It’s happening behind the infamous tacky club, The Garage in the centre of town, in the depths of a Finnieston industrial park, beside a traditional drinking-den in the West End, opposite a supermarket in the streets of Maryhill. The art-scene is back in full bloom, and there’s an energy, atmosphere and momentum that’s fuelling some of the most interesting and accessible art projects in Glasgow.
I visited four studios, galleries, and art project around the city, each with a different vision, but all sharing an independent, DIY spirit. Any remodelling, building, painting and general handy-work is done in-house. Studio Warehouse held skip parties, where donations in return for some banging DJ tunes would pay for the next skip of junk to be hauled away; Artpharm had its creators getting messy for three months before opening; Low Salt was remodelled in a few weeks of spare time.
Even with this surge of activity, Glasgow is still behind many of its European and Worldwide city counterparts. Sure, there is Berlin, London, New York: the metropolitan hubs for creativity. But even cities such as Copenhagen and Auckland are buzzing with small gallery spaces, exhibitions, projects, and shows.
But what makes Glasgow special is that there are so many abandoned shops, surgeries, and warehouses to commandeer for art’s sake. Ali and Amy Whiten realised this when they set up their small gallery, Recoat. Their vision encompasses graphic art, illustration, photography, and street art. “Basically, anything we like,” they say. Sure enough, there’s too much of a cacophony of ideas on the walls to simply brush over with the term urban or young. Detailed pencil drawings of fascinating faces surrounded by lurid colours hang next to art-deco stencils of a Young Leith Team logo, previously seen only on bus shelters, next to a collage of paper making an interesting story about a cookie. Much of this type of work could be found around the city only on the walls of skate stores and a few cafes. Now there’s a dedicated space for it which has local artists’ work residing on the walls next to the likes of world-famous Crash, Suzie Q, Bernie Reid and other established illustrators.
The driving force behind these projects is to pursue that over-cited mission of the young art world, now skewed with stereotypical cynicism yet still strangely underachieved: they want to “make art accessible.” But what does this even mean any more?
Firstly, it means that you don’t just have to wait for middle age and a mortgage to buy original art. Recoat has just finished its bargain basement sale, where all artwork is £40 or under. There’s also a variety of t-shirts, bags, and prints which let people own original art in a more casual manner, without putting it on a pedestal. The sale, which is now set to become an annual tradition, balances the need to appreciate the work, while being honest with the public. Ali and Amy explain, “It’s difficult because one of our friends is a socialist and he argues, how can you put a price on a painting of something like £800? How do you decide? But it’s important as an artist to have integrity and value your art. Why shouldn’t it be £1000?”
Value in the art world, however, is based on marketing, PR and how you portray your work. It’s about hype. Ali and Amy remind me of a recent auction in which a Damien Hirst painting was to be auctioned off amongst other works. No-one was to know which piece of work was his. When a suitable obscure, indifferent sculpture that had ‘Hirst’ written all over it (figuratively, although that could be an idea for one of his next pieces) came up for grabs, it was sold for thousands. The actual Hirst piece was sold for £20. When this was found out, there was uproar. The Hirst piece was re-auctioned off and unsurprisingly sold for thousands, and all was right again in the art world.
There’s definitely that hype, image and PR-machine at work in Glasgow. It’s understandable to think that these places and experiences are part of a sub-culture that you have to be immersed in, rather than bobbing in and out at your leisure. It’s definitely a scene, and, to be honest, it can seem rather elusive. Yet most of this image is built not by the galleries or projects, but by outside sources wanting to cash in on the movement. While I was interviewing Mutley from Studio Warehouse, he was visited by a market research company who wanted to find out who the coolest kids in Glasgow are. He was one of them.
Regardless of PR companies’ take on the project, Studio Warehouse is one of the most exciting projects around, with 35 spaces on the second floor of a huge warehouse, plus a photography studio, gallery and recently acquired stage/gig-venue. Mutley’s known the space was here for years. He used to organise parties here, and, one year, started to think that it would be great as an art studio. The result is by far the largest project of its kind in Glasgow. But perhaps that’s because, really, it’s one of a kind. Four years later, it has a waiting list of over 100 people and a solid reputation.
Fed up of the hype surrounding art? Then create your own. Low Salt opened its doors to Art School students one fateful afternoon. Choose a record sleeve, they said. One with an interesting design. Then screen print it onto a t-shirt, throw, whatever. We’ll show you how. There were queues out the door.
Low Salt resides in an out-building beside The Garage, just around the corner from the Art School. As a result, its opening nights are usually packed with students. It’s easy to see why. Exhibitions for Low Salt are chosen based on, amongst other things, whether they can hold up and stand their own in the space that’s unpainted walls, huge high-beam ceilings, and open-work carpentry. This isn’t, as co-founder Becki explains, the sort of place for a few paintings subtly hanging.
Their not-for-profit project began last spring in, unsurprisingly, the Saltmarket in Glasgow. The three girls, recently graduated from art school, “plotted and schemed” each night to develop the idea into a reality. The result is monthly shows from artists from around the world, specialising in a wide variety of media. My first visit there led me unsuspectingly into the mob of Draw or Die: a quick-fire Pictionary game for the creative, involving an overhead projector, 6 pens, one minute, and a concept.
Where the energy and momentum to create such projects and communities comes from is difficult to trace, but from time to time there is an underlying layer of anger that occasionally bubbles to the surface. Becki told me “We were angry at University in general. The teachers were on strike for a while. There was a lack of teaching, lack of tutors, lack of art space. We’re getting graded on everything: it seemed dishonest. Everyone was standardised.”
Whether it’s frustration that propels artists or not, it’s clear that a lack of official artspace has culminated in the creation of these projects. And there still isn’t enough. Artpharm, a collection of studios and a gallery in Maryhill, was founded by two Art School graduates, Sasha and Natalie, who discovered that there was no room at the creative inn: studio space was hard to come by, overheads were high, and what space there was, was cramped or unsuitable. So they created their own. Artpharm now houses ten artists, each specialising in different media, and there’s already a waiting list for studio space. Glasgow is just brimming with talent.
How all these projects are financed is another matter. Recoat used all of Amy’s savings to start up, but they’re primarily a commercial gallery, trying to make a profit (or, at least, break even). Artpharm, Low Salt and Studio Warehouse rely on sporadic funding from councils, lottery-funds and smaller bursaries which get awarded to everyone from magazines to other galleries. Studio Warehouse received £20,000 from the Millennium Award, an amount which barely covered electricity for the top floor. Artpharm are working from the reasonable rates they charge artists for the studio space. Low Salt received one-off funding, and regularly fill out 16-page forms in hopes of getting more. But these folks don’t revel in a romantic ideal of poverty: no-one I spoke to was eager to mull over the hardships of surviving. Mutley summarises the tone: “Why should a creative industry be different to any other model? It should stand on its own two feet.”
Glasgow’s art scene is certainly doing that. What’s been happening throughout Glasgow isn’t simply a redecoration of a few art galleries, though. Art is affordable and accessible; something that can merge with your every day life. And it’s set to keep moving: word is spreading, interest is growing. For every dozen frustrated artists, art-lovers or culture junkies, there’s someone keeping an eye out for the shacks and ghettos that can be reclaimed. There’s plenty more where this came from.