WHY GLASGOW? – The Turner Prize and the city as an internationally recognised centre for contemporary art.
I’ve been asked this question so many times in recent years by newspaper, radio and television journalists that I felt I should attempt to answer it with something more than a couple of sound bites and without the agendas that most journalists carry.
There are of course no easy answers to the question and I don’t suggest that I will be able to provide more than some personal suggestions. But it is, I believe, worth exploring the question from the point of view of my experience as one who has been involved in, and witnessed, Glasgow’s perceived rise to importance as a centre for contemporary art practice. It is also worth saying that the Turner Prize is not the only measure by which contemporary art can be judged. It is however the one prize that ‘the media’ get most exercised about.
The period from the late eighties to the present needs to be seen in terms of two phases since the answers for each will be somewhat different. The first period would roughly be from the eighties to the nineties and the second from then to the present. The former period was dominated by local, working class artists from Glasgow and the west of Scotland, while the latter is now more of an international mix of artists. It is generally agreed that, after the flourishing of a group of young painters in the early eighties, it seemed to take off with the founding of the Environmental Art Department in the School Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art in 1985 and that, after graduation contemporary art practice in the city was dominated by graduates of that department.
For myself I had no conception when I took up the challenge to begin a new course at the School of Art in 1985 that I was entering the beginning of a ‘revolution’ in contemporary art in Glasgow. But it was a new course and Sam Ainsley and I had the great privilege of beginning anew. It was a fresh start so much so that within eighteen months students were being selected by a London curator for an exhibition at the Barbican entitled ‘Fresh Art.’
In common with the other Scottish art schools the various fine art disciplines were taught separately. Thus at Glasgow the other departments in fine art were Painting, Printmaking, Sculpture and Photography. Environmental Art was very different in that it was possible to practise any medium and in this respect it could be seen as a broad fine art course in itself similar to many of those in art schools in other parts of the UK. However there were several distinguishing features of the course that made it different in that part of the teaching was based on the APG maxim of ‘the context is half the work’, that collaboration was not discouraged and that students would look outside the confines of the studio and the school to explore new practices. This last element was no doubt the intention of the School in naming the department with such a ‘loaded’ title. Although I named the annual project that every student carried out as ‘the public art project’ it was in no way a course to train artists in public art. Years earlier I had written that the worst thing that could happen would be the setting up of specific courses for public art practice as this would narrow down the possibilities for extending what public art could be. Among the learning experiences of the students in carrying out the ‘public art project’. and what could be germane to answering part of the question of ‘Why Glasgow?’, was the fact that students had to engage with ‘lay’ elements of society to hassle, infiltrate, persuade to get their works resolved in the settings of their choice. This seemed to give the students the attitude and confidence that there was no need to wait around to be invited to make work and that one could simply go and do it without being asked. The attitude of staff to students in all teaching was that every student had talents and it was our job to encourage these while at the same time challenging them to take risks.
We got to know each other well. We also, from time to time, drank together, partied and travelled abroad together. Certainly that was a feature of the Environmental Art Dept, at Glasgow. Socialising came to be seen as an important part of the education and became an expectation, a tradition even of the department. Of course this was not planned. It just so happened that the staff rather enjoyed drinking and partying with the students. Nicola White, who curated several important exhibitions of Glasgow’s young artists, has written, ‘Parties matter. They are the glue that holds any artistic community together.’
In ‘What makes art schools click?’ (Art in America 2007) Robert Storr, Dean of Art at Yale University suggests: ‘There are many factors that make art schools click – and usually it is for a decade or less, after which they need to be jump-started again. The first is the care with which students are chosen and the luck they and the faculty have in the chemistry – shared concerns, mutual support, intimate rivalry and what-the-fuck-give-it-a-shot-ism that is generated among members of a given class or two.’
This description remarkably reflects what happened with the Environmental Art Department. It was an amazing roller coaster of a ride. In my parting address to the school I said it was a case of ‘the right place, right people, right time. ‘
The international attention that these artists gained was not entirely new since, as I have indicated, in the early eighties that had already been achieved by a group of ‘new figuration’ painters from the Painting Department at GSA. Crucially it had shown that artists could continue to live and work in the city and need not leave for London, Berlin or New York. One cannot discount the influence that this success brought to bear on the next generation of students. However these painters remained very much individuals whereas the Environmental Art students, and later as young artists, were very socially oriented and remained a strong group. The founding of the MFA post-graduate course at GSA in 1988 also played a hugely significant role. It began to attract students from other parts of the UK and abroad. As the 2014 Turner shortlist shows – of the three from GSA, one was a GSA undergraduate from England. The other two, one from Ireland and the other from Canada were both GSA MFA graduates having taken their BAs elsewhere.
Some Thoughts then – historical, mainly speculative, possibly outrageous, in response to the question, ‘Why Glasgow?’:
Glasgow University was founded in 1453 ( St Andrews and Aberdeen pre-date it), 150 years before the establishment of Edinburgh University – something different going on in the intellectual chemistry of Glasgow?
In 1578, Andrew Melville, the Principal of Glasgow University and one of the leading reforming theologians along with the magistrates of Glasgow decided to sack the city’s cathedral (founded 1136) since it was in his words, ‘the only unruined cathedral in the kingdom’. The members of the crafts guilds and their apprentices rushed to the building to defend it. Thus there is today the only intact medieval building in the city.
It is difficult not to compare Glasgow with Edinburgh. The capital is a city of ‘government’, of lawyers and civil servants. While it has its poor housing estates (I was born and brought up in the rundown working class Leith of the 1940s and 50s) it never experienced the massive industrial and population explosions of 19th century Glasgow. In the 20th Century Edinburgh’s population has remained fairly stable at around the half million mark, Glasgow ‘s stood at just over a million in the mid twentieth century and has now reduced to under 600,000. Edinburgh has always affected Glasgow in that the latter always seemed to have to compare itself with the capital city. It had to ‘blow its own horn’, often in the brashest way. While Edinburgh turned a deaf ear and remained silent. It had no need to boast. It knew it was superior.
In the modern period Glasgow has shown itself to be culturally and politically progressive and slightly offbeat with it.
The first museum in the UK to purchase a work by the artist Whistler was The Hunterian at Glasgow University. It led, 70 odd years later, to the artist’s descendant donating her whole collection of his work to the museum.
The city’s museum, Kelvingrove, controversially purchased one of Salvador Dali’s most famous works, Christ of St John of the Cross. The profits from the sale of postcards of the work has exceeded the purchase price several times over. (Note: the story of this painting and the effect it has had on the museum and visitors coming to see it would make a good 30 minute film)
During apartheid in South Africa Glasgow was the first city in the world to give the ‘Freedom of the City’ to Nelson Mandela while still a prisoner on Robben Island. The city also changed the name of the street that housed the South African Consulate to Nelson Mandela Place. After Mandela was released from imprisonment and became President of the new South Africa he made the decision to come to Glasgow to thank all the cities of the world that had subsequently given him freedom of city accolades.
The Glasgow Boys at the end of the 19th century gained an international reputation. They rejected the academism of the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Glasgow Institute ( Just as it is today). Around the same time Mackintosh and his circle were forging an international reputation. The School of Art has been recognised internationally as a major statement of architecture. A Glasgow citizen, Alastair Reid, was a friend of Van Gogh along with other artists of the Parisian art world which fed back into the culture of Glasgow. Later, in 1939, the painter J D Ferguson and his wife, the famous dancer and teacher, Margaret Morris settled in Glasgow. Ferguson was a friend of Picasso and Matisse and had spent many years in France especially in the middle of the artistic ferment in Paris in the early part of the 20th century. He too took a stand against the establishment attacking the stifling academism of the RSA and even the Glasgow Art Club. He founded the New Glasgow Art Club. In1943 he published his book, ‘Modern Scottish Painting’ which was a ringing endorsement of modernism which put him ‘beyond the pale’ as far as the leading art institutions were concerned, including Glasgow School of Art.
Although Edinburgh hosts all the national visual art institutions by way of the Scottish National Galleries and the Royal Scottish Academy, Glasgow hosts almost all the other national arts institutions: Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, The Royal Conservatoire ( Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts as was), The UK National Review of Live Art (from 1990), the headquarters of the BBC and STV among others. In a relatively small city this is a rich cultural soup in which to be an artist. Edinburgh’s visual art institutions on the other hand represent the established order and to my mind have been a ‘dead hand’ on experimentation, risk-taking and the engagement with anything other than established practices. This is a generalisation of course but seems to me to have a ring of truth about it.
The founding of the Third Eye by Tom McGrath in the mid- seventies marked the beginning of something really new in the culture of the arts in Glasgow. The detonations that he set off were heard way beyond Glasgow. I was living in Fife at the time but I could smell the cordite. At it’s simplest Tom brought an attitude: internationalist, contemporary, bohemian, avant-gardism that changed perceptions and the possibilities for the arts in Glasgow. Chris Carrell followed Tom as Director and some important people worked there as gallery curators include Nicola White. Directors Andrew Nairne and latterly Francis McKee stand out.
Edinburgh has never had an equivalent to the Third Eye. It is now known as the Centre for Contemporary Art (from 1992).
Post high-end industrial decline. – engineering, steam trains, Cunard’s Queens liners – 175 Cunard ships built on the River Clyde, the last being the QE2 launched in 1967 – numerous naval and commercial ships along with all the high quality skills that were needed to fit them out.
Poverty, unemployment, ill-health, early death rates all score high on any assessment of Glasgow. Resistance to negativity creates self-worth and self-belief.
A commitment to ‘bloody hard work’ is offered by some of the Glasgow artists today but then this could be said for all seriously committed artists.
‘Gallus’, a confident swagger, an outrageousness, a ‘get up and go,’ never take ‘no’ for an answer, never wait around to be asked. This is a word very often associated with Glasgow in particular.
The cultural mix of the city – Lowland Scot with huge doses of Highlands and Islands Gaellic speaking Celts, Galloway Britons and Irish. Volatility in this mix especially with regard to the blight of sectarianism that Glasgow and the West of Scotland has suffered.
Art education in the secondary schools of Strathclyde Region in the 1980s was of a very high standard under an enlightened and charismatic Director of Art Education, Marion Love. Castle Toward in Argyll was where school students who were studying any of the arts would go for intensive teaching workshops at Easter and Summer holidays and also during term times.
A large, socially and culturally connected group of artists from Glasgow and other parts of Strathclyde Region helping and supporting each other. The majority came from working class backgrounds and demonstrated strong interactive and socialising tendencies. The core of this initial group was made up of artists who had been in the Environmental Art dept. and had graduated in 1988, 89 and 90 along with a few from other fine art departments. With the founding of the MFA, the group was joined by artists from other parts of the UK, and abroad, who began graduating in 1990.
Graduates from the Environmental Art Department virtually took over the running of the artist-led gallery Transmission for a crucial time. This provided a strong vehicle for shared ideas and practice, a centralising focus and the opportunity to exhibit artists from abroad and for them to reciprocate and exhibit abroad.
Success breeds success and a momentum begins. Artists from elsewhere come to Glasgow to live and work and ‘surf the wave’, not to attend the GSA. What began as a local phenomenon has now become and international one.
The phenomenon of the rise and rise of contemporary art practice in Glasgow is something that other cities have experienced albeit in other art forms. Liverpool and its ‘golden age’ of poets and songwriters in the fifties and sixties is an example of such a phenomenon.
Glasgow has long been a city that has had a thriving music scene and many bands have come out of, or been associated with, the art school. Sarah Lowndes has dealt with this in great detail in her book ‘Social Sculpture – The Rise of the Glasgow Art Scene’.
Glasgow has also always been noted for its own unique fashion consciousness. This has usually been most manifest among the working classes of the city. In the fifties I was very struck by how dramatically different Glasgow art students dressed compared to those of Edinburgh.
At the outset there were no commercial outlets for ‘contemporary’ art. So there was no market. Today one major gallery (co-founded and run by a graduate of Env Art) and a few, very small galleries have managed to survive the crash of 2008. In a real sense there is still no market which is very different to London where, it has been said, students and artists make work to suit the galleries and the market. Artists in Glasgow do not expect sell their work.
Contrary to all expectations Margaret Thatcher’s government had set aside funds for people to work a certain number of hours without losing their welfare benefit. Patricia Fleming set up the scheme and although the sums were small all who benefited, including artists such as Douglas Gordon and Ross Sinclair, attest that it allowed them to carry on working at a very crucial time in their development – that period immediately after leaving formal education.
A critical mass of artists has developed out of proportion to the size of the city of local and international artists working in an ever- increasing number of artist studios and spaces some evolving from the strong artist-led activities that characterised the early phase which continues to surprise and a sympathetic and cooperative city council ready to identify suitable spaces and assist in their transfer to artists willing to take them on. In some ways this could be compared to the success of the concentration of computer ‘workers’ in and around Paolo Alto and how this has generated an enormous amount of creative activity. Momentum plays a part in this.
This growth of successful artists has given rise to a huge demand for service skills and workshops producing highly finished works for exhibitions. Many of these ‘service’ artist/craftspeople are graduates of GSA, some from Environmental Art.
Glasgow’s recent and important timeline: 1988 The UK Garden Festival City. 1990 European City of Culture. 1996 Year of the Visual Arts. 1998 The UK Year of Architecture and Design.
Genius Loci: taken together do these factors combine to create the spirit of the place? Some or all of these could be proposed for a number of UK cities so what might be construed as particular to Glasgow? But then it maybe more helpful to see Glasgow in a Scottish context and compare it again with Edinburgh. It is usual that it is the capital that attracts and draws in leading members of society. This seems not to be the case with the visual arts in Scotland.
In 2014 the BBC art critic Will Gomperz asked ‘where are all the big names that used to dominate the Turner Prize shortlists?’ This was a typically London-centric, metropolitan question to ask. The so- called big names were big because Charles Saatchi made them big and the commercial market, of which London is the centre, thrives on ‘bigging up’. This does not mean that the quality of the work of these ‘big name’ artists is necessarily any better than that of many other artists. As we know time and taste will tell in the long run.
David Harding 2015