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We developed a buoyant scene with international recognition, it wouldn't have taken much for the balance to shift

Glasgow's incredible success in the difficult, eclectic, mercurial world of contemporary art in the last 20 years has been well documented.

There are hundreds of articles about what Hans-Ulrich Obrist, a leading German curator, has called the "Glasgow miracle".

Books have, and are, being written about how, from the 1990s, Glasgow and many of its artists became incredibly successful. Academic studies are delving into what exactly was in the water in Glasgow in a period that led to, ultimately, five Turner Prize winners, lauded exhibitions around the world, a thriving new contemporary cultural festival and an established national presence at the ultimate visual arts showpiece, the Venice Biennale.

Behind every historically important art scene there are people who may not be well known to the public but simply work hard to make things happen. On of the most notable individuals behind Glasgow's success is now sitting before me, slightly nervous.

Unlike her close friend Douglas Gordon, or artists such as Christine Borland, Karla Black, Martin Boyce, Martin Creed, Richard Wright, Susan Philipsz or indeed her partner Nathan Coley, Katrina Brown may not get much press or be known to the casual reader of exhibition reviews. But her work, beginning with arranging exhibitions at Glasgow gallery Transmission, as curator and deputy director of Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), as a successful director of the GI Festival (the festival that brought Jeremy Deller's bouncy Stonehenge to Glasgow), and now as director of her own arts organisation, the Common Guild, as well as curator of Scotland's Venice show, she has been a vital part of the scene's success.

And those artists who have powered Glasgow's remarkable ascendancy are not only her colleagues and peers but many are her friends. Indeed the Common Guild is based in one of Gordon's houses in the city's west end. Brown says: "It weirdly does work. He is very seldom there and every artist so far has really relished the opportunity to work in that kind of domestic space; a Victorian house with an ornamental stairway."

Born in 1967, Brown is quietly powerful, influential and respected. She speaks clearly, not in arts world jargon or euphemisms. Caring about art, and its place in cities and society, runs in her blood, as does her strong civic sense. She is careful about speaking to the press but knows when she speaks out, as she has done in the past year over the unravelling Creative Scotland crisis, she is listened to.

Those attitudes, caring for collections and a strong sense of Glasgow as a home to great art, can perhaps be traced to the influence of her father, Councillor William Brown. He was convenor of Glasgow's museums and galleries committee in the 1950s, helped secure Salvador Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross for Kelvingrove (for £8200), even meeting the artist to help seal the deal. The councillor, like his only child now, worked with the decision-makers of the time: Tom Honeyman, director of Kelvingrove, and Sir William Burrell, the shipping magnate whose Deed of Gift to the city resulted in the Burrell Collection. His daughter is now heavily involved in the Gallery of Modern Art's Art Fund International scheme, building a new collection of international contemporary work for the city.

"He was in many ways from a different time, which as a teenager I struggled with, but he was a huge influence," she admits. "At a certain point in my life I realised it was amazing to have access to that generation. He was incredibly forward thinking and visionary. He was very civically minded; the whole idea of Glasgow having these art galleries."

Like many Glaswegians – Brown grew up in Cardonald – childhood trips to Kelvingrove with her father were a formative part of her childhood. "He always spoke about the Dali with awe," she says.

We are talking in her flat in Glasgow's south side, which she shares with Coley, a Turner Prize nominated artist in 2007, and their daughter. Their home is decorated with gorgeous Scottish (and otherwise) contemporary art from the last 20 years. Works by Boyce, Gordon, Graham Fagan, Justin Beale, Coley and many others adorn walls and surfaces. This has been her home since she moved back from Dundee and we are, obstensibly, here to talk about Scotland's 10th anniversary of having its own show at Venice.

This year's Scotland + Venice will feature three Glasgow-based artists, Duncan Campbell, Corin Sworn and Hayley Tompkins. Since 2003 the Scottish show has become a key part of the Venice festival. It is now hard to imagine the Biennale without it. "It really is established now," she nods. "It's important because in Scotland we are so far on the edges of things geographically, to get people to come here is quite an effort. And in Venice the sheer numbers of art professionals, critics, curators or collectors – in terms of exposing the work to people who would never otherwise come across it, there's nowhere really like it."

Brown knows how artists work and live. They have been part of her life since her youth. As a child she was interested in and made art, applied for art school and met like minds and future friends and colleagues at Castle Toward, a residential education facility on the Cowal peninsula. Convinced she would not make a great artist, she decided to study French at Glasgow University instead. She adds: "I met Douglas [Gordon] and Christine Borland through art school. Nathan and I started going out in 1988. I remember meeting Douglas in Tennent's Bar on Byres Road. I got on with him straight away."

Did she know these artists and friends would be so good? "No, we had no idea. We didn't even realise there was an art world. I didn't know there was a job called a curator. In the early 1990s the whole contemporary art scene had not exploded like it did later on and I wasn't in any kind of position to be judging whether these artists were good or not – they were just friends."

What happened in Glasgow's art scene in the 1990s? "It's the million-dollar question. I think it was something about Transmission, and Glasgow School of Art. With retrospect you can see how a number of factors conspired."

And of course they supported and encouraged each other. "We were all living in flats on Hill Street and living on top of each other. Somebody once wrote about how everyone has a different point in their life's trajectory, where a time is super-formative. There is a moment where you are a sponge and everything that happens in that moment becomes fundamental and the friends you make stay with you."

Her first job in the art world was in 1990 when Tramway was doing a French exhibition called Le Cinq and she helped out, using her language skills. "It was a tiny wee job but it was a real eye-opener in terms of, 'God, so this is how it works, this is how people make exhibitions.'"

Through work at Transmission Gallery, a post-graduate course at St Andrews, then the Tate in Liverpool, Brown learned curatorial and managements skills. Then she came back to Scotland as a key part of the team which opened the DCA in 1999. She and Coley moved to Dundee: "I think a lot of people here [in Glasgow] were slightly freaked out at us leaving and wondered whether we would come back." They did, in 2006.

Recently, her confidence in the continuing strength of the visual arts scene was shaken. The establishment of Creative Scotland, and its new schemes and funding decisions, caused huge controversy last year. Brown found herself, eventually, having to speak out. She says: "I thought it was going to be very dangerous. I thought we had developed this really buoyant scene that was getting international recognition, but it wouldn't have taken much for that balance to shift. Other cities have been champing at the bit to get a little of what Glasgow has had."

And how does she feel now Creative Scotland have vowed to change? "I am optimistic. Every meeting seems better, every conversation is more positive and empathetic."

With the Common Guild, Brown has tried to create something, not just a conventional gallery but somewhere which could launch exhibitions and events elsewhere, as well as collaborate with other organisations. And she is already thinking about the cultural programme for the 2014 Commonwealth Games while trying to continue her involvement in the purchasing of new art for GOMA.

Can the Glasgow miracle continue? "I think the contemporary art scene in Scotland is in a good state, but the shenanigans of last year did shake it. There are few artists who make a living from making a piece of work and then selling it. Most artists work on installation crews, invigilating exhibitions, or a bit of teaching."

Our tea is over and Brown must return to work. She is still shaking her head over the Creative Scotland debacle and adds: "It was such a shame so many people felt they couldn't speak out. We work in the arts, we're not commissioning military hardware. But I began to see what might happen if things didn't change and I didn't want to be part of that."

Katrina Brown, leading art curator

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