How Glasgow and Scotland became leading forces in visual art

11 Turner prize nominations and six winners in the past 15 years

A country recognised for its commitment to supporting young visual artists and their DIY endeavours, Scotland has planted a well-earned flag on the international art map. Scooping 11 Turner prize nominations and six winners in the past 15 years, a generation of Scottish artists has garnered great attention, helping to assert Glasgow’s position as a major centre for UK visual art. Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist once described the success of this artistic community as a ‘miracle’. Divine intervention, however, has nothing to do with it.

Tasked with investigating the conditions that encouraged the renaissance of the visual arts in Glasgow, the director of the city’s Centre for Contemporary Art, Francis McKee, is undertaking an archival research project with artist Ross Sinclair. ‘The Glasgow Miracle: Materials for Alternative Histories’ traces the emergence of the Glasgow art scene from its roots in the early 1970s, through the successes of painters in the 80s, and the growth of a DIY culture in the 90s and beyond.

‘The punk explosion had a great impact in Glasgow,’ says McKee. ‘Doing it for yourself right here, right now, rather than thinking only American or continental artists could achieve things in the art world.’

He points to the similar development of visual art scenes in other so-called ‘marginal cities’: ‘Seattle, Glasgow, Malmö – places that would have felt out of the mainstream became important, as travel and communication evolved and it was possible to be internationally successful and stay in these places.’

The achievements of the city’s scene can be also be attributed to the famous Glasgow School of Art. ‘It can’t be a coincidence that the 80s and 90s generation were the result of free education, free grants for university and college education – the deliberate educating of a class that had always been ignored,’ says McKee. ‘That education policy brought through far more talent across the social classes and the British art world stopped being the preserve of the rich and expensively educated.’

It was a social shift that affected the art that was produced in the 80s and 90s. ‘Ken Currie looking at the shipyards and unions, Douglas Gordon and Roddy Buchanan looking at football and B-movies, and Jackie Donachie looking at country and western singers in Glasgow bars,’ he says.

Looking beyond the walls of Mackintosh’s revered Glasgow building, several other colleges across the country have nurtured considerable skill, not least Dundee’s creative centre. ‘Duncan of Jordanstone has produced great talent that rivals that of Glasgow School of Art,’ says Dundee Contemporary Arts curator Graham Domke. ‘The 2006 Tate Triennial was a good example, where DJCAD graduates Lucy McKenzie, Luke Fowler, Scott Myles, Alan Michael and Christopher Orr were all included.’

Again attributing the nation’s wealth of talent to a self-starting approach, Domke celebrates the Dundee scene: ‘It’s a compact and connected city. We benefit enormously from there being an artist-run space like Generator, initiatives like Yuck’n’Yum and newer projects like the studio collective Tin Roof. These are vital to the feeling that Dundee has reinvented itself through cultural confidence.’

It’s to a younger generation of artists and organisers that we now look to continue the communal atmosphere of support. Edinburgh artist Jonathan Owen attributes Scotland’s nurturing environment to the strong gallery sector: ‘There are incentives for young artists to stay here, contributing to and benefiting from internationally active organisations – DIY artist-run initiatives, publicly funded galleries and workplaces, and high quality commercial galleries.’

Glasgow-trained artist Bobby Niven says he has benefited from such schemes: ‘I had a really amazing experience working with Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen recently and I think the funding of art organisations on the geographical periphery is vital in providing a diversity of experiences.’

We can be thankful for a nationwide tradition of committed educators, progressive programming and mutual support among practitioners. In the words of artist Nathan Coley’s 2006 neon epithet – ‘There will be no miracles here.’

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