I am late for my interview with Sarah McCrory, the new director of Glasgow International, the biannual visual arts festival which kicks off on 4 April. The weather in Glasgow is hellish, the traffic more so.
I shouldn’t have worried, though. McCrory, who is responsible for an 18-day festival that encompasses more than 50 exhibitions and solo shows across the city – a substantial chunk of which she is curating and commissioning herself – is in a West End café and absorbed in her laptop. Busy with her 2014 to-do list, I assume. What might that consist of?
Well, there’s the big stuff and the tiny details. Like small matter of locating something called a Med Pod for artist Aleksandra Domanovic. It’s a prop from Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus, a futuristic health device equipped in the movie with a laser scalpel and site of the film’s most gory moment, a self-inflicted caesarian section that I’ve since seen described as an “alienectomy”.
McCrory thinks she’s located one for the show at the Gallery of Modern Art, which looks at the role of women in sci-fi. “We found a company that sells old props – it’s how films recoup money, by selling them off.
“It’s one of my favourite things about curating,” she explains. “You suddenly end up with intimate knowledge of things you never thought you would. Like importing crustaceans, the customs documents across international borders, for example. Or organising a giant sausage that is so heavy that eight people can’t lift it and needs to be moved by forklift.”
McCrory is referring to her time as curator of Frieze projects, the programming strand of artist commissions that sit alongside the glamorous annual art fair in London. The crustacean was a hermit crab, for an aquarium project by the French artist Pierre Huyghe.
McCrory was an emerging curator, making her name at the small dynamic London venue Studio Voltaire, when she got the Frieze job in 2010. Her programming had a reputation for being somewhat unruly, working often with performance, and the controlled chaos of artists like Turner prize nominee Spartacus Chetwynd.
“At a certain point,” says McCrory, “ I started to think, it can’t be noisy, it can’t be smelly, and it can’t be big. I started to approach the artists with constraints and realised that my tenure was up. I’d lost the benefits of naivety, I’d become afraid.” It was time to move on. She applied for the GI job and moved to the city in November 2012.
So can we expect a big, noisy or smelly programme in Glasgow? “Coming up here, for my first festival, I didn’t want to make any big claims or thematics. Observing as an outsider, but also talking to a lot of artists up here, Glasgow has this amazing position as a force in the international art world, but it’s also very comfortable with its role. What I wanted to do was to bring in new voices. You don’t see much work here about new technology, post-internet art. “
She is adhering to the long established structure of the festival. Her own programme is both with artists who work in Glasgow, including Charlotte Prodger and Sue Tompkins. “GI is here to support artists in the city,” she says, as well as those from further afield. At Tramway she will show a new film by Welshman Bedwyr Williams, who stunned with his wit at the Venice Biennale last year and the American Michael Smith in “a kind of hub for humour”.
When she talks about new voices, she means voices like Jordan Wolfson, the US artist whose films use Hollywood standard digital animation. There will be a mini-survey of his films at the McLellan Galleries, as part of the Year of Homecoming. “The techniques might be familiar to viewers,” says McCrory, “but the context won’t be.” Or the young New Yorker Avery Singer, a recent graduate who makes drawings using computer programmes.
It is significant that GI has secured access to the purpose-built McLellan Galleries. They were in use for 150 years but have controversially been largely mothballed since 2006. McCrory will also work with artists Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne at Govanhill Baths, “it’s an example of what brilliant things can happen in a building when a community reclaims it…it’s run mostly by volunteers but it ranges from weddings to world-class theatre.”
McCrory is the third director of the festival, which was inaugurated in 2006. She follows curators Francis McKee and Katrina Brown. There are challenges, and one of them is managing expectations. Visitor figures, for example, are unlikely to ever again reach the highs of 2012, when Jeremy Deller’s inflatable Stonehenge drew massive crowds to Glasgow Green. Nobody else does it like Deller, McCrory says. He has been generous in his support of the 2014 festival, creating a new limited edition print, which is being sold to raise funds.
Now 36, “so no longer a ‘young curator’,” McCrory, from Lincolnshire, studied fine art at Kingston, and later attended the curating course at the Royal College of Art. At Glasgow International she wears two hats. The first is curating her own programme at key venues. “The second hat is the herding cats aspect. Pulling the rest of the city together and showing how much is going on and how good it is. That’s a really nice part of the job.”
Outside in that city, the weather is shocking; at 3.30pm Glasgow is almost in darkness. I’m feeling tired. But McCrory seems placidly accepting of the enormous hill she has to climb over the next three months. How does she get the energy? “I’m purely fuelled on white wine and chat,” she jokes. And then she’s suddenly serious. “No, it’s not really a job is it? It’s something I really love doing.”
• Glasgow International runs from 4 to 21 April. www.glasgowinternational.org