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Glasgow Report: Getting (Art) Schooled

I could explain why I came to Glasgow through a variety of reasons, but truthfully my choice was an intuitive hunch. I’m here at the Glasgow School of Art studying to get a master of fine art degree; I wanted to get away from the Canadian scene, experience something new and also find a city that’s a little bit marginal (as opposed to London, New York or Berlin). Of course, the school and the city have gritty but positive reputations, the pound is low and the cost of living is cheap (even compared to most of Canada). But really, I just got the sense that this was a good fit with my personality and my practice.

It seems that a few other Canadians have had the same impression. I share the MFA course with a dozen fellow Canucks split between the first and second years of the program. We’ve been informally dubbed “the Canadian mafia.” Alongside the Canadians are a wide range of international students hailing from South Korea, France, Switzerland, Italy, the United States, Japan, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico. Add into this mix a solid core of English, Northern Irish, and Scottish postgrads and you have quite a varied and dynamic group of 60 or so artists.

Of course, most of us international invaders don’t hold up to the tough reputation of Glasgow itself. But for a place that’s got such a history of hard living and hard knocks, the city isn’t all that scary. There are certainly lots of horror stories about poverty, drugs and violence, but the underbelly is rarely revealed (although I did just see someone bearing a nasty facial mutilation known as the “Glasgow smile”). Truthfully, the only parts of my body that have suffered here are my lungs, liver and arteries. Mostly, people are kind and considerate—and really funny. There’s even a surprising awareness and appreciation of the GSA, as a chat with the average cabbie or pub-goer will reveal.

The GSA has tapped into the living identity of the city since the school’s inception in 1840. Its campus is sited among a cluster of buildings in Glasgow’s core, making it one of the central features of the downtown. This amalgam of incongruous architectural forms supports undergraduate and postgraduate courses in design, fashion, fine art, architecture and a variety of other creative disciplines. The centrepiece of the campus is the world-renowned Mackintosh Building, which is widely considered to be the most important building designed by GSA’s favourite son, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. “The Mac” is justifiably revered, and stands proudly over Renfrew Street as an icon of Glasgow’s European emergence during the Industrial Revolution. Even today, it remains a functioning part of the art school despite its status as an irreplaceable architectural treasure and tourist destination.

As for the school, it is something of a sprawling bureaucracy, but one that can be successfully navigated if you have some patience. Whenever I need information, I just email a few people and things generally get sorted out quickly. The technical resources aren’t anything spectacular, but it’s all decent enough. The media lab, photo processing, printmaking and casting workshops seem to suit people’s needs, but there is a woeful lack of metalworking facilities due to health and safety regulations. There are also more specialized resources (a 3-D scanner, letterpress facilities, large-scale printing, etc.) but these are more difficult to access and seem to involve interdisciplinary haggling. Studios are located between two separate buildings, the Barnes Building (a converted hospital) and the McLellan Galleries (a strange, cavernous museum complex that is somehow reminiscent of the hotel in The Shining). Each MFA student gets an individual studio space that is vaguely allocated based on media preference, although the program itself isn’t defined along media-specific lines.

The actual MFA course is more like an extended residency with a few more intensive academic elements incorporated in its structure. This is not a knock against the program. In fact, up to this point, the MFA has reminded me of a long-term stay at the Banff Centre (except for the considerably greater cost!). What this means is that within the course one must be particularly self-motivated and capable of formulating and executing projects independently. There are some required classes, a selection of readings, group critiques, a small paper or two over the first year and a longer dissertation at the end. But most of the time students are left to their own devices. Visiting tutors including Gerrie van Noord, Tom O’Sullivan and Joanne Tatham, Clara Ursitti, Martin Boyce and Kate Davis provide occasional allocated visits with students, while the permanent faculty of Graham Ramsay, John Calcutt and Francis Mckee conduct regular one-to-one tutorials to check up on progress and provide feedback.

Luckily, my year of students has a distinctive tendency towards self-initiated projects. We’re in this together, and that’s an exciting feeling. Many of the artists currently in the MFA program have been a part of other artist-run initiatives (Moot in Nottingham, Newcall in Auckland, White Office in Tours, Catalyst in Belfast, Salford Restoration Office in Manchester, Circa in Montreal) so there is a strong familiarity with the importance of working together as a community. Student-initiated critiques, dinners, dance parties, film screenings and social events have formed the foundation of the GSA experience so far. Quite truly the program is what we make of it, and things only seem to get richer the more time we all spend together.

Of course, there is a risk that this tight-knit group of artists could easily become insular and self-involved. Luckily, there are many possibilities to connect with the wider art community of the city itself. Around Glasgow there’s virtually always an art event or two to attend most nights of the week. Well-known galleries like the Common Guild, CCA Glasgow, Transmission, Tramway and the Modern Institute are balanced by a slew of independent and self-funded spaces and initiatives. Glasgow’s art scene is heavily organized around former graduates of the GSA, with many of the galleries and projects having a direct connection to either the undergraduate or graduate programs. One of the amazing things about this city is how, through a highly cooperative sensibility and with very little money, it manages to sustain and grow an art culture that is highly independent, refined and welcoming to outsiders. It’s an easy place to become a part of things and the GSA seems to be an immediate builder of friendships, networks and opportunities within the community.

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