Sometimes it takes a little while

Posted in CF Writing, Texts by chrisfremantle on May 8, 2011

or, How has Scotland changed?

AHM‘s second State of Play Symposium (2 April 2011) was a very different affair from the first. Held in Edinburgh in the Hawthornden Lecture Theatre of the National Galleries of Scotland, it was comfortable, elegant, sophisticated and at the heart of the establishment.

In November when we first met at the invitation of AHM to discuss the state of play, it was in the lecture theatre at Gilmorehill in the University of Glasgow. It felt edgy, not least because the technical staff had just been handed redundancy notices, but also because it was a week before Westminster’s “budget of cuts.”  There was talk of organising. Philip Schlesinger outlined the cultural policy context for the formation of Creative Scotland, describing clearly the increasing economism that has resulted in the arts being transformed into the creative industries, with all the entailed lack of criticality. Peter McCaughey told everyone to join the Scottish Artists Union (and this still applies).

For the second event AHM had invited ex-pat Scots to speak. The event started with a virtually broadcast quality presentation by Neal Ascherson on the history of the Scots overseas. He focused on the Scots in the Baltics, Poland in particular, and how that forms part of a wider European history, developing themes he explored in Stone Voices: The search for Scotland. Rather than list all the excellent speakers, and it was a powerhouse of a day in terms of the line-up of speakers (see AHM blog for videos), I want to reflect on why the question and answer sessions never seemed to get into a groove.

The underlying recurring story was of extremely talented, successful and interesting artists graduating from Scottish art schools in the 70s and high-tailing it out of Scotland as quickly as possible. I am sure that the word stultifying was used. The fact that it took until the early 80s for Scotland to decriminalise same-sex relationships was also mentioned. Whilst we might look back on the period as one of radical actions (Demarco, Beuys, Hamilton Finlay, APG), the reality for young artists was an oppressive environment where according to one speaker it took years to un-learn the house style of Edinburgh College of Art’s Painting Department. There was almost no contemporary art (apart from the Scottish Arts Council’s Gallery), and very few artist-led or run spaces (in Edinburgh there were The New 57 Gallery and the Printmakers).

And now? Artist-led spaces abound and contemporary art is everywhere. The major cultural institutions have bought into contemporary art big time: it’s projects in schools, strategies in healthcare, instrumental to regeneration projects.  So contemporary visual arts are out there, visible and challenging.

Probably a quarter of the audience were from other parts of the world (myself included) choosing to live and work in Scotland because Scotland is now an interesting place to be, and whilst globalisation has made mobility something taken for granted and artists are always coming and going, it is still a decision, sometimes made for love rather than professional returns, to be in Scotland rather than London, LA, Sydney, New York, Berlin or anywhere else.

So the audience for the AHM event, who are choosing to live and work in Scotland now, were faced with people who all left ages ago and made their lives (very successfully) elsewhere: difficult to have that conversation.

But as a way to focus the ‘state of play’, to make it clear that ‘now’ is not the same as ‘before’, and to prepare us to think about the future when we meet again in September in Dundee for the third and final event, AHM placed this symposium right on the mark. Verdict: troubling and requiring thought.

The questions that should have been asked are:

To the speakers: “If you were young again and here now would you still leave and if not, why not?”

To the audience: “How do we work out what’s really important and how do we fight for it?”

If the visual arts in Scotland are vital, alive, vibrant, then what makes them vital and how do we tell that story?  Perhaps the story starts,

“In the 70s the best and brightest talent felt compelled to leave Scotland for other parts of the world.  It’s striking the extent to which that situation has changed.  Now people from other parts of the world choose to make Scotland the base for their practices.  The most talented Scottish artists stay in Scotland and work internationally.  We need to build on this transformation.”

AHM remind us to “Work as if you live in the early days of a better society.”  It seems to me that at this Symposium they demonstrated one of the ways in which we do live in the early days of a better society.

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