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The art of a city

ONCE again Glasgow School of Art graduates dominate the shortlist for the prestigious Turner Prize.

Clockwise from main, Duncan Campbell's film It for Others; Ciara Phillips's The Showroom /London; Tris Vonna-Michell's Postscript II (Berlin); and a still from the film Rosebud by the fourth nominee, James Richards
Clockwise from main, Duncan Campbell's film It for Others; Ciara Phillips's The Showroom /London; Tris Vonna-Michell's Postscript II (Berlin); and a still from the film Rosebud by the fourth nominee, James Richards

That news though comes as little surprise to anyone associated with a fine-art institution that has become famous across the world.

This year, Tris Vonna-Michell, Ciara Phillips and Duncan Campbell are three of the four nominees for the prize, joining a long list of alumni of the school who have been nominated.

Presented annually to a British visual artist under the age of 50, the prize, named after the painter JMW Turner, is organised by the Tate gallery and staged at Tate Britain.

Since it started in 1984 the Turner has become the United Kingdom's most publicised art award - and been inextricably linked to Glasgow School of Art (GSA).

For those involved at GSA, it is as much the city as the school itself that is seen as fostering such talent.

Dr Alistair Payne, the school's head of fine art, says its winning formula is a mixture of elements that creates artists ready to compete on an international stage.

He said: "I would say there are several strands that make GSA such a success. These include our focus on discipline, on the context of work and the focus on the studio, with every student having their own studio space. We really push the boundaries of fine art practice.

"Our students don't look to London, they don't tend to look to other parts of the UK. Instead they look internationally. Our exchange programme lets students study all over the world. GSA has 85 international exchange programmes and this gives our students a sense of what is happening outside the UK and on a global level."

Many of these students have gone on to huge success in a very competitive arena.

"In Glasgow itself there is a real support for GSA and a strong network of galleries and of former students. Students often don't leave Glasgow after graduation because there are so many opportunities for them here," says Payne.

"A lot of our staff started at GSA and so they know GSA, they know the history of the school. A lot of our students don't leave ­Glasgow because they have a network around the city and numerous galleries support our graduates. The public audience here is very open to us and we are very open to the public. We want to feel we are really available to Glasgow and that we and the city are part of each other."

Since 1996 there have been 14 Turner Prize nominees and winners from GSA, with 30% of nominees since 2005 being GSA graduates.

Simon Starling is one. The 2005 Turner Prize said the links with the award show how important Glasgow continues to be on the international art scene.

He said: "It's extraordinary how this has become 'business as usual' for the Turner - the Glasgow scene continuing to play a major part in the prize. I'm particularly happy because Tris Vonna-Michell, one of this year's shortlisted artists, came to study in my class at the Staedelschule in Frankfurt after graduating from GSA.

"He was a wonderful student and brought a fantastic energy to the situation there in Frankfurt.

"And that energy coupled with his almost precocious talent for performance and storytelling brought him almost instant recognition.

"I guess this shortlist in particular is testament to the accumulative attraction of the situation in Glasgow - it's become a real draw for a lot of very talented and ambitious young artists and the three nominees with Glasgow connections this year are a case in point."

Roddy Buchanan was one of a generation of artists - with Douglas Gordon, 2011 Turner Prize nominee Martin Boyce, Christine Borland and Jackie Donachie - who emerged from Glasgow School of Art at the end of the 1980s.

He said: "It was the environmental art course that was the centre of producing students who were of that Turner Prize type of calibre. In the early days it was all graduates from the environmental art course and the scene that developed from that, the positive environment for young artists, and the ethos that started.

"It taught us that context is part of the work: you don't make an art work in isolation, you don't just display it. It has to make sense to the audience; context is 60% of the work. It's not just an exhibition in a museum, it can be displayed anywhere - and it has to be about social issues, it must be politically engaged.

"These are the things we learned at GSA and the things that make for successful artists."

Donachie, who like nominee Ciara Phillips is one of a number of alumni who return to teach at the school, also believes the foundation laid by the early environmental art course created the bedrock for today's young artists. She said: "Things have changed a lot from when we were there - now it's good because there is an enormous international reputation for the school and a lot of students are coming because of that."

She added: "When I go back and teach the school is now full of people who are not from Glasgow and that is completely different to our experience when everyone was from the west of Scotland.

"In terms of teaching, the legacy laid down by Sam Ainsley and David Harding on the environmental art programme is what set the scene for today's successes. I mean, you just have to keep saying those two names - they were just head and shoulders above. Both Harding and Ainsley were lecturers at the school and help head up the environmental art department.

"The school forces you to think about life outside the art school. Holding exhibitions from early on teaches you about all the wheeling and dealing you'll have to face, how to get your work noticed, how to get exhibition space.

"Just the location of GSA as well, at the heart of the city and the heart of everything, the ­community of the Old Vic cafe [the school's social hub]. It's not just about teaching but about who you meet when you're there.

"The teaching staff actively put you outside the art school, they make you think. It is about both practice and relationships."

John Calcutt, postgraduate programme leader and acting Head of the Master of Fine Art (MFA) course, joined the school in 1987. He, too, believes it is as much Glasgow the metropolis as Glasgow School of Art that nurtures success in students. He said: "What we teach them at GSA is hard work, rigour, discipline, attention to detail and developing self-critical skills.

"A lot of their success is about this city. There is a supportive community in the art school and in the city generally.

"Some of our graduates who have international careers move away but many of them make a return to Glasgow. Our MFA is slightly different as it's a two-year programme. It's also a multi-disciplinary programme.

Like many GSA staff, Calcutt thrives next to such student talent. "It's fantastic to be in the company of these incredibly dynamic students who are producing some extraordinary work," he said. As to why Glasgow has such an effect, he says: "I find it a really difficult question to answer. Simply having talent - which we do - is not enough.

"There are some bizarre theories around - it's the football here, it's something in the ice cream.

"There has to be an unknowable element to it. We can talk about all the things we are doing right but it still isn't something you can easily just put a finger on."

The 2014 Turner Prize nominees will show their work in London at the end of September.

Students on the first year of the MFA are currently showing work in the Reid Gallery of the GSA. The 2014 GSA Degree Show, a chance to see work by a new generation of talent, will be staged in the Mackintosh, Reid and Bourdon buildings from June 14 to 21. The 2014 MFA Degree Show will be at the Glue Factory from June 12 to 21.

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