Words by Sarah Lowndes

Glasgow, a once great city that sank into post-industrial decline in the 1970s, is now renowned as a creative furnace forging world-leading artists, musicians and writers.

Since 1996, 17 artists associated with Glasgow have been nominated for the UK’s best-known art prize, the Turner Prize, and of these, seven went on to win: Douglas Gordon (1996), Martin Creed (2001), Simon Starling (2005), Richard Wright (2009), Susan Philipsz (2010), Martin Boyce (2011) and Duncan Campbell (2014). Since the 1980s the city has also given rise to innovative pop and rock bands including, Mogwai, Primal Scream, The Pastels and Franz Ferdinand and inspired novelists Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Louise Welsh. Yet the creative rebirth of Glasgow was not a lucky accident – it occurred because of the combination of three key aspects: the city’s long established internationalism; the empty spaces created by the decline of heavy industry; and – most importantly – the ambition of the city’s artists, writers and musicians, to create opportunities for themselves.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Glasgow’s wealth was built on the sugar, tobacco and cotton brought in on the river Clyde, and following the Industrial Revolution, the city’s textiles, shipbuilding and engineering industries grew the city’s population tenfold to 762,000. Yet since 1900 Glasgow has undergone an almost constant process of demolition and reconstruction: only four pre-18th century buildings survive and in the 1970s the unusual decision was taken to build a six-lane M8 motorway through the city centre. In the post-industrial era, Glasgow struggled with high unemployment rates and issues of social deprivation, but re-emerged as a popular tourist destination in the 1990s, following official initiatives such as the 1988 Garden Festival and 1990 Year of Culture. In the video above Glasgow-based artist Toby Paterson, who often takes inspiration from the local cityscape, says, “I love Glasgow because it’s like the city doesn’t know how to finish itself. […] Good things are lost in that process, but good things come out of it too.”

The emergence of Neo-Conceptualism

Glasgow’s 90 parks and green spaces, demolition gap sites, motorway flyovers and underpasses offer multiple experiences of open space. In the interview below, Glasgow-based artist Martin Boyce (b.1967, Hamilton) describes how night time views of the urban landscape as seen from a moving car inspired his installations. “There is a sense that it’s like stepping inside a photograph – everything’s frozen but you can move around.” Boyce is part of the generation of ‘neo-conceptual’ Glasgow artists who emerged in the early 1990s, all of whom were from the local area and studied Sculpture and Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art (GSA). Boyce and his peers began to attract significant international attention through the city’s first artist-led gallery, Transmission, which was established in 1983. He remembers, “Transmission seemed really central, to not just the work being made in the city, but a complete attitude. It was kind of a central place socially and was a focus – it was the first port of call for friends coming up to visit.” Exhibitions were also staged in disused properties; such as Windfall (1991) an exhibition of installation, time-based and performance-based work held in a vast, empty building near the Clyde which featured new works by many emerging ‘neo-conceptual’ Glasgow artists including Claire Barclay, Martin Boyce, Roderick Buchanan, Nathan Coley, Jacqueline Donachie, Douglas Gordon, Julie Roberts and Ross Sinclair.

This trend continued into the 2000s, with many of the neo-conceptual generation continuing to produce site-specific installations, carried out through collaborating with other artists or members of the public. For example, Jacqueline Donachie (b.1969, Glasgow) often produces socially engaged projects. In her ongoing series of cycling projects entitled Slow Down, the bicycles of residents in Huntly, Scotland (2009) and Melbourne, Australia (2013), were fitted with a dispenser for powdered chalk, to leave behind vivid pastel traces on the roads. Watch an interview with her below.

Although Glasgow’s interlinked art, music and literary scenes have shaped the varied character of the artistic work made there, there is no predominant style or medium associated with the city. As Graham Fagen (b.1966, Glasgow), who studied Sculpture at Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s, explains in the video above, reading Scottish writers like Robert Burns, Alasdair Gray and Irvine Welsh helped him formulate his own voice, “and express myself in a way that I was comfortable with, producing non-medium-specific work realised through bronze-cast, neon, film, installations and writing.”

Today Glasgow continues to be a noted centre for contemporary art, although still lacks the established infrastructure and opportunities of a major centre like New York or London. Some of the most notable contemporary art spaces were set up by artists and curators, such as The Modern Institute (est. 1998), Mary Mary (est. 2006) and David Dale Gallery (est. 2009). There are also several affordable artist-led studio complexes in the city, housed in former warehouses and factories such as SWG3, The Glue Factory, The Pipe Factory and Southside Studios. As Glasgow-based artist Torsten Lauschmann points out: “In Glasgow, you have to make your own culture.”

Rachel Maclean

The practice of artist Rachel MacLean, (b. 1987, Edinburgh) who lives and works in Glasgow, reflects the changed landscape for today’s Glasgow-based artists. MacLean, who will represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2017, makes unique, highly crafted and technologically advanced works using digital video. In the interview above she describes her working process: shooting footage of herself dressed in elaborate makeup and colourful costumes against a green screen background, which she then collages together to produce fantasy narratives, with soundtracks composed using found audio from television and the internet. MacLean describes her recent works such as The Lion and the Unicorn (2012) and A Whole New World (2014) as surreal and absurdist explorations that contrast semi-fictionalised histories of Scotland with contemporary debates on identity, social life and politics.

Glasgow is an ideal setting for artists preoccupied with social, political and cultural questions. Craig Tannock, director of local live music venues Stereo and Mono says, “One of the basic reasons why Glasgow has become so culturally alive is the combination of two strong elements; high sensitivity to anything pretentious is part of the natural culture of Glasgow – but that is linked with an amazing open-mindedness, [that says], ‘well, let’s see what you’ve got.’”


Dr. Sarah Lowndes is a writer, curator and lecturer. She is the author of books including Social Sculpture: The Rise of the Glasgow Art Scene (2010) and The DIY Movement in Art, Music and Publishing (2016).

External links