By Toby Symonds

CROSSING the border from England doesn’t faze Richard Parry, the new director of Glasgow International, one of the UK’s largest and most influential art festivals.

He says: “Of course there can be drawbacks to you not immediately knowing everybody or everything straight away but there’s also something that can be a great advantage if you’re coming in, potentially as an outsider, bringing in a different perspective or looking at things afresh. I think that can offer a bit of excitement, of change and of something new.”

The biennial Glasgow International has become a permanent feature of the city’s cultural year since its inauguration in 2005, under the curatorship of Francis McKee.

Moving up from Blackpool’s Grundy Art Gallery, Parry is the fourth individual to direct the showcase of local and international art. “It’s one of the major festivals that people look to, certainly here in the British Isles and Scotland and I think within Europe as well. Definitely within Europe actually.”

It’s the end of another “crazy morning” for Parry, on the road to next year’s GI, at the close of an even busier week. He is, however, a man whose ponderous speaking rhythm, and thoughtful manner is suggestive of an individual who’d much rather take his time in life. When asked who his ideal dinner guests might be, a succession of long pauses is followed by: “I’ll get back to you on that.” He does, but only by email 10 minutes after our interview.

Thrown head first into the epicentre of Glasgow’s contemporary art scene in April, Parry’s first summer as the GI director has flown by in a whirl. Yet, it’s a journey to next April that’s proving to be something of a thrill.

“It’s one of those great jobs because you have to really hit the ground running, or sprinting in this case. I found that I settled quite quickly because I haven’t really almost had time to settle and because the role is one of those ones where you are in touch with so many people that you get stuck in straight away.”

Having graduated from the University of Warwick in 2003, with a degree in, ironically, the non-contemporaneous subject of Renaissance and Modern History, Parry’s progression to the top spot at the GI has been an impressive.

He began his working life at the British Council, while by 2008 he was organising a series of high profile exhibitions – including Psycho Buildings, named by critics as among the best of the decade – at the Hayward Gallery in London, where he worked under present director Ralph Rugoff.

It is, however, his perhaps surprising relocation to Blackpool in 2013 that Parry believes will give him an all-important boost when it comes to Glasgow.

He says: “Although I was in London before that, I think that experience [in Blackpool] was really formative for me and changed a lot of the way that I approach things. Blackpool was fascinating. Of course, it’s got a very long history of connection with Glasgow.”

He is referring to the ongoing popularity of tourist travel between England’s seaside town and Scotland’s dear green place. It was back in the 19th century that Glaswegian holiday makers would use the annual Glasgow Fair Fortnight holiday – Parry betrays his southern English roots here, referring to the period as “Wakes Week” – as an opportunity to travel somewhere with “everything you wanted at a price you could afford.”

In this sense, it is little surprise that Parry should make the path north. As he puts it, “I think there’s always a special place in the hearts in Blackpool for the city up here.”

Since moving to Glasgow in May, Parry’s belief that his former and current homes have a strong relationship has only grown stronger.

“It’s interesting for me,” he says, “because communities in the north west have a really strong sense of connection, I think, with Scotland and those cities of Liverpool and Manchester and Glasgow. I always felt there was a bond.

"What really changed the floor for me in Blackpool was the sharp difference in circumstances that many people were living in in Blackpool compared to London where inequalities are a bit more hidden a lot of the time. I kind of hope that that experience brings something a bit different. I don’t necessarily regard myself as coming straight up from London to be honest.”

Parry’s time at Blackpool’s Grundy is one that has been met with apt acclaim, due to his achievements during the four years he curated there. Between 2013 and 2017, he was responsible for the curation and organisation of 25 exhibitions, receiving an Art Fund New Collecting Award for his work on 2015’s Sensory Systems.

Last year, Parry curated NEON: The Charged Line, a spectacular which has the honour of being the largest exhibition of neon-based art in the UK. When it comes to the art itself, however, he considers himself more admirer than practitioner: “I don’t class myself as an artist. My background is very much from very different kind of disciplines.

"For me, it’s probably about a shared sensibility and, of course, you bring very particular skills and curating is as much about organising stuff and making things happen as it is about anything else. I’d hope that you’re in a position to have a sensibility to connect with artists’ work.

"Really, you’re operating at an interface between artists and audiences and it’s about how you create those kinds of dialogues and you draw out those conversations which you hope are going to be nourishing all round. I think I would say curating is a very particular thing and I think almost sometimes, I look around at the curators who’ve inspired me – like Ralph Rugoff at the Hayward or many others – and actually they don’t necessarily come from a fine art background themselves. Bringing that sort of different perspective can be incredibly valuable.”

Vocal excitement and tangible exhaustion is a fine line in conversation with Parry, whose enthusiasm for his work has only grown in his short time in the position. Though he bats off any attempts to dig out the secrets in the programme of next year’s GI – “It was definitely worth a try” he apologises, laughing at my failure in the process – he will, at least, promise something wholly unlike that which has come before.

“What’s interesting this time around is that, since the last festival took place, in April 2016, the world is a completely different place. Also, what’s fascinating about Glasgow International is that the vast proportion of it – I would say over 80% at least – comes from the artists and curators in Glasgow because it’s open submission.

"At the point at which I came in, I was reading a lot of the applications that were coming in and you really got a sense of how the artists and people who work in art are responding to this situation which we now find ourselves in. And that, I think, adds something very particular; a very particular kind of urgency, a very particular sense in which artists are responding to these times and I think that will come across in the programme and has been energising to see that sense of mobilisation.”

One thing that Parry does reveal is that his contract is for more than just the curation of a Glasgow International. That said, life beyond next April is beyond his sights.

“I’m just really intrigued to see what the experience does to me and for me as a curator,” he says, “this is an opportunity for me to learn, for me to build my practice and to change the way that I think and the way that I work. I’m very much focussed on the present.”

As for the city of Glasgow itself? Parry couldn’t be happier with his home here.

“People look to Scotland, they look to Glasgow as a key centre of production, as a place where artists are making work where there are very distinct voices that you don’t get anywhere else.

There’s a lot of great people, a lot of great energy, a lot of great ideas that are coming from here. I think that GI is one of those moments that really brings that. It’s a kind of platform for people from, if you life, the outside – the international community – to look to Glasgow as a kind of focal point and a chance for it to be a platform for all that’s happening here.”

Best Trait

I am quite a collegiate person and I think that one of the strengths that I bring is working in partnerships, partnership building and I would also say that I’m fairly imaginative.

Worst trait

I suspect, if anything, I can be a bit of a workaholic at times.

Last book read

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Last film watched

Atomic Blonde. It’s good fun.

Who’s going to win Strictly Come Dancing?

I think that the main story for me this year is actually Bruce.

Best advice received?

Have you ever been to this place, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London?

Ideal dinner party guests?

John Cage and Grace Jones