How Glasgow became an art capital

In recent years, the Scottish city has become a cultural powerhouse. On the eve of its biennial art festival, Hettie Judah travels there to find out why

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The Independent Culture

When the Glasgow International Festival opens next month, director Sarah McCrory will present her first thematic group show for the programme, inspired by the city’s industrial heritage and its artists’ relationship to manufacturing.

The urban shift from heavy industry to the creative industries is a sensitive issue, and by no means one unique to Glasgow, but the sheer lustiness of the city’s art scene, its self-sufficiency and its inventive, ongoing territorialisation of derelict post-industrial spaces in many ways make it a case apart. 

“If I were an artist, I’d move here in a hot minute,” says McCrory, who relocated to Glasgow in 2012 to take the reins of the biennial festival following stints as curator of Frieze Projects and London’s Studio Voltaire.

McCrory cites benefits such as available studio space, affordability, and a pace of life that allows “more time to develop ideas”, as well as the fact that there’s “still a culture of government funding: it’s not amazing, but perhaps better than the rest of the UK.” 

Over at the Glue Factory, an artist-run space on a knocked-about light industrial estate in the north of the city, the creative energy is almost palpable.

Entering through the street-side door, one passes through studios occupied by graphic designers and screen printers, and a sweltering kitchen taken over by a local music label hand-moulding rubber CD sleeves, before getting to the first suite of exhibition spaces.

A month before the festival, they are thronged with third-year Painting and Printmaking students from Glasgow School of Art (GSA) hanging a weekend show. 

The factory spaces extend over three levels, some still dressed with gargantuan boiling tanks and other industrial infrastructure. Platforms jut out at half levels offering balcony views over a trio of students in brightly coloured masks practising for a performance work.

On an early spring day with dappled light trickling from moss-edged plastic panels in the roof, the Glue Factory looks like some airy bohemian dreamworld, but Alex Misick, the programme co-ordinator, notes that persistent leaks and – until recently – a complete lack of heating made for a challenging environment in which to make and show art.

Despite the drips and crumbling plaster, the Glue Factory is considered an established venue, five years into its current incarnation, offering extra gallery space to outside institutions alongside a programme that includes concerts and exhibitions. For Glasgow International, the Glue Factory has worked with London’s Woodmill on “Rough House”,a project that will itself explore interdependence.

The Glue Factory and Misick’s position within Glasgow’s art ecosystem are illustrative of the lack of hierarchy and DIY spirit that infuses the city’s creative scene. After graduating from the Glasgow School of Art, Misick worked at the city’s Centre for Contemporary Art before moving to the Glue Factory.

In his current role, he is informally mentored by his old boss (CCA director Francis McKee), but is also acting as a relatively experienced adviser on the renovation of the Pipe Factory, a younger, not-for-profit space in Glasgow’s East End. 

The sense that every person and organisation is connected, often via multiple routes, is enhanced by the central role played by the GSA. By and large, the city’s gallerists and organisers are GSA graduates; the first artists they show and represent are their peers, and the subsequent renovators of their spaces and designers of their exhibition posters are contemporaries drawn from sibling departments. The GSA has produced a prodigious number of Turner prize nominees – 30 per cent this past decade have come from the school – but it is also the alma mater of the city’s most important gallerists, and many of those running its arts organisations.

Isla Leaver-Yap is director of LUX Scotland, an organisation that supports artists working with moving image. Having worked in both London and New York before founding the agency in her home city, Leaver-Yap sees Glasgow’s co-operative set-up as encouraging a particular kind of art-making, one less aligned with a competitive commercial scene. “It doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of ambition, but it changes the way that people work,” she explains.

Leaver-Yap cites the city’s pre-eminent gallerist – Toby Webster of the Modern Institute – as an exemplary product of Glasgow’s self-motivated and mutually supportive ethos. “He was an artist, he made work and he came through [the artist-run space] Transmission – that idea of not waiting for permission but starting something yourself has been key to people’s practice in general.”

'Raising' by Glasgow-based artist Tessa Lynch, who will be showing work at the International Festival

Founded in 1997, the Modern Institute is still one of only three contemporary art galleries in the city. Although the city has no collector base per se, Webster explains that the importance of maintaining a gallery in Glasgow extends much further than simply being geographically close to many of the artists he represents.

“When we started, we felt the economy had to come back here – it’s a big thing to be able to put money back into the economy by employing people. We really like employing artists – they take care, and know what they’re doing, they get into the work and understand the artists and what they my want. You get people with good visual vocabulary.”

The Modern Institute will be showing on- and off-site projects during Glasgow International, including new large-scale work by the Polish artist Monika Sosnowska, known for her disconcerting manipulation of architectural forms.

Artists represented by the gallery – notably Martin Boyce – also form part of the director’s programme, and works by artists currently employed by the gallery will be on display at venues around the city. 

Last summer, Paul Pieroni was appointed senior curator at the publicly funded Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (Goma). Over the past nine months, he has embarked on a spirited and immersive study of the city’s art scene and its heritage.

He’s also had to negotiate the politics that surrounds such an institution in a city full of strongly opinionated working artists, few of whom feel any compunction in being vocal as to how – and indeed whether – Goma should represent the current art scene of its home city. 

“I’m interested in museums that lead, not ones that reproduce the zeitgeist,” says Pieroni. “You might as well create your own ‘new’.” Accordingly his burrowing through Glasgow’s cultural history has drawn him to figures such as beat writer Alexander Trocchi, the “anti-psychiatrist” RD Laing and the poet and songwriter Ivor Cutler. “If I was to say what most interested me, it’s the depth of history here, and the weirdness of history here and how that’s reflected in culture.”

Pieroni sees Goma as not only representing Glasgow, but also reflecting wider artworld trends. During Glasgow International, it will show playful, underwater-inspired works by German artist Cosima von Bonin and a new sculpture and performance piece by Glasgow-based Tessa Lynch.

Running concurrently with Glasgow International’s opening weekend, another festival, Counterflows, will explore marginal and experimental music. The two festivals cross-pollinate amicably and their programmes intersect: LUX Scotland, for example, is presenting an expanded cinema event as part of Counterflows rather than Glasgow International.  

Pieroni believes such cultural omnivorousness is core to the punchy contemporary art associated with the city. “Here you will have a finger in all these other pies – music, film, history – it’s almost the perfect template on to which to press contemporary art, which is defined by an infinity of means. Glasgow is a city that moves fluidly between registers.” 

Glasgow International Festival is at various venues from 8 to 25 April. Counterflows is at  various venues from 7 to 10 April