Jill Miller: Culture at heart of Glasgow

25 years after it opens, the  Glasgow Royal Concert Hall will host a series of special events to mark the occasion. Picture Walter Neilson
25 years after it opens, the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall will host a series of special events to mark the occasion. Picture Walter Neilson
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CITY of Culture aware allowed the heartland of the industrial revolution to reinvent itself as a cultural hub, writes Jill Miller

In 1983 at the launch of the anthology Noise and Smokey Breath at the Mitchell Library, the poet Edwin Morgan said: “The moment is ripe.”

He was acknowledging that something was beginning to happen in the city. And not just in Glasgow, but to Glasgow. By the early 1980s heavy industry had collapsed and many thought that the task of the city council was to manage decline.

Instead, as it had done in the past, the city set about reinventing itself around a new industry: cultural tourism. Glasgow embarked on a journey to use culture for regeneration, not just economically but in terms of civic morale and local participation.

The first internationally visible step in the fight back was the opening of the Burrell Collection in 1983, “one of the finest museums in the world” according to Bill Bryson. But the city already had strong foundations, being the home of the Citizens Theatre, Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, the RSNO and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – and the most visited civic museums in Britain. The Mackintosh Society was founded in 1973 and the cleaning of the famous red sandstone tenements and public buildings revealed the best preserved Victorian city in the world – celebrated in 1999 when Glasgow was UK City of Architecture and Design.

Other civic initiatives included the Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign, the first city marketing bureau in Scotland – and the bold decision to bid for the 1990 European City of Culture. This was a conscious risk – to try something new.

There was scepticism. Edinburgh Council said it would embarrassing if Glasgow were awarded a title with the word “culture” in it.

The city not only won, but ran the festival for a full year, not for a month as previous cities – Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris – had done. These cities were already established centres of culture. Glasgow redefined the European City of Culture by using the title to get on the European cultural tourism map. This weekend, we will reflect on what has happened since then as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall with a series of special events at the venue.

I believe it can be clearly stated that, without the European City of Culture in 1990, we would not be the city we are today.

The journey continued with sustained investment in refurbishing the city’s Victorian buildings and creating new cultural attractions and facilities for citizens and visitors, many of them supported by the Arts, Heritage and Big Lottery funds, whose role in Glasgow has been transformative.

The opening of the Gallery of Modern Art in 1996 showed a clear commitment to the contemporary, complementing Tramway. This had opened in 1988, refurbished in 2002, and was expanded to host Scottish Ballet in 2007. In 2002 the city committed to a new Riverside Museum of Transport and in 2006 reopened an old favourite, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, after refurbishment. The success of the Hydro – the third busiest music venue in the world – reflects Glasgow’s cultural of participation.

While the council continued investing in civic facilities, it also supported many independent cultural organisations who were undergoing renewal and attracting funding into the city from national agencies and the private and charitable sectors, including the Tron, the Citizens Theatre, the Bridge in Easterhouse, CCA, GFT, and Trongate 103, WASPS, Screen City and Glasgow Sculpture Studios. The decision to locate the National Theatre of Scotland here confirmed Glasgow’s status as “Scotland’s cultural powerhouse”, with the highest levels of cultural production and consumption in the UK outside London.Buildings create strong foundations for services to be delivered but it is the people – the artists, the performers, and communities; the staff of cultural organisations; our higher education and cultural training institutions such as GSA and RCS – who make the programme of work meaningful and ambitious. People do indeed make Glasgow.

In 2006 Glasgow City Council also took the strategic decision to establish Glasgow Life. Our remit is to develop and manage the city’s culture and sport services, to help inspire Glasgow’s citizens and visitors to lead richer and more active lives through culture, sport and learning.

Early the previous year the city began to look for a new milestone, a vehicle that would accelerate the achievement of creative, social, economic and international reputational ambitions. The bidding for the Commonwealth Games began. An early decision was to host the Glasgow Commonwealth Games rather than simply be a location where they happened. We used the Games to showcase Glasgow and bring the world to the city. Culture was not an add-on – it was an integral part of the Games through the city-wide celebration, Festival 2014. Designed to be a massive cultural sector collaboration working within a curatorial framework, Festival 2014 delivered a hugely successful programme of events.

So far so good, but what is next on our journey to achieve our ambitions? The city council’s strategic plan recognises the value of having a vibrant city and the need to be bold, to work with partners, engage with individuals and communities and to link the local with the global.

We need to continue building on our city’s physical and human assets. There are significant milestones in the near future – major opportunities to continue to learn: the renewal of the Kelvin Hall in partnership with the University of Glasgow and the National Library of Scotland Screen Archive; the refurbishment, redisplay and international tour of the Burrell Collection; and, in 2018, the European Sport Championships and the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth. And while cultural participation amongst all social groups is higher in Glasgow than it was before 1990 and higher than the Scottish average, we know we have much more to do to create access for everyone in our increasingly diverse city and for communities where poverty is increasing. This too can only be achieved through collaboration.

Where we can match international quality and aspiration with accessibility and integration, where we can focus our resources, capacity and motivation, we can reflect the city’s vibrant cultural life in a way which is authentic and enriching for local people and for those we welcome to our city.

• Jill Miller is director of cultural services at Glasgow Life