He is a Turner-prize winning artist who has represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and made an award-winning film capturing the athletic beauty and grace of the French footballer, Zinedine Zidane.
Celebrated as a former YBA and seminal figure on the international arts scene, one might assume that Douglas Gordon’s artworks would be revered in his Scottish homeland.
Not so, according to Gordon, who has vowed never again to accept a public commission in Scotland after a particularly unpleasant experience in which his proposed artwork was heavily criticised and he was left to cover his own expenses.
The University of Edinburgh invited the artist – whose work has been shown and bought by the National Galleries of Scotland – to create a work for its Main Library. It was due to be unveiled in the autumn this year, when the library’s redeveloped ground opened.
Instead, the artist pulled out of the project in disgust after his first proposal for the space was frowned upon for not being positive enough. Later, he was informed that he would have to cover travel and accommodation expenses to the launch of the project.
Gordon, who is represented by the powerful Gagosian Gallery, said he felt “humiliated” and that he would “never again accept a public commission in my home country”.
“I felt I was being treated like a 16-year-old apprentice and not a professional,” he added.
He took the bold step to speak out about his grievance after saying that he was not the first artist to be handled so shabbily by institutions commissioning public artworks. “Many artists are treated disrespectfully by the institutions they are making commissions for,” he said. “Most think they cannot afford to say no, but I can, so I had to.”
His initial idea was to inscribe the words, “Every time you turn a page, it dies a little” in gold letters on a wall inside the library. But several members of the advisory board took against it for being too negative when he handed in his sketches early this year.
“Several people felt that the wording was not celebratory enough for the opening of a library, even though the artist had not been briefed to create a 'positive' commission," said Andrew Patrizio, a professor at the university who sat on the advisory panel and supported Gordon’s work. “Though one could read it negatively, it is important to stress that nobody had ever asked the artist for something celebratory.”
Gordon, who was born in Glasgow but currently lives in Berlin, flew to Edinburgh to convince the panel that it was a worthwhile project, and he was apparently given the go-ahead. But after Gordon found out that he was expected to attend the opening of the library at his own expense, after re-scheduling a clashing exhibition in Tel Aviv, he wrote to the board informing them he was withdrawing from the project.
“When it turned out that not only did I have to pay for everything myself despite the small budget, but the artists were not even mentioned on the invitation (to the inauguration), it all became too much.”
The Art Newspaper, which brought the story to light, revealed that Gordon was given a budget that was less than £20,000 for the commission – not considered a great sum for a public artwork.
Gordon had graciously arranged the commission without the help of his Gagosian – who would have charged an additional fee – to help the university meet its tight budget, a move he now regrets. “That was definitely a mistake: galleries know how to deal with these situations,” he said.
An artwork by the Scottish artist, Alec Finlay, was the only work to be installed in the university’s library.
Gordon won the Turner prize in 1996 and represented Britain in the Venice Biennale the following year. In 2006, the National Galleries of Scotland launched a major solo show on the artist’s work. A version of his cinematic portrait of Zidane – a black and white film in which the camera follows just the footballer in the space of a 90-minute game and which was shown to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival – has also been bought by Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.