There are two starkly contrasting images that operate as a kind of visual shorthand for the highs and lows of Scotland’s year in the visual arts. One is the forlorn yet still strangely beautiful sight of the Glasgow School of Art’s gutted Mackintosh building, a haunting, skeletal reminder of the devastation wreaked on the night of 15 June as fire ripped through it and the neighbouring 02 ABC music venue. The other is the brand new Kengo Kuma-designed V&A Dundee – which opened to the public on 15 September – a bold and imposing presence on this east coast city’s waterfront that speaks of civic ambition and cultural soft power. Old and new, renewal and destruction – it’s been a sometimes fraught and rarely dull year.
Described by Kuma as ‘a living room for the city’, the arrival of the V&A – billed as ‘Scotland’s first design museum’ – has already had a tangible impact, giving Dundee’s small but active contemporary art scene a boost in confidence, energy and visitor numbers. Over on the west coast however, Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, has had a year that many may wish to forget – despite positives such as Cathy Wilkes being chosen to represent the UK at the 58th Venice Biennale next year and fellow Glasgow-based artist Charlotte Prodger winning the Turner Prize. Work to rebuild the Mack may take up to a decade and, while there exists a steely resolve to get the job done, the energizing passion that followed the building’s far less severe 2014 fire is more difficult to muster. While that’s partly down to understandable fatigue, just as significant is the fire’s immediate impact on the surrounding area and in turn the city’s cultural life. The nearby Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) was forced to close for four months, with consequences for a wide range of arts organizations and individuals; at one point, there were even worries for the future of the organization, which began life in the 1970s as the Third Eye Centre. Just under a month after CCA finally did reopen in October, with questions continuing to be asked about how a second fire was able to happen, beleaguered GSA director of five years Tom Inns stepped down. His resignation did not come as a surprise.
Also no surprise was the departure in July of Creative Scotland CEO Janet Archer, with the months prior to her resignation marked by a sense of chaos and confusion at the Scottish arts funding body. The year had begun with a feeling of uncertainty for many, due to Creative Scotland’s decision to delay its 2018–21 regular funding announcement until late January. When it finally arrived on the 25th of that month there was disbelief that Transmission, the hugely influential artist-run gallery in Glasgow, was to lose its funding, just as it reached its 35th year. In total 20 arts organizations were dropped from the portfolio, and while five were later reinstated following strident lobbying from the theatre community, there was no reprieve for Transmission.
The gallery’s volunteer committee described the decision as ‘political’ and ‘discriminatory’ in a lengthy statement which, among other things, pointed out that the defunding came ‘at the first moment in Transmission’s history that it has been led by a committee of people of colour’. It has remained open however and continues to receive project funding from Creative Scotland. In fact, this year has seen two particularly strong shows, with a first solo exhibition by the Edinburgh-based Glasgow artist Rabiya Choudhry and a UK debut from the South African black women’s collective iQhiya. The latter took place in April as part of the biennial Glasgow International, the first under new director Richard Parry, whose light touch curatorial approach allowed the energy and diversity of artistic production in the city to be foregrounded in the festival.
There were others who lost out in the Creative Scotland funding round who didn’t survive the year. NVA, the Glasgow-based art producers founded in 1992 by former Test Dept member Angus Farquhar, closed in September, and with it went its hugely ambitious, and ultimately financially crippling plan to transform the abandoned modernist ruin St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, Argyll & Bute. The building can be seen in the organization’s final project – Scottish artist Rachel Maclean’s first feature-length film, Make Me Up – which premiered on BBC 4 in November.
While the future of the Category A-listed St Peter’s is now once again uncertain, the year saw successful reinventions of other historic buildings, albeit of a very different scale, cost and complexity. In May, Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery celebrated its 20th year by moving into a beautifully restored former place of worship, the Glasite Meeting House in the city’s New Town, originally constructed in 1835. Again in Edinburgh, November saw the opening of the Collective gallery’s new home overlooking the city at the former City Observatory site, designed by William Henry Playfair in 1818. Glasgow gained a new space, with Rome’s Frutta Gallery opening a small UK outpost in the city’s east end in April. There were closures too, with Koppe Astner shutting its gallery in June following a starkly-engaging Corin Sworn show (a new Koppe Astner gallery is set to open in February in the Tradeston area of Glasgow), and just this month The Common Guild ceasing its exhibition programme at 21 Woodlands Terrace, a 1850s town house owned by Douglas Gordon and the organization’s home for the last 10 years. Events and projects will continue to be programmed elsewhere as it begins the search for a more accessible new space.
Buildings come and go, of course, and art scenes evolve and reinvent themselves just as long as there are the people – artists, curators, gallerists, academics – with the ideas and passion to push things forward. The death in August of John Calcutt, the much-admired former head of GSA’s world-renowned MFA programme – among whose graduates are many Turner Prize winners, including this year’s – was a tragic reminder that while great buildings are important, great people are even more so. Most recently, on 4 December the Scottish painter Carol Rhodes passed away from motor neurone disease. The Edinburgh-born, Glasgow-based artist studied and later taught at Glasgow School of Art and was a committee member in the early days of Transmission. A monograph on her work, edited by Andrew Mummery, was published earlier this year – a fitting epitaph to a singular Scottish painter.
It has, then, been a testing 12 months that has both highlighted the cultural ambition and depth of the visual arts in Scotland while also revealing their fragility and need for consistent support. It has also been a year of celebration, with November being 100 years since the birth of Margaret Tait, the Orcadian filmmaker who has proved to be such a lasting influence on Scotland’s artists working with moving image – not least through the annual Margaret Tait Award. This year that award went to Alberta Whittle while previous winners include Stephen Sutcliffe and, of course, Charlotte Prodger. Perhaps the image that really defines Scotland’s year is not a building at all, either fire-damaged or newly built. Instead, maybe it’s that of Prodger – shocked, delighted and characteristically humble – as it was announced that she had won the Turner Prize.
Main image: Charlotte Prodger photographed at the Tate Britain, London, after winning the 2018 Turner Prize, 2018. Courtesy: Reuters/Peter Nicholls