Although I have no pretensions as an art lover Jackie and I always visited art galleries and museums in our holiday travels and I always enjoyed writing about the various exhibitions mounted by our own museums. The museums' staff were always helpful in gathering information and the news media gave my stories a lot of coverage, particulary on television, because of their visual dimension.
I belong to the I-know-what-I-like school, especially if I can tell what it is. On one occasion when I told Alasdair Auld, Director of Museums, that some modern paintings were a confidence trick on the public he responded with the the unanswerable question, "What is art?" I am still completely convinced that many artists bring out their gear and say to themselves "Right, let's see what we can get away with today."
Anne Donald, Keeper of Fine Art, wrote to me in February 1981, "I hope you will be able to help us with the publicity for the most important art exhibition we have had here for many years....We would be most grateful if you could give it the full treatment as you did for Jewish Art two years go." The Jewish Art exhibition was one of the events held to celebrate the centenary of Garnethill Synagogue in 1979.
The exhibition referred to by Anne Donald was The Realist Tradition to be held at Glasgow's flagship museum at Kelvingrove for two months from November 1981. It was to be the first showing of the exhibition in Europe.
Realism was a 19th century literary and artistic movement which sought to show people and objects as they really were. The Realist artists painted tinkers, labourers, craftsmen of all kinds, factory workers, street scenes, dockside scenes, and everything else that reflected the lives of ordinary people.
The exhibition was organised by Dr Gabriel P. Weisberg, former curator of Art History and Education at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and it took him more than five years to do it. I wrote to Dr Weisberg, who by that time was Andrew F. Mellon Professor of Art at University of Pittsburgh, for some colour transparencies and black and white photographs for the press pack I was preparing along with a story about the exhibition.
Professor Weisberg asked me if we could get some publicity in the London-based press and I said I would do what I could. As it turned out the exhibition received wide coverage throughout the British news media.
Among the angles that appealed to the press and television was, of course, the fact that the exhibition had never been seen in Europe before, that the paintings were to be secretly flown to Prestwick from America, that a 24-hour guard was to be put on them during the run of the exhibition, and that they were worth nearly £3,500,000.
The exhibition contained more than 200 works by about 70 French artists from 1830 to 1900. Among them were Jean Francois Millet, Gustave Courbet, Eugene Boudin, Honore Daumier, Henri Fantin-Latour, Edgard Degas, and Camille Pissarro. One of the paintings, The Reader (Le Liseur) by Edouard Manet, owned by St Louis Art Museum, was said to be worth a million dollars. That was in 1981. Who knows what it could fetch now at an auction.
Two of Glasgow's own pictures were in the exhibition, Oxen Ploughing by Leon Lhermitte and Village Scene, Barbazon, by Adolphe Hervier, an oil on wood painting which measures only five inches by 12 inches and was one of the smallest works in the exhibition.
In the words of several newspaper reports, the Realist exhibition was one of the most successful events held at Kelvingrove in its 81-year history. In attracted 119,000 visitors in its two-months run. Other record-breakers at Kelvingrove in which I was involved were the showing of the Queen's wedding dress in 1948 (when she was Princess Elizabeth) which drew 140,000 people and the 25 Glorious Years Exhibition in 1977 when 356,000 people went to see a large number of art treasures acquired over the years and put together to mark the Queen's silver jubiless.
I first read about the Treasures of the Holy Land exhibition in Jerusalem in August 1987. A story in the Glasgow Jewish Echo said it could not go from America to Japan as scheduled because the Japanese government was unable to provide "diplomatic immunity" for some of the exhibits. In other words someone might try to get them back because they came from another exhibition in East Jerusalem.
I thought it would be a terrific coup for Glasgow if we could have it for our culture year celebrations in 1990 as it was the only exhibition of its kind in the world and featured artifacts from 13,000 years before the Christian era to the 13th century. There were Old Stone Age hand tools, hoards of coins, gold and silver objects, household articles, jewellery, religious ritual objects, ossuaries (pottery containers for human bones), armour, glassware, pottery, statuettes, and a vast number of other objects which, in the words of one writer, "bring the Bible to life."
I wrote to Bob Palmer, Glasgow's Director of Festivals and the man who was to mastermind our year as Cultural Capital of Europe in 1990, and asked him if we should try to get the Treasures to Glasgow. Palmer had the same attitude as myself, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I made a few tentative enquiries at the Israeli embassy in London and they were very polite but I did get the impression they thought I was crazy. The difficulties were numerous and complex. I left the subject for a while but a few months later I read that the exhibition, which had been compiled by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The following year it was due to go to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto before going back to Israel.
My younger son Michael was living in Israel by this time and during a brief stay with him towards the end of 1987 I persuaded him to drive me for three hours through the heat of the Negev desert from his home in Dimona to Jerusalem and after some tortuous explanations to security guards and officials we finally got to see Mrs Freda Rubel in the Cultural and Scientific Affairs Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although the Israel Museum is an independent institution some of its exhibits, like the Treasures of the Holy Land, belong to the State, which is why the Foreign Ministry has to give its permission for any of the artifacts to be loaned out.
Mrs Rubel was friendly and sympathetic to my approach but really didn't think it likely that the Ministry could be persuaded to let the Treasures go to Glasgow, wherever that was, especially as they had been away from Jerusalem for some time and would need careful renovation when they returned.
I had nothing to lose by trying so when I came back to Glasgow I perusaded Alasdair Auld to initiate official talks with the Israel Museum. The negotiations to get the Treasures exhibition to Glasgow, involving transport, insurance guarantees and goodness know what else, would make a book by themselves, but we finally made it with the help of a considerable number of people, including Jimmy Thomson, depute keeper of The Burrell Collection, who played a major part in the negotiations.
The Treasures went on display at Kelvingrove from October 16 to December 16 and attracted 164,000 visitors and world-wide attention from the news media. The Treasures have not been out of Israel since their visit to Glasgow.
Lord Provost Susan Baird was given a preview of the exhibition when she visited Israel in June 1990. As I had engineered the invitation I went with her and her husband George. Mrs Baird said later that the exhibition was a fascinating insight into the lives of people of the Middle East so far back in time, reflecting as it did the lives of adherents of three of the world's leading religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem paid a special visit to the Israel Museum, of which he was chairman, to see Mrs Baird and told her, "We are delighted that our unique exhibition will be staged in Glasgow during such an important year for you."
Sixteen items from our own collections were added to the exhibition for the Glasgow showing, including a hoard of Islamic jewellery in a pottery jar possibly buried to escape the Crusader attack on Caesarea in the 12th century A.D.
Another collection of jewellery dated back to when what is now Israel was ruled by the Egyptian Fatimad dynasty about 1000 years ago. A pottery stand with musicians from the 11th century B.C., depicted five musicians standing in rectangular windows cut into the pedestal. One strikes the cymbals, two play double pipes, a fourth performs on a stringed instrument, and a fifth shakes a tambourine.
The exhibition also represented one of the major events of the Festival of Jewish Culture organised as the Jewish community's contribution to culture year.
At the opening of the exhibition Mrs Malka Ben Joseph, cultural counsellor from the Israeli embassy, was kind enough to say it would not have come to Glasgow at all if it had not been for my efforts.
There was one exhibition which I would have given anything to see in Glasgow but months after negotiation, cajoling, letter-writing, and telephone calls I got nowhere at all. In 1985 I read a small item somewhere that an exhibition of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls had opened in Paris.
I immediately started enquiries to bring it to Glasgow but when all my efforts came to nothing I asked my friend Greville Janner, Q.C, M.P., if he could help because he was president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, President of the Commonwealth Jewish Council, and a friend of many Israeli politicians, including Teddy Kollek.
Greville wrote to his friend Kollek who wrote back, The fact is that a very small piece of the original scrolls (not even that, but a contemporary letter) was included in the Paris exhibition. The rest were facsimiles - and in fact was the major criticism of the exhibition. And thus, with all the goodwill in the world, our original decision concerning sending the scrolls abroad still stands. We find that with all the most modern equipment and the most up-to-date technology, we often have to remove scrolls or parts of scrolls from display because they are so fragile. Please do convey this to Mr Diamond with our sincerest regrets.
I don't think it is likely that the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were stumbled on by a shepherd boy in a cave at Qumran overlooking the Dead Sea in 1947, will ever go out of Israel. They are housed in a specially-built division, The Shrine of the Book, of the Israel Museum.
About 20 years ago a painting of Alexander Reid, a Glasgow art dealer, by his friend Vincent Van Gogh, came on the market and Glasgow was given first option to buy it. An appeal fund was set up to raise the necessary £160,000 and I wrote a press release about it.
A few days later an envelope dropped on the desk of Trevor Walden, director of museums, containing a cheque and a wee note to say the sender had seen the story in the Financial Times and "here's a contribution." The cheque was for £40,000.
Eventually the painting was acquired and Trevor arranged a reception for the Civic Amenities Committee, who had approved the purchase. The painting, 16 1/2 inches by 13 inches, was beautifully framed and placed on an easel in front of purple curtaining and lit by spotlights.
As the line of committee members, in whose hands Glasgow's cultural heritage lay, filed past, one of them pulled me aside and said, "Didn't you have something to do with this?"
Then came the imperishable comment, "Could we no' have got a bigger picture for that kind of money?