Tim Cornwell: Beaten with book of hidden art treasures

Fifteen years after he became a one-man outrage in the Scottish art world by refusing to buy works by the likes of the film artist and Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon, Julian Spalding, former director of Glasgow's museums and galleries, is still at it.

His new book, The Best Art You've Never Seen: 101 Hidden Treasures From Around the World, is published under the unlikely aegis of the Rough Guides travel books.

It's a survey of "hidden" art treasures - hidden by hate, by place, by chance, or by the tastes and trends of the art world with which he violently disagrees.

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Spalding uses it to bash the contemporary art scene as "a self-referential court sustained by public funds and a few rich dealers and collectors, in which con artists weave their spurious reputations".

Born in a council estate in South London in 1947, Spalding became a director of municipal galleries in Sheffield and Manchester before he moved to Scotland, where he was director of the Glasgow Museums from 1989 to 1999, when the post was abolished.

His term remains seared in the memory to this day. His signal achievements included founding the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), but the art which he patronised with the city's money, and with which he filled the building on its opening in 1996, made him little less than a hate figure.

Spurning the edgy new generation of Glasgow artists, including Gordon, Christine Borland, or Callum Innes, he championed the likes of John Bellany, Peter Howson, and Beryl Cook. Spalding's GoMA choices drove serious Scottish art critics to let rip in a way that has seldom been seen before or since.

"The Gallery of Modern Art is a travesty, a mockery, quite the worst arranged collection of dire purchases I have ever seen, while the catalogue (written by Spalding] is one of the most specious, ill-informed and misinformative art books I have ever read," wrote Adrian Searle.

So Spalding's assault on conceptual artists is not a new refrain; "con artists" is a phrase he has bandied around for years, and he usually means Damien Hirst in particular.

"A pickled shark put on display in a museum rather than a gallery remains just what it is," he writes in the new book.

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"You have to be able to see art; it can't be merely a projected thought. You can dress up anything in fancy ideas, as the emperor found out to his eternal embarrassment."

Spalding is firing on all cylinders in his choices of hidden art. The works he picks are mostly straightforward figurative sculptures or paintings in which he champions craft and illustrative work against the "notion that art can be just an idea".

They run from the 8th century Pictish Stone in the tiny Sculptured Stone Museum in Meigle, featuring horsemen riding out with a mysterious "Pictish beast", to Norman Rockwell's 1967 painting New Kids in the Neighbourhood, showing white children staring at black children moving into their suburb.

He has thrown in a few surprises.In "Hidden by Conservation", where he claims conservators have swung too far in "touch-me-not protection", he includes the Mona Lisa.

While millions of people visit the work, he says its impossible to see it properly, because the painting hasn't been cleaned since 1809, and languishes under a layer of dirty brown varnish.

Spalding is a bit like the Prince of Wales on architecture, but without the HRH to make people sit up and listen.

It's a shame Spalding didn't buy works by the likes of Gordon or Hirst for Glasgow when he had the chance, because the city couldn't afford to go shopping for them now.

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An installation by Gordon recently sold in Berlin for more than 300,000; Hirst's works are priced at ten times that.

However, his description of conceptual or "found" art existing in a "self-referential court" has a certain resonance. He was derided for liking art "like a bowl of flowers", but the Impressionist Gardens show at the National Galleries of Scotland has just notched up huge visitor figures. So perhaps the art world needs its iconoclasts, if only to keep age-old rows between traditionalists and the shock of the not-so-new alive.