The rise and rise of the Glasgow art scene
A combination of factors including the art school, a network of experienced galleries and a steady flow of public money has put the Scottish city on the art map
By Ben Luke. Features, Issue 234, April 2012
Published online: 17 April 2012
When visitors descend on Glasgow later this month for the fifth Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, they will arrive in a city with a reputation as an artistic centre that is rising high. In winning the Turner Prize last December, the Glaswegian Martin Boyce became the third artist in a row who was either born in the city or studied at its art school. David Harding, who taught Boyce on the environmental art course at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s, says that Boyce’s prize confirmed for him the city’s prolific ability to produce artists. Harding has assembled a list of the Glasgow artists who have been shortlisted for either the Turner Prize or the now defunct Beck’s Futures prize, and the statistics are telling: nine artists from Glasgow on the Turner Prize shortlist in the past six years alone and ten more on the Beck’s Futures shortlist during its six-year existence in the early 2000s.
The story behind Glasgow’s recent success is a complex combination of factors, but everyone involved agrees that the environmental art course, run by Harding and Sam Ainsley, was the catalyst, producing the wave of artists who are key figures in the current scene—Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland, Nathan Coley and Boyce among them, and many younger artists since. The key idea of the course was “context as 50% of the work”. Students were encouraged to consider the particular characteristics of a setting—social, cultural, architectural—as crucial to the eventual form of their work. Meanwhile, Harding and Ainsley invited philosophers, poets, and architectural and social historians to talk to the students. The key manifestation of their commitment to context was a “public art project” in each year of the course from the second year onwards.
“Basically, it was students having to find a setting where they would have to persuade the host to be allowed to use that place, and negotiate with them and eventually make a work wherever it was,” Harding explains. Coley, who joined the course in 1985, remembers that Harding and Ainsley “generated a scholarly approach together. The key thing was that their general attitude was a kind of social conceptualism—a notion of conceptualism but with a consciousness of audience and of place.” Coley says, in contrast to many art students, he and his peers were “asking to use space in buildings, getting bits of money and getting sponsorship from people”.
This partly explains the speed with which artists on Harding’s course began showing their work after graduating. Allied to Harding’s equal emphasis on collaboration, this led to a collegiality among students on the course, almost a siege mentality. “We were the salon des refusés,” says Coley. This was heightened by their physical base. The Glasgow School of Art is housed in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s fin-de-siècle masterpiece but the environmental art course took place in a former girls’ high school nearby. “It was a ruinous, old, stone-built Victorian school,” says Harding. “We were only allowed in the front half, but the students broke into the back half. It was full of old school books and amazing different spaces, from roof spaces and attics to basements: perfect for installation and performance.”
After the course, the collective spirit thrived at Transmission, an exhibition space in the Merchant City district, founded in 1983 by students frustrated by the lack of galleries in the city, and run then, as now, by a six-person artist committee. Because Glasgow had produced a prominent group of painters in the 1980s, including Steven Campbell and Peter Howson, and the new graduates’ art was poles apart from figurative painting, Coley and his peers have been seen as stridently reacting to that previous generation. The reality, Coley says, is much less dramatic. “They were never around, they very quickly moved out to the country or moved away, and they were as visible or invisible as anyone else who was a generation in front of you who was a contemporary artist,” Coley says.
With Transmission as the base, the artists created an art world. “We often talk about the extent to which, although there was no money, it was idyllic,” says Katrina Brown, the director of the festival and the visual arts organisation the Common Guild, and a committee member at Transmission from 1992 to 1994. “There was such a sense of common purpose, and you knew who you were doing it for and why you were doing it.” The gallery was just one of a cluster of not-for-profit galleries that gradually gathered momentum in the late 1980s and 1990s. Tramway, based in a former tramshed in the south of the city, was transformed ahead of Glasgow’s European capital of culture celebrations in 1990 into a radical performing and visual arts venue, and the curators Nicola White and, subsequently, Charles Esche, regularly commissioned work from the new generation of artists, including Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, 1993, still among his best known works. Under Andrew Nairne, now the director of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, the Third Eye Centre immediately recognised the emergent scene, showing Gordon’s early collaborations with fellow environmental art student Craig Richardson as early as 1987, as well as reflecting a parallel group of artists making waves in London—Damien Hirst had one of his first solo shows there in 1989.
International attention quickly followed. By the mid-1990s, as curators looked beyond traditional art centres, Brown says, “it felt that it was absolutely normal that some hotshot curator would fly in from somewhere, spend three days going round studios, do a show and do a catalogue”. Glasgow artists would appear in international group shows throughout the 1990s, from Oslo to Chicago and, perhaps most notably, at the Kunsthalle Bern, a key venue in the history of conceptual art in Europe. The Glasgow artists also found kindred spirits in a growing European phenomenon in the 1990s now known as relational aesthetics, embodied by the work of Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster—whose work perfectly fits the “social conceptualism” and “environmental art” maxims of the Glasgow scene. International interest has led to a steady flow of non-British artists moving to Glasgow.
GoMA goes against the grain
But despite the international clamour, a new institution in the artists’ home city took an entirely different attitude. Julian Spalding had become the director of Glasgow Museums in 1989, and soon after secured a £3m fund for acquisitions of contemporary art, and also raised £6m to convert the former Stirling’s Library in the city centre into a gallery to house the collection. The Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) opened in 1996, the same year that Gordon became the first Glaswegian Turner Prize-winner. But neither Gordon nor any of his peers were included in the new museum, and Spalding was excoriating in his views of the emerging generation of artists.
“I thought at the time that it was not art, and I was very outspoken about it, and as a museum director I wasn’t supposed to be like that,” says Spalding. “And in the contemporary art world it was very divisive, people felt that it was horrendous what I was saying. But I wanted to be divisive because I think that you can’t allow non-art to be beside art—non-art, or ‘con art’ as I call conceptual art, destroys art.”
Much of the critical ire directed at GoMA and Spalding centred on his acquisition of works by the British folk painter Beryl Cook. “I think Beryl Cook is a wonderful painter—not a great artist, but a really genuine one,” Spalding says today. “And, my goodness, did the people in the art school blow a gasket when I said that.”
Spalding feels that he might have added to Gordon’s success by being such “an opponent to all that he stood for”, and giving him and his peers something to rail against. But Katrina Brown says that the artists simply ignored the gallery. “GoMA didn’t exist. It didn’t embrace any of [the scene] until very late in the day. It didn’t buy Psycho, which was available for a five-figure sum, or even less, and that is now in the Pompidou. All those moments were completely missed,” she says.
When Spalding left Glasgow in 1999, GoMA began to reach out to Gordon and his generation, but it was a difficult task for its curators, Victoria Hollows and Sean McGlashan. “Some people within the arts community would not talk to us,” says Hollows, now the museum’s manager. “A lot of people felt we just had to throw everything out, but if only life were so easy. The money just wasn’t around in the same way [as when the gallery opened], so we had to take baby steps to build bridges with people.”
Filling the gaps
Though it is impossible to plug the gaps, the collection does now feature key players in the recent Glasgow scene, including Boyce, Borland, Roddy Buchanan and David Shrigley and, with a relatively minor work, Douglas Gordon. After being a linchpin of the community shunned in the museum’s early years, Katrina Brown has worked with GoMA curators on the gallery’s acquisition of £1m worth of works through the Art Fund International scheme (“such sweet revenge”, she says), which deliberately “builds an international context for the works of Glasgow-based artists that they already hold”.
Karla Black’s festival commission for GoMA’s neo-classical central hall reflects the extent of the recent shift. A Glasgow School of Art graduate who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize last year, Black creates installations that fuse a profound engagement with painting and sculpture with a strong theoretical grounding. She says: “A lot of effort is being put into giving Glasgow the Gallery of Modern Art that it deserves.”
Nathan Coley says that, despite the artists living in Glasgow, “the city can’t control or can’t satisfy their ambition”, and still lacks a “kunsthalle” to properly show the work. “Maybe, perversely, that is a good thing for the practitioners, in that they need to find another way.”
“Finding another way” is in the Glasgow art world’s DNA, with seemingly any space up for grabs, from the “Windfall” exhibition in the disused Seaman’s Mission by the Clyde in 1991 to exhibitions in flats belonging to the artist Cathy Wilkes and gallerist Sorcha Dallas. Amanda Catto, the former head of visual arts at the Scottish Arts Council, and still in charge of visual arts in her role in the council’s replacement, Creative Scotland, says that this improvisatory approach is partly possible thanks to direct grants to artists. “People are able to just make things happen—they don’t wait to be invited to show,” she says. “We started with quite a small award. People would be delighted to have an Arts Council bursary or small grant.” Larger investments were made to cover “a more involved research period” or residencies in New York or Amsterdam, and the biggest awards were for £15,000, given to a few artists each year.
Katrina Brown is in no doubt about the significance of the initiative. “The small assistance grants were only £500, but if you are doing a show at Transmission it makes a big difference,” she says. “Martin Boyce was quite well established as an artist before he got one of the £15,000 awards, and it was a really big deal.”
The Scottish Arts Council’s lists of National Lottery grants reflect its key role. Karla Black, for instance, received £4,895 in 2005/06 for developing a body of work, and the top £15,000 award in 2006/07. Her career has since exploded, culminating in Black being chosen as Scotland’s representative in the 2011 Venice Biennale, her Turner Prize nomination and now her exhibition at the heart of this year’s festival.
Among the most notable aspects of the Glasgow scene is its lack of a market compared with London. Nathan Coley is now represented by London’s Haunch of Venison, but says it took him more than a decade of making work before he began to sell it. “When the market started being part of what I had to deal with, I knew who I was, I knew what the work was,” he says.
Even the most established of Glasgow’s commercial galleries, the Modern Institute, located not far from Transmission, began its life as a hybrid between a commercial gallery and a public project space. Run by Toby Webster, the gallery represents key Glasgow artists from across the past two decades, including Boyce, Simon Starling, Cathy Wilkes and Jim Lambie.
The Modern Institute is the only British gallery to represent the artist Jeremy Deller. The London-based Deller has been a regular visitor to Glasgow over the past two decades. “I liked the situation up here, it seemed a bit more open and welcoming and friendly,” he says. But why only have representation in Glasgow and not in London? “I had been with a gallery in London [Cabinet in east London] and it had gone quite badly wrong and I didn’t want to get involved in the London scene,” Deller says. “But the Modern Institute is a truly international gallery, and that is what I was interested in.”
Webster says the local market is growing slowly via collectors, some of whom are peers, some are artists and some are just straight off the street. “As the profile of the city’s art scene changes, you get more of that: people that want to be part of it.”
For Amanda Catto, the commercial galleries—another is Mary Mary, which until recently represented Black and shows many of the most promising young Glaswegians—are a crucial aspect of the Glasgow phenomenon. “It has made a massive difference to how artists can stay in Scotland and be represented internationally,” she says. “The Modern Institute is an amazing case study, growing up from a grass-roots starting point. Their model is that they work really hard with their artists to continue to help them develop their practice and produce the work.”
Early on in the Modern Institute’s existence, Scottish Arts Council money helped its development, particularly in attending art fairs. The use of public money to help commercial galleries attend such events (for example, in 2006/07, Sorcha Dallas received £14,000 for attending Liste, Art Basel and Frieze) has raised eyebrows, but Catto defends the policy. “They had several years of regular funding, which was not just about art fairs, but about developing the model, the way of working, and then we realised that the benefit of having something like that in Scotland was so obvious.” She says that Creative Scotland will continue to fund commercial galleries’ attendance at the fairs. “We see that there is benefit in market development for artists,” she says. “It’s also recognition that some of our commercial spaces are representing Scotland internationally really well.”
The importance of public support for commercial galleries was underlined last year, when the gallery run by Sorcha Dallas closed, with Dallas blaming the lack of a “local collector base” and the withdrawal of funding from Creative Scotland amid the current climate.
The closure is a rare failure in an otherwise buoyant Glasgow scene. The city’s success, in contrast with the notion of a “Glasgow miracle” now promoted by the school of art and others, was founded on carefully balanced conditions and events—a strong art school, a dynamic artist-led scene, experimental art venues, funding from public bodies and an art world actively looking beyond its traditional centres.
Many commentators talk of the “generous” spirit of the city. While the environmental art course was the kernel for that first wave of artists and many more since, different areas within the art college have also produced leading artists, with Black graduating from the sculpture course, and Hayley Tompkins among the painting students to have made an impact internationally. Key to the scene’s longevity is its reputation for an almost moral integrity, but a distinct lack of a style. “The situation in Glasgow is stronger than ever,” says Nathan Coley. “There have been interesting times, but now is the most interesting.”
For a preview of Glasgow’s visual art festival, see What's On
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