Don't count on the freebie tourist maps if you want to find out why Glasgow has become an internationally renowned art hotspot. Many of the streets and hideaways that hold the city's cutting-edge showcases aren't even marked. That could be some kind of modern art conundrum, or just an example of Glasgow's famous sense of humour.
It's 20 years since Glasgow's image-shifting stint as European Capital of Culture, and in the intervening two decades the city has quietly become an artistic powerhouse. This month alone sees the International Festival of Live Art (which ends today) and the Glasgow Art Fair (25-28 March), while April brings the International Festival of Visual Art. Two of last year's Turner Prize nominees – winner Richard Wright and Lucy Skaer – are Glasgow based, as are past winners Simon Starling and Douglas Gordon. Martin Creed, whose on-off light installation scooped the prize in 2001, has just opened his latest British show in Glasgow's Common Guild gallery.
An art jaunt around Glasgow is a good way to experience the contrasting sides of a city renowned for combining a can-do attitude with an ambience built on a blend of beautiful architecture and urban grit – a sort of shock chic. Take SWG3, a studio complex off Kelvinhaugh Road which is concealed amid railway arches and where the rattle of trains merges with industrial rumblings from the neighbouring Clydeside Galvanisers. Climbing through an atmospheric old warehouse, I find artist Sandy Smith prepping an upcoming show for London's East End – just a small entry on a CV that includes outings in Copenhagen and New York and a forthcoming exhibition in Berlin.
While determined contemporary fans will relish digging out art nuggets from Glasgow's rougher cultural seams, the city also offers the easy-going glory of various world-class parkland galleries.
Pollok Country Park (10 minutes from Central Station to Pollokshaws West) is home to the Burrell Collection – an eclectic mix of 9,000 works housed in a bright, airy building. The art ranges from medieval and Islamic painting to works by Degas, Cézanne, Epstein and Rodin. Meanwhile, back in Clydeside, on Glasgow Green, the People's Palace provides an evocative segue through the city's social history, including polemical paintings by Ken Currie and an engaging portrait of a youthful Billy Connolly.
The city's favourite museum, – and the most-visited gallery in Britain outside London – is Kelvingrove, set in a park by the River Kelvin, a 10-minute walk from the bustle of Byres Road. En route, step into the Hunterian Art Gallery to see its superb collections of the Glasgow Boys and Girls, Whistler, and the world's largest holding of Charles Rennie Mackintosh work.
For any art lover, of course, a tour of the iconic Mackintosh-designed Glasgow School of Art is a must. But as well as being one of Britain's most ravishing buildings, GSA has been a catalyst in the city's art boom – offering work and exhibition space, as well as sending out a steady flow of talent into a post-industrial cityscape.
Several GSA graduates have founded key Glasgow galleries, starting in 1998 with Toby Webster's acclaimed The Modern Institute (the moderninstitute.com), hidden away on the first floor of an office block on Robertson Street, near the Central Station. It's shut for my visit because Toby is off scouting talent in New York.
Back by the GSA, the Centre for Contemporary Arts (cca-glasgow.com) is very much open – a funky venue offering exhibitions, a café and bookshop, plus studio space for emerging artists.
Trongate 103 (trongate103.com), just past the retail hubbub of Argyle Street, feels more businesslike. A former Edwardian warehouse in Glasgow's one-time medieval Merchant City quarter, it was reinvented last year as a multi-gallery visual arts hub with the quirky bonus of a Russian-themed restaurant.
The surrounding streets encapsulate Glasgow's rough-edged cool. On Parnie Street, two commercial galleries and the art-filled Trans-Europe Café sit alongside a retro boutique and tattoo parlour. On St Margaret's Lane, GSA graduate Sorcha Dallas's tiny gallery displays Glasgow talent alongside off-beat international work. Mary Mary – founded by another GSA graduate, Hannah Robinson – is 10 minutes' walk along the Clyde to Dixon Street. In between is The Briggait (thebriggait.org.uk), a gorgeous 1870s edifice that once housed Glasgow's fish market but re-opens this spring as a home for dozens of visual artists.
My favourite single space, though, is at The Tramway (tramway.org), five minutes' ride from Central Station to Pollokshields East. Carved from a disused tram depot, its vast main hall is as striking as the film work by Glasgow artist Duncan Campbell, which was on show when I visited. There are also smaller spaces, an art-dotted garden plus a superb theatre featuring international productions by the likes of Peter Brook.
Back in town, I chat to Jim Tweedie at the Compass Gallery, just off the handsome Blythswood Square. A not-for-profit gallery sprung from a 1960s artists' co-op, Compass was a pathfinder for the city's modern art scene in the days when, in Tweedie's words: "Glasgow used to think a cultural exchange meant sending a pipe band!" He ticks off local artists the gallery has given breaks to, from shifting early Douglas Gordon gouaches to Adrian Wiszniewski, who used to lug in canvasses still smelling of curry from the restaurant below his studio.
It seems you can't really escape from your surroundings in Glasgow. But for the city's thriving art community that's precisely what keeps them here.
How to get there
Norman Miller stayed at the Malmaison Hotel (0141 572 1000; malmaison- glasgow.com), where double rooms cost from £145 per night, including breakfast.
Glasgow museums (glasgowmuseums.com); Visit Scotland (visitscotland.com/perfect).Reuse content