Glasgow’s triumph is no miracle

When the Turner art prize shortlist was announced this week, the news that three out of four of this year’s nominees studied at the Glasgow School of Art was no great surprise for Glaswegians. Tris Vonna Michell studied for an undergraduate degree there, while Ciara Phillips and Duncan Campbell both undertook the two-year postgraduate programme, the MFA.

In recent years the city has come to dominate Turner prize lists. Glasgow winners include Douglas Gordon (1996), Simon Starling (2005), Richard Wright (2009) and Martin Boyce (2011). Martin Creed (2001) and Susan Philipsz (2010) both studied and made their careers elsewhere, but grew up in the city. I could go on: nominees Christine Borland, Jim Lambie, Nathan Coley, Cathy Wilkes, Lucy Skaer, Karla Black, Luke Fowler and David Shrigley have all lived and worked in Glasgow.

“Of course you guys will win it,” a television news editor said to me when, as a journalist, I was covering the 2011 prize. “The Turner prize belongs to Glasgow.” This week Ben Luke of the London Evening Standard echoed him. The shortlist, he wrote, “confirms the supremacy of Glasgow as the UK centre for new art”.

The question is why? How has a declining postindustrial city, with practically no art-collector base, with important historical collections but skeletal contemporary institutions, become so culturally dominant in the United Kingdom and, indeed, in Europe?

The answer is, perhaps, simple: Why not? Douglas Gordon was only the most prominent of a new generation of artists who had graduated from the Glasgow School of Art and had nothing to lose. In the west of Scotland the dwindling days of Thatcherism and the Major years were economically and politically grim. But if money felt scarce, this generation were culturally – if not financially – ambitious and opportunistic. In 1991 a group of artists staged Windfall ’91, an exhibition in a former Seamen’s Mission on the banks of the River Clyde. In the catalogue, artist Ross Sinclair roused his fellows: “Doors lie open all over the world,” he wrote. “All it takes is for us to go through them.”

This year, more than 60 galleries and museums across Scotland are hosting Generation, a programme of exhibitions that is part of the nationwide Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme. It will include the work of more than 100 artists who came to prominence in the country in the past 25 years. I have been editing a book, the Generation Reader, of new essays and archival material, and have found that many of them scratch away at the secrets of Glasgow’s success.

Writer Sarah Lowndes, whose book Social Sculpture is a chronicle of Glasgow’s rise to prominence, has linked the city’s artistic culture to its notable night life – she draws a line from post-war dance halls and rave culture to the thriving independent music scene. David Harding, the influential Glasgow School of Art teacher whose innovative environmental art course nurtured many generations of students, suggests that conviviality helped to build a supportive community.

Novelist Nicola White, who in her former career as a curator commissioned Douglas Gordon’s breakthrough artwork 24 Hour Psycho (1993), cites “the collective, egalitarian feel of Glasgow, the multitude of practices and groupings, the respect for hard work, the “now”.” All of them agree that the do-it-yourself culture of the city’s artists, who built their own institutions rather than rely on established ones, has been crucial.

Then there are the technological advances of the past quarter-century. Once you needed to live in New York for your work to be seen there. Now we have Skype and are a cheap flight away from colleagues in Berlin or Cologne. There is structural change: the commercial art world does business at international art fairs such as Frieze. Glasgow has a tiny commercial gallery sector and few collectors. Glasgow’s artists, when they sell their art, do so elsewhere. Art fairs make that possible.

But, crucially, commerce is not all. Many thriving spaces and events are artist-run and voluntary. Even the city’s key dealer, Toby Webster, now one of the UK’s most important gallerists, grew up with his roster of artists as a peer and fellow artist.

Webster’s gallery, the Modern Institute, is minutes from the studios of his artists. Glasgow is a smallish city, with a motorway cutting right through its heart. The modern consequence is that most people live 20 minutes from the airport.

Glasgow has always been outward-looking: a mighty river runs through it. Its built fabric is Victorian and very grand. Rents are considerably cheaper than in many major UK cities and the city council, which once appeared wrong-footed by the riches on its own doorstep, has now invested hugely in studio complexes. For those who work at home, and many Glasgow artists do, the architecture of the Glasgow tenement is a godsend.

International community
Tenement living offers large rooms, high ceilings and huge windows that routinely make my London friends gasp. It’s vitally important to understand that these days Glasgow artists are an international community: Ciara Phillips was born in Canada, Duncan Campbell in Dublin; both stayed on in the city after education, buoyed by its possibilities.

All this takes us only so far. The bottom line is that artists get nominated for the prize because they are recognised as good. Australian curator Juliana Engberg, who included a number of Glasgow artists in this year’s Sydney Biennale, stresses that artists routinely alert her to their colleagues: one studio visit leads to another. Artists learn from, share with, and are challenged by their peers.

Living in Glasgow, one finds oneself torn between a certain sense of pride and mild outrage that people are surprised that the city’s cultural life has deep roots and international reach. The Glasgow art scene is far more complex – and sometimes more fraught – than headline news and big prizes. Most of Scotland’s artists maintain international careers with an underlying economic fragility. Judicious public support has underpinned achievement.

The two most hated words in the Glasgow art world lexicon are “Glasgow Miracle”, a term coined to describe the city’s success. Once it was resented because it seemed to deny the long, hard and unpaid labour behind cultural achievement. These days it seems even more foolish because it suggests a momentary flash in the pan.

Glasgow’s success is hard-won, durable and, above all, consistent. It is 18 years now since Douglas Gordon won the Turner Prize, and jokingly thanked his friends and artistic contemporaries in the “Scotia Nostra”. You would think that the rest of the country would have had time to get used to it. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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