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Where it’s at

Simon Groom reveals what he has been doing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. By Simon Stephens
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Simon Stephens
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The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but despite its grand old age it has only had three directors. And the latest, Simon Groom, joined less than three years ago.

The first two directors, Douglas Hall and Richard Calvocoressi, are still alive and some might have found their presence threatening. But Groom says he has no problem with them at all: in fact, quite the opposite.

“At the moment we are discussing having a talk between me and the previous two directors as part of the anniversary celebrations,” he says. “That could be quite fun.

“I have been very conscious about wanting to involve them in the 50th, as they made this gallery,” continues Groom, who has the new job title of director of modern and contemporary art for the National Galleries of Scotland.

“I have nothing but admiration for them and am really fortunate and lucky in inheriting such a fantastic gallery and collection.”

Despite this acknowledgement of the importance of past influences, the 50th anniversary has given Groom the chance to stamp his own personality on the gallery by carrying out its first major rehang in 25 years.

“I think any institution needs to reinvent itself every now and again, to keep fresh and to challenge itself and ensure that the art you are showing is as relevant, challenging, provocative and inspirational as it can be.”

Groom says the old displays “did not change that much and were fairly traditional and stuffy”. There is now a far more dynamic thematic approach, where galleries will be regularly rehung.

“Once we had agreed that the collection would be at the centre of it and that we wanted to surprise people, it was a matter of looking at ways we could come up with a different type of hang and what made sense, so that you could feel you were on a real journey through the collection, without it becoming shambolic,” Groom says. “I think we have done that very well.”

Not everyone is happy with the changes, particularly those who were aghast that only four of the 130 Scottish colourist paintings in the collection were included. The visitors’ book highlights some of the annoyance at the lack of works by the beloved colourists, who previously had a room dedicated to the school.

Some of this was overcome in March when the second stage of the rehang included The Intimate Colourist, a selection of more than 40 small-scale works by artists such as JD Fergusson and SJ Peploe.

Former director Douglas Hall has also curated a room. Groom emphasises that changing the displays is an important way to engage visitors with more of the collection.

“With static collections, you might have your favourites but you can never move on from that,” he says. “The rehang is about making room for new favourites.”

As well as trying to put a spotlight on the collection, the rehang is also part of Groom’s aim to widen the gallery’s appeal and reach new audiences.

One of the groups he wants to engage is Scottish artists, by showcasing their work in an international context. The second phase of the rehang features work by Edinburgh-born Callum Innes and the first showing in Scotland of Sailing Dinghy, a key work by the late Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. There is also a display highlighting emerging contemporary Scottish talent.

But Groom says it is important to appeal to a wider range of people than artists, who are part of the natural constituency of the gallery anyway.  

"You have to think about ways in which you can bring in those who have never been to an art gallery before, and make it feel relevant and interesting, without dumbing down.

"There are all kinds of ways of doing that and one of them is just being very clear about orientation, approach, friendliness and just spelling out very clearly that it is our 50th, there is a fantastic collection, come and enjoy it and you might be surprised by what you see."

The surprises start outside where Groom has continued the tradition of using the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the adjacent Dean Gallery to showcase works of art. The modern art gallery is already well known for the Landform work that sits in front of it.

Groom has brought in the installation There Will Be No Miracles Here, by Glasgow-born Nathan Coley, which is on the front lawn of the Dean Gallery. And the facade of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has a work by Martin Creed called Everything Is Going To Be Alright, which is written in big neon letters.

“It is deliberate as the facade can seem quite forbidding but when you see Martin Creed’s intervention, it brings a smile to your lips and makes you feel more relaxed.”

And this month sees the unveiling of six life-size figures by sculptor Antony Gormley that have been positioned between the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the sea, running along the Leith river.

Groom joined the National Galleries of Scotland in 2007 from Tate Liverpool, after five years on Merseyside as head of exhibitions. “Tate gives you possibilities that everyone dreams of and one of the great things about it is that if you have good ideas it will expand to make them happen.”

But he seems to reserve real affection for his first museum job, at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. He joined as an exhibition organiser in 1999, and says Michael Harrison, its director, was happy to give people responsibility.

“Kettle’s Yard was a brilliant place to start,” Groom says. “Michael Harrison was amazing, because he had complete trust. I had never hung anything in my life before, but he immediately throws you into it. It was wonderful, it was the best training you can have.”

As well as the hands-on exhibition work he did at Kettle’s Yard, the philosophy of its founder Jim Ede also had a big impact on him. “Jim Ede’s famous book is called A Way of Life and for me that has always been fundamental. Art is a way of life, it is part of life, it constitutes life, rather than being the icing on the cake or the bit on the side.”

Groom has risen quickly since joining Kettle’s Yard and it seems unlikely that he will stay as long at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art as the previous two directors, who clocked up more than 45 years between them.

For the moment there are enough challenges to keep him occupied. Like others he is uncertain about the level of public funding cuts to come and attracting sponsorship remains difficult.

But with budgets for temporary exhibitions squeezed, it’s not a bad time to have a programme that focuses on the permanent collection and what can be done with the existing resources.

As the title of the rehang points out: What You See Is Where You’re At.

Next month’s Museums Journal will feature an article about the contemporary art scene in Scotland

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art at a glance

1960 The gallery opens at Inverleith House. Its first show is on sculptor Henry Moore. His Two-piece Reclining Figure (1960) becomes the gallery’s first major purchase
1961 Douglas Hall appointed keeper of the Gallery of Modern Art
1986 Douglas Hall leaves the gallery after 25 years
1987 Richard Calvocoressi becomes the new director
2004 Landscape architect and designer Charles Jencks creates Landform in front of the Gallery of Modern Art. It wins the Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year
2007 Simon Groom joins the National Galleries of Scotland as director of modern and contemporary art
2008 The National Galleries of Scotland and Tate buy 725 works of modern art from dealer Anthony d’Offay for £26m, the original cost of the works. Artist Rooms is said to be worth £125m
2010 The gallery celebrates reaching its 50th birthday with its first major rehang in 25 years

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