Michael Kelly: Glasgow right to cash in on Burrell

The collection in itself is not enough to draw tourists, but letting it go out on tour can only be of benefit to the city, writes Michael Kelly

William Burrell made a bequest of his eclectic pile of treasures and trash to Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
William Burrell made a bequest of his eclectic pile of treasures and trash to Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry

BEWARE of Greeks bearing gifts. This ancient aphorism contains little that is useful to us today. It is, however, well-meaning citizens that cities have to be wary of. Citizens like Sir William Burrell, the eccentric collector who made a bequest of his eclectic pile of treasures and trash to Glasgow.

His goodwill was bounded by a number of restrictive conditions that made it an onerous gift to the city. For a start, he did not leave enough money to build a museum worthy of housing the results of his lifetime hobby. It was the city, the public sector, the rate payer and the taxpayer who had to stump up the funds. That delayed by decades the opportunity to display the collection.

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But it was not the only factor in the delay. Burrell also specified that his collection of arts and antiquaries be housed some 16 miles from Glasgow. How he expected that to be seen as a benefit to Glasgow is difficult to fathom. Glasgow would still be funding it, but some other area in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire or Renfrewshire would benefit from the visitor trade generated, not his home city.

The ostensible reason for this particular clause in the bequest was that the pollution in the city – pollution for which he as a businessman was partly responsible – would damage his precious tapestries.

But, of course, he failed to predict the future with its Clean Air Act and the pleasant air Glaswegians now breathe. It was perhaps more a determination to continue to exercise control over matters from beyond the grave rather than any rational cause that made his will so restrictive.

Fortunately, the good sense of the courts put this distance clause aside many years ago and allowed the collection to be housed only four miles from the city centre in Pollok Park. Glasgow City Council commissioned a multi-million pound project, which resulted in a building that is a work of art in itself.

Now that building – like most of the iconic pieces of architecture created in Scotland in the recent past – is in need of fundamental repair. As a result, a £45 million restoration is planned which will close the collection for four years between 2016 and 2020.

During this time, Glaswegians will be deprived of the collection as most of its items will be stored. The museum’s trustees see this as an opportunity to tour the collection abroad, first, to raise its profile and, second, to generate funds to help defray the costs of the repairs.

But once again, Sir William’s stipulations proved a stumbling block. For while he was happy for other cities in the UK to host items from his collection, he demanded that none be sent abroad for display. So the trustees were forced to go down the cumbersome route of trying to get the law changed to allow a world tour.

The Holyrood committee charged with making a recommendation on this heard that Sir William’s reason for opposing foreign travel appeared to be that he viewed the risk of damage in transit as too high. This possibly derived from experience in his own shipping business. However, again it does not take into account advances such as modern packaging and transport methods.

Not that his view doesn’t have present-day supporters. Most prominent of these is Dr Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery. He said as much to the Holyrood committee. But given that the National Gallery itself is a great borrower and lender, his views did not carry much weight.

He was on much safer ground when he challenged the estimates of how much touring the collection would raise for Glasgow. Although Scots like to describe it as world class, in cities such as Paris, Rome, New York or Los Angeles, the Burrell Collection faces competition from much better known works of art of truly historical significance.

Glasgow is not unique in having something worth looking at. The recently introduced flight from Glasgow to Philadelphia has opened many Scots’ eyes to the treasures to be found in a city that is rarely at the top of anyone’s travel plans. Competition is fierce and standards are high in the most unexpected of places and, therefore, income from touring the Burrell Collection might be much lower than expected.

The same is true of the other claimed benefit – increasing the number of visitors who will be encouraged to come to Glasgow after seeing the collection. Again, it is worth listening to Dr Penny, who claims that such loans do not encourage more visitors to travel to the cities where collections are permanently housed. That strikes a chord with me. I cannot say that visiting the wonderful Vincent van Gogh exhibition in the Burrell a few years ago or this summer’s Impressionist exhibition increased my desire to visit Paris. Rather, I was glad that these famous paintings had visited me.

Is there anything compelling in the Burrell Collection which, like Mona Lisa, demands a visit? I haven’t seen it. The interest in the collection is in its breadth and in the fact that it was assembled by one man over his lifetime. A world tour may therefore be a disappointment in both the money it generates and in the boost it gives to Glasgow’s visitor industry.

It can, however, have no adverse effect on the city’s profile. In fact, if the marketing arm of Glasgow can co-ordinate other selling opportunities around it, there is the possibility of building further on the city’s reputation to organise and run very large events.

Coming after this year’s efforts with the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup, follow-up international activity starting in 2016 can only help keep focus on the overseas markets upon which Glasgow increasingly depends.

Burrell gave his collection to the city. Since then Glasgow has spent a lot more than he did in housing, preserving and promoting it. As such, it is right that the city should have total control of how it uses his gift. Holyrood was right to remove the restrictive condition on his bequest.