Glasgow Art School venue The Vic re-opens

Art School Re-opening

Photo: Jackson Tucker Lynch

A history of one of the most influential venues in Scotland

UPDATE: The planned reopening of The Vic has now been delayed until 2014, with all scheduled events either postponed, cancelled or relocated. Information on ticket refunds is available at The Art School website.

It was a once customary question of a good night out in Glasgow, usually posed after a few cheap pitchers at Sleazy's: ‘We goin’ up the Arty?’ And after a keenly felt three-year absence, following a multi-million pound redevelopment, the Arty’s coming back. Better equipped than ever, ready to revert to its role as the heart that pumps Glasgow’s creative and cultural lifeblood.

The return of the venue – the GSA Student Association to give it its rarely used official title – wasn’t always a certainty. Of the seven finalists in an international architecture competition in 2009, only one proposed to reincorporate the union into a wider redevelopment of the Garnethill estate adjacent to the school’s iconic Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed HQ (the new Seona Reid building will also house lecture, exhibition, seminar and studio spaces). Fortunately it was New York architect Steven Holl’s vision that won – a glass-heavy structure based around ‘driven voids of light’, which had the insight to recognise the space’s vital role. Not just as a student facility, but as a place where people from the wider spheres of visual art, clubbing, live music, performance art, literature and all things in-between get out of their heads, collide and combine, helping to give a scene and a city its unique cultural symbiosis.

‘It’s one of the things that’s really good about a place where hedonism connects with creative impulses,’ says Alan Miller, the press officer overseeing the GSA Student Association’s reintegration, and someone who has been heavily involved with the Art School for 20 years in various different capacities, first as a student, then as a club promoter and DJ at Divine and Record Playerz, then as a PR. ‘Connections are made that might not otherwise have been made formally,’ he continues. ‘There’s a complete randomness to it – you can’t plan to meet a DJ and a novelist at 2am in the smoking bit. You might have gone out that night thinking “I just want to be home by 11”.’

Turner Prize winners and multi-million selling rock bands have frequented the Art School over the years, and represent just the visible tip of the iceberg. ‘For decades there’s been this crazy cross-pollination,’ says Miller. ‘The most obvious demonstration of which is Franz Ferdinand singing about hanging out at Transmission [the Glasgow gallery founded by GSA graduates, referenced on Franz’s song ‘Do You Want To?’]. You’d see all these same people at these same nights at the Art School – you’d see Jim Lambie, you’d see David Shrigley, you’d see people from Franz, Sons and Daughters, all of these people were all mixing in the same space. It created this social hub for people to flow through.’

The broad strokes of the new building’s layout remain familiar, with the Vic Bar (now slightly smaller) on the ground floor and the Assembly Hall venue upstairs. But the new facility will be otherwise almost unrecognisable from the old. Gone are the Vic’s chequered floor, the dodgily-wired light and sound system and the dingy toilets, in come custom-designed spaces and a state-of-the-art tech set-up, with the entrance now on Scott Street. As when any cherished nightspot gets a facelift – the new Sub Club, refurbished in 2002 after a fire, being one notable example – some will say it’ll never be the same again. But nostalgia, Miller argues, is an indulgence the Art School can ill afford. ‘It never will be the same again, and the whole point is it shouldn’t be,’ he responds. ‘Things always evolve – the scene around it will constantly evolve, the things people will think are cool will change. As romantic a place as it was to go out, it was a grimy shithole at the end of the day.’

Tom Scholefield, AKA electronic musician and graphic / video artist Konx-Om-Pax, doesn’t doubt that people will warm to the new venue. ‘It’ll take a bit of getting used to, but give it a year and it’ll hopefully feel just like it was,’ he says, ‘but with less pissy toilets and sticky walls and floors.’ An animator who has worked with the likes of Hudson Mohawke and Mogwai, and whose earliest Art School memory is sneaking in underage for GSA student and Optimo DJ Johnny Wilkes’ techno night, Scholefield in many ways has the union to thank for launching his career. It was while studying at GSA and promoting and DJing at his own club night that Warp Records musician Jamie Lidell came to play the venue. Scholefield put him up (at his parents’ house), and it led to him creating a video promo for Lidell, and in turn building a relationship with Warp. ‘I learned quite quickly that to get places, you kind of need to meet people in person,’ he reflects.

Novelist Louise Welsh was Writer in Residence at GSA from 2010–2012, and frequently went ‘up the Arty’ to dance at club nights there throughout the 1990s. She often collaborates with creatives from other non-literary mediums, and believes that cross-pollination can’t be undervalued. ‘I’m working with an architect at the moment, I’m also working with a composer – these kind of connections are really, really important,’ she says. ‘They really enhance your impression of the world.’ Welsh sees the union as crucial to GSA’s status at large. ‘It enhances the reputation of the school in so many ways,’ she says, ‘because it shows they’re not just thinking about the reputation of the institution, they’re thinking of it as a place where people have to come together in informal ways as well as in the seminar room or the studio. They’re recognising the importance of play within creativity and art.’

The Art School’s unique place in Glasgow’s cultural fabric is perhaps no better evidenced than by the fact that no other space has quite filled the void in its absence – not the interim replacement on Sauchiehall Street (now closed), nor Nice’n’Sleazy, nor the CCA. All the more reason, says Scholefield – who organises one of the venue’s first events, a show by ambient / industrial noise group Zoviet France – why the Arty can’t reopen soon enough. ‘It’s more of a social club than a nightclub,’ he muses. ‘As me and my friends say, it’s just going to be nice being able to return home.’

The Vic reopens with Croc vs Croc on Thu 12 Dec