Glasgow at the avant-garde of the art world

Glasgow has now claimed a third Turner Prize in as many years. So what’s its secret, asks Anna Burnside

THIS year’s Turner Prize winner, Martin Boyce, is an unassuming chap. Back doing the school run last week after his widely predicted, bookie-tipped triumph at the Baltic Gallery on Monday night, he has none of the showmanship and hoopla that has turned previous competitions into a circus. His plangent, atmospheric installations will never replace Jack Vettriano and Colin Baxter on the walls of the traditionalists but even the most determined philistines have found it hard to froth against Boyce’s thoughtful, evocative work.

Boyce is the third Glaswegian artist in a row to win the UK’s most prestigious contemporary art prize. It cements the city’s reputation as a visual arts centre of international standing, with an arts sector that now employs more people than shipbuilding. Boyce himself downplays the address factor: “They’re just artists,” he said after the ceremony last week. “They’re not all Scottish, some of them are just based in Glasgow. We’ve long since ceased to think of art as a geographical thing. We all exhibit all over the world.”

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This is understandable – no-one wants to define themselves in relation to their peers or their postcode – but it is not a coincidence that Boyce, last year’s winner Susan Phillipsz, 2009’s victor Richard Wright, Douglas Gordon (1996), Martin Creed (2001), Simon Starling (2005) and a clutch of other shortlisted artists, including this year’s Karla Black, are all from Glasgow, based in the city or both.

Of course for many of the city’s residents, the Sun’s helpful guide – “by Leonardo da Bin-ci” – to recreating the bin from Boyce’s installation is the nearest they will come to this world. Goma, the city’s council-run modern art gallery, has only started buying contemporary Scottish work in the past five years. There is nowhere in the city to see a representative selection of Glasgow art. Many Glaswegian artists are better known in Berlin and New York than they are at home.

The fact is that the west of Scotland has produced two waves of important artists in the past 30 years: the New Glasgow boys Ken Currie, Peter Howson, Adrian Wisniewski and the late Steven Campbell, who graduated from Glasgow School of Art (GSA) in the 1980s, and now Boyce’s generation of conceptual artists who have yet to be given a shorthand name.

There is little other common ground – the New Glasgow Boys were painters while today’s boys and girls work with metal, sugar paper, film, gold leaf, neon, just about anything that isn’t canvas. But the older generation inadvertently gave the youngsters a leg-up. Worldwide interest in the New Glasgow Boys brought collectors, curators and commentators to recession-ravaged Glasgow. Then the city’s stint as European City of Culture in 1990 brought a fresh round of interest and the first hint that culture could bring economic benefits and drive regeneration. The groundwork was laid.

Their success coincided with Boyle, Gordon, Jim Lambie, Christine Borland and Nathan Coley starting at GSA, determined not to replicate Currie’s noble workers and Wisniewski’s fey aesthetes. Happily for them, in 1985, the college stared a radical new course in environmental art. A new discipline mixing sculpture, installation and performance art, the course became the natural home for students with more ideas than they knew what to do with.

Douglas Harding, the course founder, recalls that the first year’s intake were all from the west of Scotland and had all, by the time they left school, rejected the conventional art school options of painting, sculpture and design. “This was an informed political gesture repudiating what they perceived as the limitations of such art forms. They did not want to be bound by a single medium.”

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So here were a bunch of bold, open-minded 18-year-olds, thrown together in the decaying building that was once the Girls’ High School. The earlier success of the New Glasgow Boys showed them that it was possible to have an international career while still travelling to the studio on the 61 bus. It also gave them that essential spur to artistic achievement: something to rebel against. “These artists led the way in turning the art world’s attention to what was happening in Glasgow,” says Harding. “This very success and the attention given to their painterly figuration formed part of the reason for the resistance of the younger artists coming after them.”

From his crumbling St Trinians HQ, Harding sent his students forth to make what we now call site-specific work. There was little infrastructure or curriculum; they made it up as they went along. Boyce recently described the course: “Someone would invite you to do a show and you’d just go – and when you got there you would make the work. You’d go to the local equivalent of B&Q and buy some paint and some masking tape and make a work that engaged with the architecture of the space. When a person talked about something, it would become a possibility.” His peers and contemporaries became both friends and sources of inspiration. “It was always so clear to me that I was surrounded by brilliant people and artists,” he said after the ceremony last week.

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Allegiances formed while on the scrounge for materials, and over lagers in the Vic bar, that continue to this day. Harding and his fellow tutor Sam Ainslie socialised with the students and became good friends. He still sees many of them and describes the community engendered on the course as “gemeinschaft – the German word for an organic community with a strong sense of tradition, mutual association and locality”.

It’s a community that endures. Gordon shared a flat with Katrina Brown, now Mrs Nathan Coley, who runs the Common Guild Gallery, the Glasgow International Festival and was one of this year’s Turner judges. He went out with Borland, shortlisted for the Turner the year after he won, and was best man at Richard Wright’s wedding, to GSA lecturer Sarah Lowndes. She has written a book about her husband and his contemporaries.

After college, the environmental arts graduates regrouped around Transmission Gallery in the Trongate, their gatherings referenced in Franz Ferdinand’s Do You Want To (“Well here we are at the Transmission party/I love your friends, they’re all so arty.”). An artists’ collective in a rough-edged corner of the East End known locally as the Gaza Strip, it became an important bridge between GSA and the commercial world. Malcolm Dickson, one of the collective’s first members, recognised the quality of work coming out of the old Girls’ High and showed Gordon and Wright while they were still students. Soon they were on the committee, putting on shows of their own.

Toby Webster had already done some curating at Transmission, and elsewhere, when he started the Modern Institute with Jim Lambie, Toby Paterson, Kathy Wilkes and a clutch of other artist friends in 1998. Having graduated from GSA, and experienced the art scene in the US, he came back to Glasgow convinced that there was world-class work being done there but no gallery to give it a proper platform.

The first incarnation of the Modern Institute was in a Beaux Arts building near the Broomielaw. It had a clanking cage lift and wide stairs which filled with the beer-drinking demi-monde on opening nights. As well as representing artists and putting on shows at home and abroad, they ran a record label, produced books, and helped artists find studios (often in the same building). Today the Modern Institute represents Boyce, Lambie, Wright and a stellar list of other artists, by no means all of whom are Glaswegian or even Scottish.

In the Modern Institute’s new home, an airy, converted bath house in Osborne Street, Webster can show curators work from any of his 38 artists. He entertains buyers from all over the world, as well as working the art fair circuit, taking his artists to Basel and Miami as well as the new markets in Korea, India and beyond. Travelling so much has given Webster a theory about why Glasgow produces so many artists. “Everything is framed within this amazing city that is a bit like Rome. You know something major used to happen here – the shipbuilding – and now you are living in its shell. 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.”

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There are, of course, more prosaic reasons. Glasgow School of Art has long been recognised as one of the best in the UK. Post-graduation, the city’s decaying industrial buildings make ideal studios. It is cheaper and easier to negotiate than London. There are plenty of outlets for new artists; Transmission is still going strong, joined by new independent galleries and an ongoing DIY tradition of holding shows in front rooms and reclaimed spaces.

One independent gallery, Sorcha Dallas, closed earlier this year, but The Common Guild, Kendall Koppe, Mary Mary and The Duchy are still showing home-grown and international talent. This in turn attracts people to move here: German Torsten Lauschmann, surely a Turner hope for the future, came to Glasgow in 2001. So there is enough going on to stop it getting insular, including the biannual Glasgow International Festival which brings new work as well and an influx of arts journalists hoping to find the next Karla Black in a converted shop in Shettleston.

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For artists who shudder at the hype surrounding Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst, the down-to-earth nature of Glasgow is part of the city’s appeal. They are a serious, hard-working bunch, playing a longer game than their YBA contemporaries who have crashed and burned. They are happy to call Glasgow – where you are welcome to recreate a park bench in an art gallery as long as you don’t hold up the queue in Greggs – home.


Martin Boyce

Born in Hamilton, Boyce makes large-scale installations based on unloved, everyday public places including, to the tabloids’ delight, bins. He is interested in the legacy of modernist architecture and design. Represented by the Modern Institute.

Karla Black

Missed out on this year’s Turner. Her large sculptures are made of fragile materials such as sugar paper and polythene, sometimes with glitter, hair gel and other cosmetics added.

Douglas Gordon

The first environmental art graduate to make an international splash with his slowed down film 24 Hour Psycho. Born in Maryhill, now lives in New York. His Glasgow townhouse is used as The Common Guild gallery.

Katrina Brown

Turner judge and one of the most influential people in the UK arts scene. CV includes the Tate and Dundee Contemporary Arts. Currently runs The Common Guild and the biannual Glasgow International Festival.

Nathan Coley

Sculptor who makes models of churches, mosques and other public buildings, neon slogans and other surprising pieces of work. Shortlisted for the Turner in 2007. Married to Katrina Brown.

Toby Webster

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Founder of The Modern Institute, represents five Turner winners in a roster of international artists. Sells to private collectors and institutions all over the world.

David Harding

Sculptor who founded the environmental art course at GSA. Now retired from teaching, collaborating with former GSA colleagues Sam Ainsley and Sandy Moffat at Glasgow Sculpture Studios.

Richard Wright

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Londoner who studied at GSA then stayed. Described as “a modern fresco painter”, he won the Turner in 2009 for his temporary gold-leaf painting on the wall of the Tate.

Jim Lambie

Operating at the rock’n’roll end of the art world, Airdrie-born Lambie makes geometric patterns with coloured tape, mosaics and sculptures with found objects. A former member of the band The Boy Hairdressers, he still DJs.