some people will come here who know a lot about John Byrne and that he wrote plays and designed album covers,” he says. “But others might not know about him at all. And that’s alright.”

But nothing will inspire them as much as the written introduction to this exhibition that greets them from a wall on the left as they start their tour. The first sentence tells them that Byrne “was born and raised in Ferguslie Park, Paisley then one of the most deprived areas in Europe”.

And that despite this, “he speaks of it as being a very positive experience, providing ‘the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl’, and growing up in ‘a house full of love’ was an affirming, positive experience”.

A young teenage girl beckons her friend to have a look. “This guy was born in Ferguslie Park. Is that not just brilliant?”

Later, I watched them being captured for a while as they beheld the majesty of Byrne’s portrait of Billy Connolly, a work which is perhaps the world’s first artistic representation of the word ‘gallus’.

I hoped they’d have time to walk round another of Kelvingrove’s stone vestibules to spend some time with the photographs of Eric Watt, the Glasgow photographer who captured the city’s streets and the people who lived and worked and played in them with a fierce passion and an affection that bordered on love.

Nor is Kelvingrove one of those galleries where connoisseurs come to tilt their heads and stroke their chins to indicate that they are studying an essence of it that reveals itself only to those anointed with a deeper understanding of these things. It’s not a place where paintings are given room to ‘breathe’, marooned in the contrived transcendence of a large white space.

Here they gather in busy rows that invite you to get up nose-close to them unimpeded by a guard-rail or a smug, velvet rope: Renoir, Matisse, Monet, Cezanne. And the big Rembrandt masterpiece, A Man in Armour, hanging next door in the museum’s acclaimed Dutch collection.

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There is genius in the curating too. Whoever thought to hang a fully restored Spitfire amidst the Victorian grandeur of these halls ought to have their own special plaque too. The best place to view this is from the mezzanine floor where you get to see what a German fighter pilot might have before meeting his end. I like to think too that forming part of this concept was to assist with the parental duties of thousands of mums and dads dragging their children to this place on a dreich Sunday afternoon. “This’ll shut them up.”

Catriona, a facilities manager from Glasgow, is on her third visit to the John Patrick Byrne exhibition. But she’s permitted herself an extra hour or so to get round some of the other displays. “I love this place,” she says. “My parents brought me here often as a child and I’m always enchanted by it. It’s such a fully-integrated museum.

“The skate-park and the walkways and the river are all used by people in all parts of Glasgow society, including the wee bams and their rocket fuel down by the river. There are six bus routes passing Kelvingrove and dozens of cafes and bars within walking distance. Sometimes I don’t think we appreciate it enough.”

Surely this is where great art should be, we both agree, not up in an artificially manicured hill or set apart from the masses, but existing with them as a place where they might be inspired, uplifted for a while, a source of wonder. A place where they can shake off the grime.

I happen on an exchange between a woman seeking the whereabouts of that four-quid Botticelli Annunciation (current value: ‘priceless’) and one of Kelvingrove’s knowledgeable and friendly floor managers.

“It’s at the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre in Nitshill. It’s dead easy to get to. You can go online and get them to show you personally.

“Can I really? That’s amazing. And where is Nitshill?

“It’s dead easy to get to. I’ll give you directions.”

This perspicacious employee seemed to sense that the Botticelli enthusiast was encountering some difficulty getting her head around how straightforward it was to be given a personal, up-close look at this masterpiece by the Early Renaissance legend. “You’ve got an absolute right to see it any time you like.”

And then she offered her own gnarly observation. “Come to think of it,” she said: “We’re actually a bit lacking in displaying Italian art right now.”

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