WHAT is it about Glasgow that keeps turning out Turner Prize winners, asks Dani Garavelli
IN Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building, a dozen tourists crane their necks as a guide points up the wood-panelled staircase to the bright exhibition space above. All around the foyer, there are mosaics of famous artists: Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Turner and, of course, Charles Rennie Mackintosh himself.
But if the tourists and the students who flit in and out are seeking inspiration from the greats, they do not have to go back a century or more to find it. In the past 20 years, the city, and the GSA in particular, has gained a reputation for producing some of the most influential figures in the contemporary art world and for dominating the annual Turner Prize. Since 1996, six artists associated with Glasgow – Douglas Gordon, Martin Creed, Simon Starling, Richard Wright, Susan Philipsz and Martin Boyce – have lifted the trophy. A further nine, including Christine Borland, Jim Lambie and Karla Black, have been nominated.
So established is Glasgow’s reputation for nurturing talent, there was barely a ripple of surprise when it was announced last week that three out of four of this year’s short-list – Ciara Phillips, Duncan Campbell and Tris Vonna-Michell – were also GSA alumni. Although they are not Scottish Phillips and Campbell have chosen to live and work in Glasgow, attracted perhaps by a vibrant scene, the abundance of studio space and the strong support network.
The city’s transformation into an internationally-renowned centre for the visual arts has become known as the “Glasgow miracle”, a phrase coined by German curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. But the explosion of talent was not so much a miracle as a combination of a complex set of social factors and decades of hard graft. And it’s not the mass-production of Turner Prize winners as much as the scale and sustainability of the city’s creative energy that is the real cause for celebration.
In the 1990s, the city’s arts scene changed beyond recognition; the eighties had been dominated by the paintings of the New Glasgow Boys – Ken Currie, Peter Howson, Steven Campbell and Adrian Wisniewski. But then a bunch of students from David Harding’s ground-breaking GSA environmental arts course, including Gordon, Nathan Coley, Boyce and Borland, took the city’s post-industrial landscape by storm, creating site-specific works in empty buildings. Bonded by their similar backgrounds and their love of indie bands such as Teenage Fanclub, they formed a tight-knit and mutually supportive community. After college, they congregated at the Transmission Gallery, an artists’ collective in the city centre, before Toby Webster and a handful of others went on to found the Modern Institute, one of the most-talked about galleries in the world, which brought Glasgow artists to the global market- place and to the attention of major collections and international collectors. From this fertile ground came seminal works, such as Gordon’s 24-hour Psycho, Boyce’s Do Words Have Voices and Philpsz’s installation which involved recordings of her haunting voice piped under three of the city’s bridges.
Today, Glasgow’s arts scene continues to flourish; the Modern Institute has been followed by other independent galleries, such as Sorcha Dallas (now closed), Mary Mary and Kendall Koppe. “It is no longer the case that everyone will turn up to the Transmission or Modern Institute openings because the level and variety of activity in Glasgow has increased so dramatically – both through the young galleries and through the activities of studio and exhibition complexes such as Southside Studios, SWG3 and The Glue Factory,” says Dr Sarah Lowndes, lecturer and author of Social Sculpture: the Rise of the Glasgow Arts Scene. Scotland’s participation in the Venice Biennale since 2003 and the growth of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art have also helped focus attention on the city.
The result is that Glasgow now attracts an increasing number of artists from outside Scotland: all those selected for the Scotland in Venice Biennale presentation in 2013 – Campbell, Corin Sworn and Hayley Tompkins – were born in other countries, but live and work in the city. The cachet attached to the GSA has seen a similar cultural shift there: 20 per cent of students now come from abroad and a further 20 per cent from elsewhere in the UK, and hopes of success are high.
“Twenty five years ago, a student graduating from Glasgow School of Art wouldn’t be expecting to win the Turner Prize within ten years and now that looks like a distinct possibility,” says Katrina Brown, director of The Common Guild, a non-profit-making visual arts organisation based in the city’s West End.
In a studio at the GSA’s Richmond Building, Lola Milne, from London, who is in her fourth year of a fine art photography course, is preparing for her degree show in June. One screen shows footage of eggs being thrown at her bare feet, another, simmering jam. “I chose to study at the Glasgow School of Art because, unlike other courses, this one allows you to include video, sculpture and installation in your work and I wanted to have that freedom,” she says. “It’s quite exciting and reassuring when the Turner Prize shortlist comes out – it makes you feel maybe you can make it as an artist.”
Yet despite some remarkable achievements – the development of the WASPs studios and exhibition space at the Briggait and South Block in the Merchant City, for example – it is still hard for artists to make a living here. Though the Gallery of Modern Art does, now, have a permanent collection of contemporary Scottish artists, it doesn’t have pieces by, for example, Wright or Coley, meaning the public is less likely to be aware of their work. Even internationally-acclaimed artists tend to be making more than 90 per cent of their income abroad. And a survey conducted in 2012 showed three-quarters of the country’s artists earn less than £5,000 a year. These figures make one wonder to what extent the “Glasgow Miracle” has impacted on the lives of the majority of those based in the city.
In the last few years, the mere whisper of the phrase “Glasgow Miracle” has been enough to cause hackles to rise. Some people take issue with the idea that the transformation came from nowhere when the groundwork was, in fact, being laid by The Third Eye in the 1970s. Others complain that focusing on the achievements of a handful of people makes the success appear easy to replicate and ignores the complex confluence of factors which made it possible.
In part, Glasgow’s proclivity for producing conceptual artists is down to its industrial heritage. Webster once compared the city to Rome. “You know something major used to happen here – the shipbuilding – and now you are living in its shell,” he said. “It’s got the buildings, but it doesn’t have the infrastructure that connected it all. I think that somehow affected all of us who live here.”
The can-do attitude which saw students bypass galleries to stage their own exhibitions also owed much to the economic and political climate of the time. Student grants and free tuition meant many of those who got into the GSA were from working-class backgrounds and were determined to prove themselves.
Unlike most other arts courses, which involved a degree of “navel-gazing”, the environmental arts degree was all about communication. “These artists were already thinking ground-up in their practice from a very early age,” says Patricia Fleming, owner of Patricia Fleming Projects, a contemporary art gallery based in South Block. “The 90s saw an explosion of marketing and everything being shiny and brand-led. I don’t think you could have got a cleverer bunch of people and we all benefited from that.”
Fleming moved to Glasgow in 1990 after graduating from Duncan of Jordanstone College in Dundee. Finding herself unemployed, she set up FUSE, a initiative which provided emerging artists with free studio space and a materials allowance for a year as an alternative to signing on. Five hundred artists – including Gordon and Boyce – passed through its doors in its eight-year existence. She remembers the 90s as an exciting time when artists were forging their own opportunities and believes much of Glasgow’s appeal lies in its size. Much smaller than London and laid out on a grid system it is an easy city to feel at home in. And the concentration of artists in small pockets of the West End, the East End and now increasingly the Southside means everyone knows everyone else and there is ample opportunity for the cross-pollination of ideas. It also fosters peer support which encourages risk taking.
Despite some suggesting the city’s success would be a flash in the pan, the arts scene continues to go from strength to strength. The current crop of Turner Prize nominees are slightly younger than their predecessors showing there is potential for new talent to emerge and their very different pieces – Campbell is short-listed for “filmic portraits of provocative people’s lives”; Phillips for a collaborative print studio project; and Vonna-Michell for an installation on his mother’s childhood in Berlin – demonstrates the range of work going on. In 2012, the Glasgow International Festival which began as a fairly modest undertaking in 2005 exhibited 130 artists across almost 50 venues, attracted 205,067 visitors and generated £1.7m for Glasgow’s economy. The city is now home to several waves of artists, with a handful who had moved to London heading home. And there is a ripple effect: other Scottish cities, such as Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee are also embarking on exciting new projects.
There are those, however, who believe the city’s success could bring problems of its own. Though the influx of international artists has made it feel more cosmopolitan, it does mean more artists are competing for a diminishing pot of money. At the same time, like all higher education institutions, the GSA has been affected by the recession and the introduction (for non-Scots) of tuition fees, so those who attend are increasingly likely to be middle class.
The biggest problem affecting the Glasgow arts scene, however, is the inability to persuade more Scots to collect contemporary art works. Damian Leitch, who is in the fourth year of his fine art photography course, says Glasgow still lacks the commercial opportunities of many other European cities. “Walk around Amsterdam or Berlin you see galleries in every neighbourhood and people do buy: they buy for their offices, their own business, their homes. You don’t tend to get that here,” he says.
Much hope is being pinned on Generation, a celebration of 25 years of contemporary art which is being staged in 60 venues across the country, including during the Commonwealth Games, featuring work by big names such as Ross Sinclair, David Shrigley, Lorna Macintyre and Cathy Wilkes. “I’m hoping it’s going to be a chance for the public to enjoy the contemporary art I love,” Fleming says. “I think when it’s endorsed by those bigger galleries, the public feel a bit safer about engaging with it. I think we need to up the ante on trying to create new collectors because buying art invests in the value of the whole sector and helps retain artists in Scotland.”
More needs to be done too, perhaps, to help those who will graduate in the summer establish themselves as working artists. Still there’s plenty to be optimistic about. With a 75 per cent chance of a Scottish win in this year’s Turner Prize, there is likely to be good news come December; and, in 2015, the award is to be presented in Glasgow’s Tramway – a move which seems entirely fitting. Maybe it’s more of a marvel than a miracle, but whatever you want to call it, the seemingly unstoppable rise of the city’s arts scene remains a source of wonder. «