Insight: Glasgow - City of Culture 25 years on

Provan Gas Works at the end of the year of culture. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Provan Gas Works at the end of the year of culture. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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JOKES about Glasgow are as stubborn a phenomenon as jokes about mothers-in-law. You can always get a laugh on a comedy panel show for presenting Glasgow as a cultural backwater. It’s poor and ugly. So are its people. Fruit, vegetables and daylight are unknown, teeth are rare, and the chief mode of social interaction is knife crime. It’s not only outsiders who promote this view. Riffing on Glasgow’s limitations has been part of the stock-in-trade of its most marketable comedians from Billy Connolly and Rab C Nesbitt to Frankie Boyle and Kevin Bridges. For some higher-brow arts figures, meanwhile, it’s standard to characterise the city as a victim: “colonised” by outside influences; under-represented; misunderstood.

What’s peculiar for anyone who knows the city well, or indeed has a working familiarity with the British cultural landscape, is the fact that this negative narrative co-exists with another reality – one in which Glasgow has in recent decades established itself as a cultural centre of unrivalled prominence and productivity. Visual arts. Literature. Popular music. Fashion. Film. Theatre. Clubs. Whatever you might think of specific sweary authors, baffling Turner Prize nominees and knock-kneed indie bands, the fact that Glasgow casts a large cultural shadow can hardly be overlooked. Part of the credit is due to a historic cultural experiment: the effort over the 1980s to replace the income and identity once provided by Glasgow’s manufacturing industries with a new focus on culture. This culminated in 1990 with the city being named the first European City of Culture. 1990 saw performers and artists from 23 countries participate in thousands of theatre, dance, music and art events, including 40 new commissions and 60 world premieres. High-profile visitors to the city included the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti, Peter Brook and the Bolshoi Opera Company; Saatchi and Saatchi were enlisted to do the publicity.

High-profile visitors to the city that year included Luciano Pavarotti. Picture: Newsquest Media Group

High-profile visitors to the city that year included Luciano Pavarotti. Picture: Newsquest Media Group

A quarter-century on, how significant was the City of Culture year – and how comfortable were Glaswegians with it at the time? Film producer Iain Smith, whose screen credits range from Local Hero to Cold Mountain, Children of Men and, most recently, the international hit Mad Max: Fury Road, remembers the anointing of his home town as City of Culture as “a mite strange at the time”.

“I remember Craig Ferguson on television as the New Year came in announcing Glasgow European City of Culture on television with the words, ‘Aw, come on!’ He echoed a sense in most Glaswegians that although there was much to be proud of culturally, Glasgow hardly compared to the great European capitals.”

The novelist Denise Mina recalls: “I was working in a pub at the time, and the City of Culture meant 1am closing if we had a singer in the corner. I remember joking that the first McDonald’s opening was part of the year of culture…”

Charlotte Higgins, art critic for The Guardian, was 18 in 1990. “I remember the sides of buses in London proclaiming ‘Glasgow’s miles better!’, and thinking, ‘than what? Than Edinburgh? Than London? Than you think? – or all of the above?’ Glasgow was then to me a distant threat of glowering skies and violent streets… I think the city’s gloomy tradition in film and other media was to blame for that.”

The reinvention of an industrial city as a bourgeois arts hub struck some as an awkward fit. Dr David Archibald, who lectures in film and television studies at the University of Glasgow, remembers a T-shirt on sale at the Barras with the slogan ‘There’s no a lot of Pavarotti for the poverati.’ Glasgow was also at the time a centre of activity for the campaign against the poll tax, which had been introduced in Scotland the previous year. “Glasgow was absolutely covered in posters that read CITY OF DEFIANCE,” recalls Archibald, “which sort of turned the idea of a city of culture on its head.” The campaign group Workers City, which included the novelist James Kelman, was formed to resist aspects of the regeneration, most specifically the rebranding of part of the city centre as the Merchant City. “Who were those merchants?” asks Archibald. “Tobacco lords and sugar importers with involvement in the slave trade. The thinking behind Workers City was that if the city belonged to anyone, it wasn’t the merchants – it was the workers.”

“I was very engaged by the whole Workers City opposition to Glasgow’s cultural makeover and takeover,” says Willy Maley, professor of renaissance studies at the University of Glasgow. “The ghost of Red Clydeside certainly haunted the Saatchi and Saatchi glossing of the glottal… On the other hand I’m sure a lot of good came out of it, including international recognition and local community arts development.”

The European City of Culture initiative had been proposed to the European Community by Greece’s minister for culture, Melina Mercouri, in 1983, to emphasise that – in her words – “Culture, art and creativity are not less important than technology, commerce and economics.” Countries took turns nominating cities: Glasgow was preceded by Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris, and beat Edinburgh, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Cardiff, Bath, Swansea and Cambridge when Britain’s turn came in 1990. This victory followed a campaign of regeneration that had included the aforementioned ‘Glasgow’s miles better’ campaign, the opening of the Burrell Collection and the SECC, and the Glasgow Garden Festival, which in 1988 had drawn three million visitors to the strip of Govan docks now called Pacific Quay. “The ‘city fathers’ – and it was mostly men – had a long-term project to reconstruct the city around cultural production,” says Archibald. “Not everybody participated. There were and still are lots of people marginalised. But it had a transformative impact on the arts and art-making, and you still see the effects of that now. There’s a can-do attitude to arts and culture in Glasgow that rubs up against the pessimistic, miserablist attitude that supposedly predominates.”

“It was amazing,” says Denise Mina. “Glasgow had always been a bit chippy and defensive; City of Culture made it take itself and the arts seriously. I’d just moved here from London in 1986, and suddenly friends wanted to visit, which they hadn’t before. It regenerated the city.” Gentrification, however, has its downside. “I miss that dirty old town! I miss Gothic masterpieces covered in moss and bad graffiti – I miss the pall of shame over Glasgow.”

The sense that the old Glasgow had something to be ashamed of was a very solemn business to some, who read inauthenticity and betrayal into the rebranding. There was indignation when Elspeth King, the curator of the People’s Palace, was overlooked by Glasgow’s director of museums Julian Spalding for the newly-created post of keeper of the city’s social history. “She is a woman. She is a Scot. She is the wrong class, the wrong sex, and she does not toe the Establishment line. That is why she did not get the job,” stated John Weyers in The Herald.

James Kelman saw the affair as symptomatic of much deeper rot: “The city is being run as though it were a public company having to operate in an expanding free market economy,” he wrote at the time. “Using vehicles such as ‘European Capital of Culture Year’, it is being made attractive to potential shareholders in line with its inevitable privatisation.” Such complaints have their echoes today, in, for instance, controversy over the supposed predominance of non-Scots in Scottish arts positions. One of the observations made by Alasdair Gray in his notorious 2012 Settlers and Colonists essay was that “hardly anything Glaswegian was presented in Glasgow’s Year of Culture.”

For many, however, a standout of the year’s events was Glaswegian Bill Bryden’s vast site-specific theatre piece The Ship, a tribute to Glasgow’s industrial past staged at the Harland and Wolff engine shed in Govan.

David Archibald questions the point of nostalgia for a working class culture formed around industries that no longer function. “How do you transform a post-industrial city when the industry is eviscerated? It was the second city of the empire, the workshop of the world, with 25 per cent of the world’s shipbuilding – but all of that was gone.”

Pollination from the outside world, meanwhile, was precisely the point of 1990. “It made Glasgow European. People got the opportunity to see things they’d never seen before, and that was transformative in terms of cultural production. The fact that Scottish theatre-makers were able to see non-text-based, non-narrative work from Europe had a big impact on new companies like Suspect Culture and Vanishing Point.”

As to the market, that’s unavoidable, thinks Mina. “The ambivalence is about commodifying culture as a saleable item, and the performance of culture for an audience of outsiders. But as long as culture costs money and we aren’t all able to live off grants or trust funds then we have to engage with the market.”

Much of the cultural expression that flourished in Glasgow in the 1990s prided itself on its resistance to obvious commercialism. As a Glasgow University student from 1995 to 1999, I shared in the collective sense of pride in an arts scene that was resolutely “indie”: accessible, collaborative, and non-hierarchical, at least by comparison to the London-based mainstream. In retrospect, it seems as if the show put on in 1990 provided at once a shot of cultural confidence – a secure spot on the international arts radar – and a defined mainstream arts establishment against which to rebel.

The artist Ross Sinclair, who was a student at Glasgow School of Art in 1990, was responsible for the appearance around the city in that year of badges and posters reading “Capital of Culture/Culture of Capital” – at once a comment on the sudden flood of cash into Glasgow’s cultural scene, and a spoof on the ubiquitous sloganeering used to promote it all. To Sinclair’s mind, the Glasgow visual arts community did not feel significantly connected to the City of Culture activity. “There was still very little you could call a cultural landscape in the visual arts at the time,” he says. “At a grassroots level, it was still very much that if you wanted anything to happen, you had to do it yourself. But people weren’t feeling that they had to leave and go to London in order for anything to happen. So there was a really good bunch of people – but that could have been happenstance.”

Happenstance that birthed what has been called the “Glasgow miracle”. Sinclair and his contemporaries – Martin Boyce, Nathan Coley, Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland, Jim Lambie, Richard Wright – were part of the generation of Glasgow-based artists who established a powerful market presence and a near-comical dominance of UK prize shortlists. This, thinks Charlotte Higgins, “had as much to do with the energy and toil of individuals as the City of Culture crown – but it’s clear that in the early 1990s, the planets were aligned. Things came together.” Arguably, however, the arts establishment driving Glasgow’s ongoing regeneration could claim little credit for that coalescence. The Gallery of Modern Art, which opened in 1996 under Spalding’s curatorship, famously turned its nose up at the sort of work that was winning such plaudits elsewhere. The infrastructure for visual artists in Glasgow, notes Ross Sinclair, has in fact altered very little in recent decades, still revolving around a handful of key institutions: the Third Eye Centre, now the CCA; Glasgow Print Studio; Transmission Gallery; Tramway. He also wonders whether the fact that Glasgow’s art scene still operates on and generates relatively little money has contributed to a continued spirit of independence and inventiveness.

Filmmaking tends to be a more costly enterprise, and Scottish film has not seen the same spectacular run of success in the past quarter-century. Still, to Iain Smith, the City of Culture helped to create the conditions for significant work such as Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Ratcatcher and Red Road – as well as a general upsurge in confidence, the effects of which can still be felt. “1990 must now be seen as a trigger point for substantial change in the way the people of Glasgow saw themselves,” he says. “A new sense of determination, self-respect and above all, hope took shape – and contributed, I’m sure, to the broader Scottish self-determination evident in the 2014 referendum. A sense of joined-upness began in 1990, not only with each other, but with the wider world.” «

Twitter: @HannahJMcGill