Visual Art: The grass is always greener

In the first part of our major series on the state of Scottish arts in the run-up to devolution, Suzanna Beaumont issues a warning against relying on past glories, while Tom Lubbock finds he can't move for Paolozzis at Edinburgh's Dean Gallery
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Back in 1996, the artist Ross Sinclair constructed Real Life Rocky Mountain: an astro-turfed slice of undulating mock "ruralness". Installed at Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts, it was viewed as a parody of the Scottish landscape tradition, an interrogation, if you will, of "Scottishness". With its running burn and stuffed examples of indigenous wild life, you could almost whiff the Famous Grouse wafting from the work's mountain-top bothy.

Three years on, devolution is imminent and it is seen as timely to run a state-of-a-nation-to-be cultural check-up. Is indigenous "Scottish art" likely to over-imbibe on "Scottishness"? Far from it. Scotland's contemporary art scene is more vigorous and worldly than it has been in decades. But let's cut the labels. "Scottish art" is a suffocating blanket of a term. It offers up exclusion zones to the hundreds of artists who have made Scotland their home over the years precisely because it is not hell-bent on parochialism. Here, we are talking art from Scotland.

Yet despite signs of rude health, fears are not unknown: namely that Edinburgh might choke on an overly buttery shortbread finger. A knowingly good-looking city, it's a capital that can contentedly peddle its past. But this is no good thing. Even its annual fling with contemporary culture, the Festival and Fringe, has for years left unmoved a somewhat moribund and conservative art scene.

The National Galleries of Scotland, under Timothy Clifford, have seemed more caught up with drawing-room niceties than the pursuit of curatorial adventurism. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art continues to put on unmerited, large retrospectives of dead Scottish artists, while the opening of the Dean Gallery last month, the latest addition to the National Galleries, demonstrates more the interior decor sensibilities of Edinburgh's Georgian New Town than clean-cut internationalism.

Yet the Dean's temporary exhibition space could prove a real runner if curatorial complacency is nudged, as has been the case with the city's other galleries. Contemporary art spaces such as the Collective, Stills and Inverleith House have shown increasing confidence to tally with internationalism, not provincialism. Even the Fruitmarket Gallery, Scotland's "leading contemporary art venue" - at times a misnomer - seems to be throwing off its timidity. No longer so dependent on "buying in" tour circuit exhibitions, this Festival they're showing work by the acclaimed American artist Kiki Smith.

Moreover, a number of galleries are wising-up to the talents of Scotland- based artists. Over the next few months work by Callum Innes, Richard Wright, Martin Boyce, Wendy McMurdo, Moyna Flannigan and Rose Frain, together with so-called emerging artists Paul Carter, Chad McCail, Shauna McMullan and Janice McNab, will be exhibited, something near unimaginable a few years back. And if plaudits were needed, in May 2000 the British Art Show, the hip touring show of new generation artists, will open in Edinburgh. Organised by London's Hayward Gallery, it is evidence, many believe, that the city is now receptive to contemporary art.

Glasgow, however, still holds its own as the more resolutely contemporary of the two cities. In many ways, Edinburgh and Glasgow - only a 45-minute drive along the M8 divides them - have played out cultural rivalry much like Italian civic states back in the 15th century. It's easy to talk about Glasgow as a city with a "can do, will do" attitude: politically manhandled over the decades by Westminster, its ever-robust socialist sense of community is still keen.

Yet artist-led initiatives such as the international group show Windfall in 1991, through to more recent "at home" art shows or an innovative programme of public art projects, do energise the city. Glasgow School of Art and its post-graduate course is one of the most dynamic in Britain, and the artists who enrol tend to stay. They cite a sense of community and cultural openness as reasons.

But there have been slaps in the face. The city's Gallery of Modern Art, which opened in 1996 under the slogan Art For People with a mish-mash hang of work, was spoon-fed culture at its worse. Where was the work by Glasgow artists Douglas Gordon or Christine Borland, many asked? Gordon, a winner of the 1996 Turner Prize who premiered his famous 24 Hour Psycho at the city's Tramway in 1994, is frequently cited as an international star who has been failed by the art acquisitions programme of both Edinburgh's and Glasgow's galleries.

There is, however, a sense of Glasgow taking stock. Perhaps now in the art-world equivalent of the chill-cabinet, its two major arts venues, Tramway and the Centre for Contemporary Art, are closed for Lottery-funded refits while Bridget McConnell, appointed last year as the city council's director of culture and leisure, is currently thrashing out an arts strategy .

Arguably the "Central Belt" monopoly of art activity is not what it once was. The opening of Dundee Contemporary Arts last month, with its avowed policy of internationalism rooted in a "best of art from Scotland", joins An Tuireann Arts Centre on Skye and Inverness's as venues that are fuelled by the belief that investment in culture makes good economic sense. It puts you on the map and is a tug for tourists.

The Scottish Arts Council (Sac) has been instrumental in promoting this cultural opportunism. Whereas England labours under both an Arts Council and a host of regional arts boards, in Scotland the Sac holds supreme. Employing a programme of direct grants and residencies abroad to artists, the Sac has helped put the brakes on concerns of cultural isolation.

Moreover, the Sac is aware of having to maintain a sharp act. Their future under the new government is by no means secure. This doubtless spurred the launch of "Creative Scotland". A national cultural strategy drawn up by the Sac and four other arts organisations, it argues that an effective cultural policy is fully integrated rather than tacked on to government strategy.

But the Sac still needs to use its clout. Scotland's new Parliament is currently being built in Edinburgh and speculation is on-going as to if artists will be brought in to contribute to the design process, a practice which is today seen as a more sophisticated alternative to parachuting in corporate-look artworks at the eleventh hour. If such initiatives were taken, Scotland's arts policy could be seen as consciously pioneering.

Dangers are, of course, out there, such as Scotland dozing off, satiated with self-contentment. The art scene has to ensure it doesn't become too matey, nor critical debate too lazy. For the moment, however, it augurs well.