Going for Bronze

Scotland burst out of Caledonia onto the international art scene at the beginning of the eighties with the Newer Glasgow Boys spearheading England’s bid for global New Image supremacy. But Scotland didn’t really come its own, commercially or artistically, until the nineties. Though its mural painting roots were visible, eighties Scotland seemed a little too willing to cash in on the late seventies taste for working-class culture, and the work – although it was a smashing debut – now seems a little too stark, the images too raspy. Though sharing some similarities with their Eurocuro relational counterparts, Scottish artists carried with them some of this bleakness and nihilism into the ‘Scotia-Nostra’ scene of Glasgow at that time. Talk about your Angry Young Men! The world has been a big Scotland fan ever since the early 90s. Before that, it really didn’t understand any of the work. Too artsy, too intellectual. It was in the nineties that Scotland’s genius became more apparent. For all its power, the work seemed, gratefully, less rebellious, less angry than the blue-collar bitterness of the seventies, the tone more searching, yet plaintive. The whole of Scotia Nostra and powerhouses such as Tramway and CCA has a clear, crisp look and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that gives it a big boost. What to say to Scotland dissenters in the long run? Three million biennale visitors can’t be wrong.[1]

Art in Scotland is something of a cottage industry, but it is nevertheless quite clearly structured and divided into perceived centres and peripheries. The National Galleries of Scotland, which are all funded directly by the Scottish Executive, are nearly all based in central Edinburgh. The National Galleries’ association with the capital means that their collections are fashioned by Edinburgh’s old money. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s (SNGMA) collection is one that has been shaped by the predominately connoisseurial art history taught at Scotland’s four ancient universities: St. Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. The presence of this school can also be felt among the private art market, which, contrary to popular belief, has existed for centuries in Scotland. Established dealers such as The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh or Roger Billcliffe in Glasgow tend to represent the work of long-dead modernists or current members of the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts (RGI) and Royal Scottish Academy (RSA). This tendency is also clearly articulated in sectors of the Scottish press based in Edinburgh.[2] To many, this grouping forms the establishment due to their control of the national public purse and divisions of academia and the media. However, it is abundantly clear that this old guard holds little influence beyond the borders of Scotland and has had very diminutive impact upon the international reputation of contemporary Scottish art or the imaginations of Scotland’s contemporary artists.

Third Way thinking has established a series of lottery-led projects to throw off this stuffy image by enabling the refurbishment and establishment of large artcos such as Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow, Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA). The attempt to establish major international venues for contemporary art in Scotland comes from a desire to ‘modernise’ the nation’s artworld and to ‘professionalise’ its organisational structures. While such artcos have the advantage of being collection free, allowing them to appear lighter on their feet than the National Galleries, they have the disadvantage of being exemplars of Tory PFI and LibLab PPP schemes in action. Each of the major Scottish artcos have their roots in more egalitarian artist-initiatives founded in the 1970s, Fruitmarket in the New 57 Gallery, CCA in the Third Eye Centre, and DCA in Seagate Gallery and Dundee Printmaker’s Workshop. In the 80s and 90s these artcos gradually replaced ‘homely’ spaces funded by vegan cafes with clearly branded, expansionist, international networks. The Scottish artcos in some ways are the victims of their own success, egotistically expanding beyond the limits of public subsidy to the point where they are forced to become architectural PR exercises and new paradigms of gastrotainment.[3]

The £10.2m redeveloped CCA met with rapturous applause from Scottish Sunday supplements when it reopened its doors in October 2001. But behind the success stories there were rumblings that the CCA was being run as a puppet institution, exclusively recycling the wares of Scandinavia and London’s ICA. The lavish re-launch night – when superannuated London DJs and a third-rate punk act singularly failed to stir Glasgow’s radically sagacious clubbers – was heralded by many as a prophetic fiasco. Parachuting artists in from London to fill the programme was treated with scepticism – understandably, many local artists regarding this as a patronising slight on their own international reputations. The CCA further alienated itself from Glasgow’s cultural community by employing tradesmen rather than artists to install shows, charging for talks and events, and turning the cafe-bar into a minimalist restaurant for corporate hire. In the name of retaining funding by meeting the complex educational and economic requirements enforced upon the Scottish Arts Council and by Glasgow City Council, the CCA dumped its fabled quirky cosiness for Third Way mores, pricing itself out of its main market. This train of information produced by such institutions helps to fill the empty pages between the adverts of Scottish Sunday supplements and in lifestyle and listings mags such as The List.[4] While it is possible to claim that the artco/lifestyle sector has a collective bargaining power approaching that of the old guard, it cannot be seen to corral all practice in Scotland since there are many provincial factors to contend with.

The major towns and cities of Scotland all pride themselves in their substantial municipal galleries and collections, the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow (GOMA) perhaps being the most infamous. Each regional authority contributes towards visual arts programming in other ways, for example, in Glasgow through funding artists to exhibit in Intermedia, or in Stirling through support for The Changing Room. There is regional and national support for artist-led initiatives around Scotland such as The Embassy in Edinburgh, Limousine Bull in Aberdeen and Generator in Dundee, the memberships of which are fed by a steady stream of graduates from Glasgow School of Art, Edinburgh College or Art, Aberdeen’s Gray’s School of Art and Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanston College of Art & Design. As has long been the case with Labour dominated councils, such support is subject to political will and carries with it strong obligations to social outreach programming. A similar educational burden is placed on artist-led organisations, which tend to lie at the bottom or off the funding rung. This sweat equity is only partially countered by newer dealers such as Glasgow’s The Modern Institute and Sorcha Dallas and Edinburgh’s Doggerfisher which have stepped in to represent some of the work more often seen in artist-initiatives, finding their markets in Europe and North America rather than Scotland or the U.K. While such tertiary organisations often have little funding, poor buildings and facilities and no links with the press, they command a level of visibility and admiration beyond the borders of Scotland that the old guard, artcos and municipal galleries can only dream of.

This top down pyramidal structure, with funding hierarchically favouring national organisations and artcos rather than community based organisations, is far from ideal. Competition for funding is immense, meaning that protectionism is rife. As a result integration and collaboration between the different sectors and regions is practically non-existent, the hollow promise being that the benefits of top heavy funding will trickle down. The only way is up, baby, for you and me now is the mantra for those seeking to establish any kind of space for art. Hold on, hold on, get more publicity, punters and private funding and expand exponentially. The Scottish Arts Council’s attempts to encourage growth in the indigenous art market as a means of creating ‘support’ for artists, has come to nothing, precipitating the idea that ‘something must be done’ to solve the alleged funding ‘crisis’. The Scottish Executive is now attempting to remove the tiers amidst the Scottish artworld by other means, to create a political and economic structure that is either run directly from Holyrood or entirely devolved to the regional authorities.

In June 2004, the LibLab Scottish Executive appointed James Boyle to undertake a year long cultural review to decide what kind of structure should replace the Scottish Arts Council (SAC). The body of advisors on this Cultural Commission contains no visual arts expertise and it’s feared that the end of arm’s length policy created by the macro-economist John Maynard Keynes in the aftermath of WWII will come to an end. Of course, there is no reason why a Ministry of Culture should be feared any more than a Quango such as the SAC, the notion that the SAC is somehow apolitical being a myth. Openly admitting the ideological agenda of Scottish arts policy might make a refreshing change and allow voters to exercise their powers by voting tactically in PR elections for MSP candidates who actually profess a ‘cultural’ policy. This is less than likely; ‘culture’ is not on the Scottish party political agenda. The worry that a Ministry of Culture in Holyrood would be damaging for the visual arts comes from the bad experiences that artists have had with Scottish Councils in the very recent past. Holyrood is a young parliament and many MSPs are largely seen by the voters as jumped-up councillors with Presbyterian tastes, iconoclasm being the rule of the day.

The politicization of arts funding may be relatively new, but overt paternalism has been disguised as populism in Westminster arts policy for almost 30 years. Pre-devolution Scotland was not spared this treatment; indeed, Labour councils embraced populism, Glasgow City Council appointing Julian Spalding to run their Museums and Art Galleries. While Spalding has been replaced by neo-conceptually friendly faces, the populist dictats that he indulged to remain. Scottish artists must now also contend with Lottery requirements to meet audience targets and improve access. Artists are used as cheap labour for social inclusion programmes designed to create a flexible ‘cultural’ workforce of prolific and competent consumers.

The great uncertainty over what will replace the SAC and threatened closure of Tramway in Glasgow at the end of 2003 has highlighted the need for artists to influence the development of arts policy. Has the worm turned? Is Scotland in the position to do things differently, to foster a rich and diverse array of art spaces rather than a few regeneration-led theme-centric showcases? The Grassroots Coalition www.artfutures.net may allow some solidarity to emerge. The pressure group is embellished by the 200-strong Scottish Artist Union which is campaigning for decent pay for artist commissions, consultancies and technical work. Such recent developments emphasise the fact that the Scottish artworld is not an institution or a unified community, despite being portrayed by the media as an established group. There is no homogeneous body of consensus; partisanship is the order of the day. Testimony to this is the ill-fated Artist’s Union, founded and disbanded in the 1970s. Wrought by splinter groups such as the Communist Artery faction and the Women’s Artists Collective, the Artist’s Union never managed to address the thorny questions of how artists might effectively withdraw their labour or resolve the contradiction of the ‘right’ to funding being founded on the claim that art can only be ‘free’ if the state can afford it. What is seen to constitute contemporary art at any given time is formed from nebulous pockets of interest and influence and loose groupings collaboration and competition rather than joined up thinking. This, if anything, should discourage any overly simplistic or instrumental management solutions whereby quack cultural commissars might simultaneously diagnose a ‘disease’ and its ‘cure’.

Collective endeavour has a long and proud history in Scottish art. In the 70s and 80s, artist-initiatives were established in Glasgow and Edinburgh to counter the highly individualized, Darwinian career model that blights much of the art world. Artist committees were designed to counter the modernist myth of art as a personal rather than social practice, to thwart the ‘logic’ of the market by eradicating competition and end the division between cultural production and consumption. Although meaningless prize fights such as Beck Futures, eagerly hosted by Scottish artcos, have done their best to destroy cooperative artistic ventures, grassroots organizations continue to flourish in Scotland.

Since 1983, Glasgow’s Transmission has actively engaged with Scotland’s ever shifting artistic landscape. The art ‘crisis’ has had little obvious impact upon the curatorial predilections of the rotating committee who, with recent exhibitions, have continued to support mature work that tautologically examines the histories and conventions of ‘painting’, ‘drawing’ and ‘sculpture’. In a way, Transmission has been supporting such work since the mid-1990s when there was a general shift away from the earlier 90s emphasis on neo-conceptualism towards object-based practices. Work made over the past 10 years has developed in an expanded Glasgow infrastructure, one that functions as the kind of microculture that you would expect to find in a New World city state.[5] As Glasgow artists (as opposed to the city itself) became more globally cosmopolitan in the 1990s, the art they produced paid less deference to international trends. Of course, the position from which such practices are viewed alters their countenance.

Glasgow art has recently suffered the indignity of been colonially appropriated by a dormant ‘English’ art history as a triumphant New ‘New-Generation’ of sculpture by exhibitions such as Early One Morning at the Whitechapel in 2002. In Scotland, such practices have long been read as integrated with an ongoing saga of ‘awkward authenticity’, a major trope of Glaswegian urban culture spanning music, fashion, art, literature and film. Awkward authenticity is generated and safeguarded by a body politic defending the right to make mistakes and engage in forms of purposeless production and esoteric consumption denigrated by hegemonic entrepreneurial culture.[6] It is for this very reason, that a great deal of work produced in Glasgow over the past 10 years has created its fair share of sycophantic artfans and quasi mysticism. In an attempt to demystify this tendency, Glasgow-based artist Nick Evans notes that it is “more as if the use of such [new age] signs allows the artist to summon up a notion of the artworld as a ‘totemistic’ community, where through the process of an art education and shared sets of cultural and class values, artists and art lovers may develop a kinship between all things in the ‘artworld cosmos’.”[7] Awkward authenticity is illocutionary, reliant upon having faith in the self-authenticating gestures of Glasgow artists. Evans is not alone in his frustration at the apparent lack of tolerance or space for critique present in what seems to have become the orthodoxy of ‘cultural faith’ in Glasgow. The manifest “totemistic” qualities of awkwardly authentic tendencies to be found in Glasgow art are far from dominant and have fewer followers in other Scottish cities, yet the shambling Glasgow Style remains brawny, buttressed by growing markets generated by The Modern Institute and Zenomap.[8] Despite this, the supposedly perpetual ‘frailty’ of Scottish art, (or is it whimsy), is often held as a reason not to rock the boat by voicing critical dissent towards any aspect of practice. Evans is right to rally against mystification and knows that so doing there is the danger of supporting the functionalist demands made upon artists by the Scottish Executive. The greater danger is that the basic building block of Glasgow’s grassroots art culture, trust, might be exploited as style rather than as a means to speculate critically on the difficult, messy and potentially fraudulent.

Despite the slow growth of the private art market in Scotland, Glasgow’s fiercely independent spirit that has not been bowdlerised by capital as it has been in other major contemporary art centres. Private enterprises such as The Modern Institute, Sorcha Dallas and Doggerfisher are largely continuous with the aesthetic predilections of artist collectives and are therefore regarded as magnanimous. Yet disdain for the commercialisation of culture is one of the reasons that artcos have a particularly bad image problem in Scotland. There are practical problems also. Given their pressing need to charge for events, Scottish artcos can’t afford for anything to go wrong. This makes them appear stiff to potential patrons, precisely what they don’t want. Rather than gripe, Scottish artists continue to organise events elsewhere. In Glasgow, Lucy McKenzie, for example, took to running free Flourish Nights at Flourish in Robertson Street, consisting of performances, animation, VJs and bands. The events are based on trust, so if it goes wrong, there is no problem. All working similarly on trust, Glaswegian artistic missionaries have come and gone in a relatively short period of time. Believing that their work is done, Marianne Greated and Sorcha Dallas’ residentially-based Switchspace closes its doors at the end of 2004. Meanwhile, the Glasgow Sculpture Studios committee have embarked upon an ambitious programme of exhibitions, commissions and residencies.

The hard work of these volunteers has embellished the already strong sense of cultural vitality painstakingly created over many years in the King Street area by artists involved with Transmission, Street Level, Intermedia, Glasgow Print Studio, WASPS, Free and Glasgow Independent Studios. Glasgow City Council’s five year Merchant City regeneration initiative stresses the importance of the area’s “burgeoning cultural sector” identifying the need to improve the “Merchant City and Trongate experience”, by developing an “Arts Property strategy” designed to create “a world class urban product”. The illusion of a wealthy urban oasis is promised by common street furniture, better lighting and pavement cafes, all driven by “the cultural industries of design, media and the visual and performing arts, which are already targeting the area.” The cash-strapped GCC are keen to maximise rents in floor spaces currently occupied by artists. The key to this is to encourage inward investment by selling Glasgow as a symbolically differentiated space in a packed global market of gentrified urban centres, all identically overbranded as sanitised consumer markets, all vying for ‘world city’ status. Ubiquitous mock dock and wood fired ovens are the attractive result of an exciting model of ‘cultural enterprise’, the driving force of New Labour’s political agenda. The ‘cultural industries’ are regarded as the primary organizational model for new business and investment. New Labour’s post-Fordist ideology of a freelance designer economy of varied, flexible niche urban consumption is neatly spun in GCC’s Merchant City plans as “eat, shop and bop.”

Going for bronze, GCC is dutifully and belatedly following regeneration pattern developed in New York’s East Village in the 1980s and East London, Manchester’s Northern Quarter and Berlin’s Mitte in the 1990s. Artists move into an area to exploit cheap property, the area is gradually identified as a prime real estate and soon becomes unaffordable for artists. As pioneers of new economies, artists are extremely good value for money. Consultants Bonnar Keenlyside recently identified that Scotland’s estimated 5,000 artists contribute £22 million to the economy. 82% of artists earn under £5,000 per year and 29%, nothing whatsoever. Workfare and sweat-equity are not rewarded. The regeneration plan is to create an hermetically sealed work-play environment of “design and interior lifestyle shops, music, comedy clubs, varied bar and restaurant venues, the arts and the pink pound […] street theatre, alternative fringe festivals […] open air art around the Tron, craft fairs, continental markets, etc.” The influx of the cash-rich time-poor will quickly force up rents and force out many of the cash-poor time-rich artist-led organizations in the King Street area. By gerrymandering a Quartier Bateman, GCC is set to exploit and discard a group of ‘industrialists’ that have helped to increase the international profile of the city, its contemporary artists. Self-organisation is not encouraged by utilitarian council planners who since the 1960s have prophesised a totalised image of Glasgow as pure spectacle by bulldozing diversity, community and choice. From the visionaries who brought us Mr Happy and ‘there’s a lot Glasgowing on’, arises the great sartorial vanguard ‘Glasgow: Scotland with Style’, the New Black(pool).

Spurning surface carnival and urban enclavism might run counter to the regeneration blueprint. Temporary structures require less infrastructural costs as Glasgow School of Art’s events week project Cabin Exchange has found. Cabin Exchange offers anyone the opportunity to send in proposals to book time slots in one of four 10 x 8ft freight containers temporarily dotted at busy locations all around the city. Unlike the branded model of culture as something that happens to people, Cabin Exchange encourages participation and attracts critique of its own structure. Cabin Exchange’s presence at the fringe of the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe attests that apt-art in Scotland has become a long-running tradition, functioning at an increasingly professional level. Apt-art venues such as Glasgow’s Switchspace and Mary Mary and Edinburgh’s Magnifitat, Aurora Projects and Wuthering Heights all demonstrate that a growing number of artists are rejecting spectacular crowd-pulling blockbusters; their work attracting small informed audiences, prosumerists who are simultaneously involved in the production and consumption of culture.

Acknowledging that spatial and financial limitations may restrict the growth of wider international, critical and social dialogue has to be balanced with the fact that lower expectations mean fewer disappointments and more relaxed attitudes. This is key to recent apt-art events such as Wuthering Heights, an informal series of exhibitions held in an Edinburgh tenement. Given the financial restrictions on securing permanent spaces, music and performance have a very prominent role in most new Scottish artist-initiatives. Avoiding being pigeon-holed as a closed ‘visual arts’ organisations and devoid of the need for funding, Edinburgh’s Aurora and Vague adopt a nomadic approach similar to that of Glasgow’s Switchspace. Cooperatives aping 1970s venues such as the Third Eye Centre are also making a comeback. Vague operate as a self-funded anonymous collective, running a large studio complex in Edinburgh as well as initiating collective installations and operatic events in venues ranging from the Roxy Art House to private apartments. Aurora’s aim to mix art and live music audiences has much in common with that found at Glasgow’s Chateaux and at Edinburgh’s Total Kunst which are all funded independently. The Chateau, the penultimate floor of an old dilapidated Gorbals warehouse, opened in December 2002 when an enormous throng descended to see work by ten artists and listen to Franz Ferdinand, Uncle John & Whitelock, Scatter and Park Attack, bringing together music and art audiences who now mix with regularity.  Entrance donations of £2 towards cleaning the building helped to ensure the survival of the organisation. The Chateau does not try to model itself as a radical alternative, but as a privately funded coop that survives only as long as it is in demand.  Total Kunst, on the other hand, is part of an international crusade to establish an ethical glocal economy based on grassroots activism, participation and carnival. Hosted by The Forest, a popular non-profit making, volunteer run café, Total Kunst have hosted an array of group and solo exhibitions featuring, public projects, such as the Wanted posterworks commission, and ambitious exchange programmes with Manchester and the Balkans.

While the sustainability and naivety of coops such as The Chateau and Total Kunst may be questioned by many, their presence cannot be ignored. The disdain for PPP approaches to the visual arts in Scotland is deep rooted[9] and the resurgence of interest in such cooperatives signifies that they are here to stay. The Scottish Executive must examine these models carefully if it is to facilitate a more integrated model for future support of visual art in Scotland. Its policies must be based on trickle-up cultural models that are apposite to the nation. Glasgow is not Barcelona, Edinburgh is not Venice.[10] It is ludicrous to argue that Scotland should differentiate itself by pretending to be Latin, or by mindlessly duplicating the management-myth of ‘global culture’. Scotland is a small northern European country with small visual art audiences, two facts that should be tattooed on the knuckles of its cultural commissars. The irony is that the centres and peripheries perceived by the Scottish Executive are the exact opposite of those perceived from outwith Scotland. Rightly or wrongly, around the world Glasgow rather than Edinburgh is seen as the centre of contemporary Scottish art, and peripheral organisations such as Transmission are more highly regarded than centralised institutions such as SNGMA. Is greater devolution the solution? The complete devolution of arts funding to a local level may exasperate the current gentrification problems as belt-and-braces local councils back riskless risk. The Executive must allow Scottish artists room to manoeuvre without the constant pressure to expand. While Glasgow and Edinburgh are more buoyant than ever with new artist-initiatives, and Dundee’s Generator steadfastly holds its ground, this is no thanks to the 30 year drift from a mixed to an entrepreneurial ‘cultural economy’. In the 1980s this move led to the recuperation of unruly, diverse, segmented (and, after years of unpaid labour, thoroughly exhausted) artist-initiatives by conglomerate brands, expansionist artcos. Due to this preoccupation with growth, Scottish art is again in danger of being severed from its hard-won association with communities and places by planning-driven brandscaping. Culture isn’t fashioned out of thin air by constructing sanitised cultural quarters. If you build it, they will leave.

Neil Mulholland

[1] Patrick Bateman, “Scottish Art”, Alba, June 2002, p34.

[2] Glasgow newspapers have generally more informed coverage of contemporary art than the Edinburgh press.

[3] Edinburgh-based artist Alan Johnston likens this to IBS by nicknaming the tendency ‘chronic building syndrome.’

[4] The List is soon to be responsible for publishing the Scottish Arts Council’s new art magazine, a bid that it won on the basis of its mass distribution, despite the very well-supported bid from the now defunct Matters magazine. This shows that the SACs priorities continue to lie in growth.

[5] This stubborn sense of self-identity that Glasgow parades stems from the Act of Union in 1707, a blow to Scotland that opened Glasgow’s access to American markets and (what were then) revolutionary ideas, freeing it from Edinburgh’s Eurocentrism.

[6] For a sense of this see Sarah Lowndes’ Social Sculpture: Art, Performance and Music in Glasgow. A Social History of Independent Practice, Exhibitions and Events since 1971,  StopStop, 2004.

[7] Nick Evans, “Tired of the Soup du Jour: Some Problems with ‘New Formalism’”,Variant, Vol.2 No.14, Winter 2002, p36.

[8] Indeed, in cooperation with Martin McGowan of London’s Cabinet Gallery, The Modern Institute was the first curatorial organisation to commercially package awkward authenticity, in the exhibition Lovecraft which opened at CCA in 1998 before touring to the South London Gallery. The success of The Modern Institute’s Jim Lambie has in turn spawned a wave of artist immigration to Glasgow of what have been described by Glasgow artist Robert Johnston as ‘Lamabies’, opportunist artists who naively see Glasgow as their stepping stone to instant commercial success.

[9] See Lowndes ibid.

[10] Moves have been afoot recently to establish an Edinburgh Biennale, Richard Demarco’s dream of an addition to the already saturated Edinburgh Festivals programme. This seems like the next logical step since ‘Scotland’ took part in the Venice Biennale, but at no time has this expansionist logic been questioned. The Scottish Arts Council’s Zenomap at the 2003 Venice Biennale could be read simply playing the game, another form of official institutional representation, a move resisted by the tertiary elements of Scottish art. The world is saturated with inward investment-led Biennales, Scotland should not simply join the global circus of nations on parade, but negotiate its own terms of cultural exchange.