The legacy of Scottish arts institutions ECA and GSA
An examination as degree shows and 2011 Turner Prize approach
As this year’s art college graduates display their work at degree shows in Edinburgh and Glasgow Neil Cooper explores the role art schools play in inspiring tomorrow’s Turner nominees
When David Shrigley spoke in 2010 about how the arts institutions in Glasgow were crucial to his creative development, he may have been bemoaning the impending threat of arts cuts, but his intervention nonetheless speaks volumes about where art education really happens. As graduates prepare to showcase their wares in degree shows at Glasgow School of Art and Edinburgh College of Art, it’s worth taking stock of how these schools help young artists find and develop a distinctive voice, particularly as two graduates of the GSA’s Masters of Fine Art course, Karla Black and Martin Boyce, have just been shortlisted for the 2011 Turner Prize. Both have also represented Scotland in the Venice Biennale, Boyce in 2010, with Black picking up the mantle this year.
Indeed, Scotland’s art school graduates have enjoyed an enviable run of successes in recent years. Previous Turner winners such as Douglas Gordon (1996), Simon Starling (2005) and Richard Wright (2009), and nominees including Jim Lambie (2005), Nathan Coley (2007) and Lucy Skaer (2009) are all ex-GSA, while the 2010 winner, Susan Philipsz, is an alumnus of Duncan of Dundee’s Jordanstone College, whose successful graduates were gathered in a group show at Dundee Contemporary Arts, The Associates, a couple of years back. And let’s not forget 2001 Turner winner Martin Creed, who may have studied at the Slade in London, but grew up in the same Glasgow environment that so inspired Shrigley. Meanwhile, prior to taking his MFA in Glasgow, Richard Wright studied at Edinburgh College of Art, where other high profile graduates have included Keith Farquhar.
And Scotland’s art schools have often provided homes for those who have ended up branching out successfully beyond the visual disciplines. Glasgow School of Art boasts umpteen bands too numerous to mention here among its alumni, including members of Franz Ferdinand, while actor Robbie Coltrane and playwrights Liz Lochhead and John Byrne both studied there. Novelist Alasdair Gray even ended up teaching at the college after graduation. Edinburgh College of Art, meanwhile, has a family tree dating back to the 1970s that pretty much founded Edinburgh’s lively post-punk music scene.
Given such illustrious forbears, then, what can we expect from the latest crop of graduates as they stumble blinking into the real world just as arts funding cuts start to bite on this side of the Border? And just how much have their various alma maters helped shape their work?
‘The influence of GSA is huge,’ says Alice Steffan, who is about to finish the school’s Sculpture and Environmental Art Course with a piece entitled ‘Back-Seat Butterflies’. ‘You get a lot of freedom to do what you want, and it’s as much about finding out who you are as anything.’
This sense of a youthful voyage of self-discovery is reflected in Steffan’s graduation piece. ‘It’s about when you’re young and you go in the back seat of a car for the first time, and you get butterflies in your stomach,’ she says.
Steffan turned down a place at London’s Central Saint Martins to come to Glasgow, where during her second year she and members of her course visited Jim Lambie’s studio. She says of the experience: ‘Meeting him you realise he’s one of us.’
ECA Painting student Rhona Campbell concurs with Steffan in that ‘You’re very much left to your own devices.’
While Campbell is reluctant to identify any trends in her music and film-influenced work, or in the work of others, she does acknowledge that ‘There’s maybe a little bit of a Karla Black influence around the college.’
Social scenes are paramount to both colleges, with a plethora of DIY pop-up galleries and off-site activities actively encouraged. Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art wouldn’t be the same without these extracurricular activities, and the Edinburgh Annuale probably wouldn’t exist without them. But things are changing. ECA’s forthcoming merger with Edinburgh University will inevitably shake things up, and, as ECA Head Stuart Bennett acknowledges, this will be the last year Degree shows will exist with ECA as an independent institution.
‘The impact of this will open up different ranges of research at the university,’ he says, ‘and there’ll be a real scope for students to collaborate and open up opportunities for different types of work to be made possible. That’s quite exciting. The students here aren’t doing this just as a degree. It’s more important than that.’
Glasgow School of Art Annual Degree Show, Sat 11–Sat 18 Jun; Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show, Sat 11–Sun 19 Jun.