The rise and rise of the Glasgow art scene

Posted April 18th, 2012

Contemporary Art, Festivals, Scotland

A combination of factors including the art school, a network of experienced galleries and a steady flow of public money has put the Scottish city on the art map.

Ben Luke reports for The Art Newspaper: “When visitors descend on Glasgow later this month for the fifth Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, they will arrive in a city with a reputation as an artistic centre that is rising high. In winning the Turner Prize last December, the Glaswegian Martin Boyce became the third artist in a row who was either born in the city or studied at its art school. David Harding, who taught Boyce on the environmental art course at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s, says that Boyce’s prize confirmed for him the city’s prolific ability to produce artists. Harding has assembled a list of the Glasgow artists who have been shortlisted for either the Turner Prize or the now defunct Beck’s Futures prize, and the statistics are telling: nine artists from Glasgow on the Turner Prize shortlist in the past six years alone and ten more on the Beck’s Futures shortlist during its six-year existence in the early 2000s.

Founding figures

The story behind Glasgow’s recent success is a complex combination of factors, but everyone involved agrees that the environmental art course, run by Harding and Sam Ainsley, was the catalyst, producing the wave of artists who are key figures in the current scene—Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland, Nathan Coley and Boyce among them, and many younger artists since. The key idea of the course was “context as 50% of the work”. Students were encouraged to consider the particular characteristics of a setting—social, cultural, architectural—as crucial to the eventual form of their work. Meanwhile, Harding and Ainsley invited philosophers, poets, and architectural and social historians to talk to the students. The key manifestation of their commitment to context was a “public art project” in each year of the course from the second year onwards.

“Basically, it was students having to find a setting where they would have to persuade the host to be allowed to use that place, and negotiate with them and eventually make a work wherever it was,” Harding explains. Coley, who joined the course in 1985, remembers that Harding and Ainsley “generated a scholarly approach together. The key thing was that their general attitude was a kind of social conceptualism—a notion of conceptualism but with a consciousness of audience and of place.” Coley says, in contrast to many art students, he and his peers were “asking to use space in buildings, getting bits of money and getting sponsorship from people”.

This partly explains the speed with which artists on Harding’s course began showing their work after graduating. Allied to Harding’s equal emphasis on collaboration, this led to a collegiality among students on the course, almost a siege mentality. “We were the salon des refusés,” says Coley. This was heightened by their physical base. The Glasgow School of Art is housed in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s fin-de-siècle masterpiece but the environmental art course took place in a former girls’ high school nearby. “It was a ruinous, old, stone-built Victorian school,” says Harding. “We were only allowed in the front half, but the students broke into the back half. It was full of old school books and amazing different spaces, from roof spaces and attics to basements: perfect for installation and performance.”

Read on at The Art Newspaper