How community art projects from Huntly to Paisley have created a new sense of cultural identity
Artists Who Make Music, Musicians Who Make Art, at Queens Park Railway Club
Community art can be the beating heart of an urban centre if it steers clear from gentrification
'I think places that have really strong art schools tend to have really good music scenes,' said artist / musician Ross Sinclair recently in an interview about Artists Who Make Music, Musicians Who Make Art. The exhibition, which he curated at Queens Park Railway Club in Glasgow, featured 100 of his contemporaries to illustrate the symbiosis between the sonic and visual worlds.
This probably wasn't quite what David Harding had in mind in 1985 when he set up the Environmental Art course at Glasgow School of Art, but as an alumnus of the course, Sinclair's observation is one of the world-changing consequences of an initiative which recognised a sense of place as being vital to the work that came out of it.
The foundation stones for a more holistic, social-based attitude towards art being about something more than what you hang on a wall were set down almost two decades earlier, when Harding became Town Artist in Glenrothes. While the central Fife New Town went on to become a beacon of community art throughout Harding's tenure from 1968 to 1978, earlier initiatives such as Craigmillar Festival Society (which existed in south Edinburgh between 1962 and 2002) similarly transformed the social landscape occupied by a population previously shunted out of sight and starved of civic and artistic facilities.
Since then, property developers and local authorities have conspired to rip the hearts out of urban centres by using so-called creative hubs or (even worse) 'cultural quarters' as a short-cut to gentrification. The trickle-down effect of the Glenrothes and Craigmillar initiatives, however, has seen an increasing awareness of community-led projects that put the immediate environment at their heart.
Since 1995, a group of residents in the Aberdeenshire town of Huntly formed Deveron Arts (now Deveron Projects) to use the town itself as a venue. Paisley, meanwhile, may have lost out in its bid to become UK City of Culture 2021, but looks set to continue with a rejuvenated sense of self-determination and civic pride at a grassroots level.
'People have different expectations of Paisley now, and Paisley has different expectations of itself,' says Jean Cameron, outgoing project director for Paisley 2021. Something similar is true of Deveron Projects. 'It's put the town on the map,' says Claudia Zeiske, one of its co-founders. 'By linking the local to the global, it allows people to look at Huntly with fresh eyes, and with a new sense of identity and community.'
While Glasgow's tenure as European Capital of Culture in 1990 opened the city up, the closure of The Arches marked an end to such enlightened civic thinking. This is a long way from David Harding's time in Glenrothes, when (care of Glenrothes Development Corporation) he sat on the local planning committee, working with architects and builders to create a series of sculptural interventions, including his famed hippopotamus series. 'A lot of people in Glenrothes felt an ownership of the work,' he says. 'That's why what's happened in Huntly is so special. To come up with the idea of a town as a venue is so holistic.'
While predatory developers hover over areas such as Leith intent on monetising grassroots culture, in terms of progressive thinking regarding the arts as part of everyday activity, the ongoing presence of Deveron Projects, the legacy of Paisley 2021, and Harding's time in Glenrothes suggests that the wheel appears to have come full circle. This is evident from works such as Forest Pitch, Craig Coulthard's 2012 project which hosted a day of football games on land in the Borders where trees planted to mark the pitch's lines are still growing. It was significant, too, that the 2015 Turner Prize, hosted in Glasgow, was won by Assemble, the young arts and design collective that regenerated a group of run-down houses in Liverpool's Toxteth district.
All of this goes back further than Harding's work, to environmentally-inclined German iconoclast Joseph Beuys' assorted Scottish interventions. These in part inspired 7000 Oaks, in which Beuys planted seeds for trees in Kassel, Germany. Coming full circle, Deveron Arts responded by commissioning artist Caroline Wendling to create a new piece of land art.
As artists help reclaim the landscape of public art, perhaps town planners, culture committees and artists themselves should pay heed to Harding's final words in Glenrothes Town Artist, a booklet published in the 1970s to highlight and document his post. 'I can only see growing opportunities for artists willing to lose a little of their precious regard for the object,' he wrote, 'and to see creative activity itself as the main objective.'