IT’S THAT time of year again: the nights drawing in, leaves beginning to fall, the Turner Prize exhibition about to open, with a healthy representation of artists with Glasgow connections.
This year, the city has excelled itself: two out of four of the artists on the shortlist, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips, studied at Glasgow School of Art as postgraduates and are based in the city, and a third, Tris Vonna-Michell, has an undergraduate degree from GSA. The fourth nominee is James Richards.
It confirms a connection which has been building over the past two decades. Since 1996, 15 artists associated with Glasgow have been shortlisted for the Turner Prize (out of a total of 75). Six have won. Of the winners from the past ten years, three have degrees from Glasgow School of Art, more than any other single art school, including Goldsmiths, Chelsea and the Slade.
“It is a ratification of what’s going on here,” says Toby Webster, director of the Modern Institute, Glasgow’s largest commercial contemporary gallery, which represents Turner Prize winners Martin Boyce, Richard Wright and Simon Starling, and a host of those who have been shortlisted, including Jim Lambie, Cathy Wilkes and Luke Fowler. “It’s not surprising to me that people are looking around the world and finding that the roads lead to Glasgow. People here are working internationally and being seen by an audience as being peers of great artists.”
Katrina Brown, curator at the Common Guild and co-curator of last year’s Scottish show at the Venice Biennale, for which Duncan Campbell garnered his Turner Prize nomination, says it’s an indication of just how much things have changed. “Looking at this question in 2014, the answers are very different to what they were ten years ago. We shouldn’t really be surprised that anyone on the list is based in or from Glasgow. Outside London, it’s the second most significant place in the UK for artists. The more people come here to live and work, the more depth and breadth of artists there are; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
This is what one London-based curator somewhat patronisingly called “the Glasgow miracle”: how a post-industrial city not only regenerated but became, in a few short years, the second city of the UK in terms of contemporary art. It is the product of a complex range of interrelated factors which, together, have produced a remarkable home-grown artistic culture.
The day that Douglas Gordon won the Turner Prize in 1996 for 24-hour Psycho is the moment many would choose as the one when the art world sat up and took notice of Glasgow. The shortlisting of Christine Borland the following year confirmed what many people north of the Border already knew: this was no one-off, something remarkable was happening.
Borland was a graduate of Glasgow School of Art’s Environmental Art course, taken over in 1985 by David Harding and quietly transformed into a powerhouse of conceptual, engaged art practice. Three years later, Sam Ainsley co-founded the Master of Fine Art postgraduate course with Roger Palmer and Sandy Moffat, an innovative, two-year, interdisciplinary programme. Both of these courses would play a key role in putting the city on the artistic world map.
In the early days, artists were attracted to Glasgow for practical reasons: cheap rents, the availability of studio space, grassroots artist-run activities such as Transmission Gallery, and a healthy indie music scene. This in turn created one of the most important pieces of the jigsaw: a community of other artists.
“We were all faced with shitty spaces and nothing much; that meant you had to do something,” says Toby Webster, himself a graduate of Harding’s Environmental Art course. “For me, Glasgow is quite a magical city. It’s brutal, it’s got all kinds of things going on, it’s got a very interesting history, all these layers leave their mark somehow.”
But a strong, self-supporting community of artists is only part of the story. To be recognised by benchmarks such as the Turner Prize, artists must be selected for major galleries and festivals. Shortlisting for the Turner, for example, is on the strength of a major exhibition or artistic project during the preceding year. Katrina Brown, a judge in 2011, points out that these major international platforms – not where an artist is from – is where the Turner jury is looking. In order to be recognised, artists must first get their work out into the wider world.
Sarah Lowndes, lecturer at the Forum for Critical Inquiry, Glasgow School of Art, and author of Social Sculpture: The Rise Of The Glasgow Art Scene, says that Glasgow has also developed a significant infrastructure to support this process: “In the past decade, The Modern Institute has been followed by other independent galleries in the city, such as Sorcha Dallas, Mary Mary, The Duchy, David Dale Gallery and Kendall Koppe, which have helped to take the work of the city’s artists out of Glasgow and to collectors and collections elsewhere. Scotland’s participation in the Venice Biennale since 2003 and the growth of Glasgow International festival of visual art have also helped focus attention on the Glasgow scene.”
The effect is cumulative. The more artists from Glasgow who make their mark internationally, the more artists are attracted to the city as a place to study and live. The majority of the first wave of artists from Glasgow to attain recognition were Scottish. Those being recognised now have often come to the city from elsewhere, attracted by its growing reputation: Campbell is from Northern Ireland, Phillips is Canadian, as is Corin Sworn, who, with Campbell and Hayley Tompkins, represented Scotland at last year’s Venice Biennale. All four are graduates of Glasgow School of Art’s MFA course.
From humble beginnings with a handful of local students, the MFA has grown to recruit 26 students per year, half of them from outside the UK. Competition for places is intense: about five applicants per place. John Calcutt, the course director, says: “The course had two founding principles: it would be two years long, and it would be multi-disciplinary; the combination of these two things makes it pretty distinctive.
“That two years allows students to explore, investigate and quite radically examine their practice. We aren’t interested in developing a house style, we encourage each student to investigate their own work. There isn’t a really developed commercial market here, so students aren’t tempted to make work for that market. I think that gives them a great sense of independence. It does seem to me that these artists tend to be quite original in their work.
“The idea of confidence is also quite important, and hard work. There is a real sense of commitment, dedication and confidence. Not everybody is going to be shortlisted for the Turner. It doesn’t mean that the work they’re doing isn’t equally interesting. It might take a few years before you’re recognised, but you have to have your reasons to keep going, keep developing.”
And this, perhaps more than anything else, might be the reason why Glasgow continues to be important. In the crucial time between leaving art school and attaining some kind of recognition and commercial viability, the city provides the low-level infrastructure necessary for artists to be able to continue to work. A survey conducted in 2012 by the Scottish Artists Union confirmed that three-quarters of visual artists in Scotland earn less than £5,000 a year. At that stage, the key thing is to keep going.
Lowndes says: “Glasgow does not have the developed arts infrastructure of London or New York and it remains a city in which many artists make work that they do not expect to sell. However, the cost of living is lower in Glasgow and, with its ever-growing international reputation, it offers a more compact, accessible and less pressurised environment than either of those places. That is why students may come to study in Glasgow but then choose to stay on and make the city their home.”
• The Turner Prize 2014 is at Tate Britain from Tuesday until 4 January. Duncan Campbell’s Venice Biennale work is being shown at the Common Guild until 25 October