A Brief History of Cultural Policy in Glasgow

Amid all the triumphalism surrounding Glasgow’s oversight of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the roots of the parallel cultural melee, Festival 2014, were traced to the Glasgow Garden Festival (1988) and Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture in 1990.[1] The Garden Festival – which positioned grey Glasgow in the middle of a Technicolor five-site tour spanning eight years of Conservative Britain – found its closest precedent in the Empire Exhibition, staged in the ‘second city of Empire’ half a century earlier. A reported excess of four million visitors to the Garden Festival convinced the city burghers that there might be something to this cultural tourism lark. Two years later, to the surprise of those who associated Glasgow with decrepit industry and civic unrest, the once dear green place was temporarily renamed ‘City of Culture’.

Almost before it had happened, Glasgow’s incarnation as European City of Culture was widely hailed a success. This led the title to become ‘an issue of fierce competition between cities wanting to […] reap the same benefits as Glasgow […] it became a project especially attractive to post-industrial “secondary” or “non-traditional” cultural cities desiring to reposition themselves culturally, socially and economically, after the now-famous Glasgow case’.[2] The presumed success of 1990 was analysed as part of a retrospective assessment of the extent to which the city has used culture as an integral part of its regeneration strategy. It was found that, against the conventional indicator of visitor numbers, ‘the first indicative data made available by the tourist board illustrates the marked short-term impact of the Year of Culture’.[3] As Glasgow-based writer and filmmaker Neil Gray has observed, the short-lived nature of the festival effect has created a new kind of ‘dependency culture’ in Glasgow, with the city inventing ever-new events and accolades in an attempt to attract incomers, as ‘the rolling out of Bread and Circuses is about the most coherent strategy available to city regions under the external coercive power of neoliberal inter-urban competition’.[4]

sinclairUpon closer inspection, it was discovered that, during Glasgow’s stint as City of Culture, culture was solely ‘defined in the language of economics’.[5] Moreover, culture was ‘bundled up with business services, with tourism, with the leisure industries as part of a narrow definition of urban regeneration driven by the objectives of employment creation’.[6] Against the marker of increased employment opportunity, the effect of 1990 was a surge in service sector jobs. This trend has persisted over the past quarter-century, to the extent that the city’s main sources of employment are hotels, bars, restaurants and conference centres, providing work that is often seasonal and undertaken at anti-social hours. Nowadays, ‘[n]ine out of ten jobs in Glasgow are in the service sector with even the City Council acknowledging that these jobs are in “lower paid and lower skilled services”’.[7] In short, there is ‘little evidence to support the argument that Year of Culture 1990 made a clear contribution to local economic development’,[8] leading to the conclusion that ‘[i]t is inappropriate to think of cultural policy merely in terms of the economic benefits that it can induce for a city’.[9]

queen-st-installationUndaunted by realities on the ground, Comedia – a consultancy set up by the urbanist Charles Landry in 1978 – took Glasgow as its first case study of what Landry coined the ‘creative city’. The ensuing 1991 report, entitled Making the Most of Glasgow’s Cultural Assets: The Creative City and its Cultural Economy, suggested that:

To maximise the potential and impact of cultural activities it is important to view arts and culture as more than merely a collection of events, shows and festivals for consumption. Each cultural sector such as design, theatre, film, the visual arts and music is also an industry, where goods and services are produced, where products are bought and sold, where supply and demand operates, value added is created, and where support services and structures are needed right through from production to consumption.[10]

In subordinating culture to the laws of supply and demand, the report, which was lodged with the Town Clerk’s Office, found Glasgow to be rich in ideas but lacking in ‘people, resources and production capacities to aid the transformation of ideas into marketable products’.[11] So, while the quality and infrastructure of the visual and performing arts were deemed relatively strong, compared to Manchester and Birmingham, it was noted that the city lacked a ‘sufficiently large class of cultural entrepreneurs able to identify, manage and control the resources to the benefit of Glasgow’. In other words, a dearth of ‘[a]gents, agencies, distributors and middle-men’ meant that ‘talent, skills and profit leak out from the Glasgow economy’.[12] In a bid to address this, it was recommended that the Glasgow Development Agency devise a Creative City Strategy, centred on, amongst other things, six key regenerator projects. Of these, Tramway in the south of the city should be ‘conceived of as an lntegrated Centre for the Performing and Visual Arts combining production, training and performance/exhibition with supply services located nearby. By focusing a range of activities at the Tramway a critical mass could be achieved. If the level of activity can be generated the Tramway could become a creative hub of a creative city’.[13] A 19th century former tram shed, Tramway began to be used as an arts venue in the late 1980s before being claimed as a lasting legacy of City of Culture post-1990. Its largest, off-centre space, replete with tramlines, lent itself to the large-scale installations and film projections typical of that era. Smaller spaces around the cavernous building were kitted out as theatres, rehearsal rooms, project spaces and cafés.

workers-cityFour years after Comedia made these recommendations, Landry worked with cultural policy researcher Franco Bianchini to pen a book-length study of The Creative City, which was published by Demos, the London-based think-tank credited with introducing neoliberalism into the Labour Party.[14] This treatise observed that more than half the world’s population would shortly be living in cities but that many of these metropolitan centres were in decline. In response, Landry and Bianchini proffered a toolkit for urban managers, aimed at reversing this decline, which was centred on acknowledging the creativity that existed amongst city dwellers:

The task of urban planners is to recognize, manage and exploit these resources responsibly. Culture, therefore, should shape the technicalities of urban planning rather than be seen as a marginal add-on to be considered once the important planning questions like housing, transport and land-use have been dealt with. By contrast a culturally informed perspective should condition how planning as well as economic development or social affairs should be addressed.[15]

The year after The Creative City was published, Glasgow City Council was formed from an agglomeration of Glasgow District Council and Strathclyde Regional Council to become Scotland’s largest local authority. Arts matters at the Labour-controlled council were presided over by the Cultural and Leisure Services department, which soon fell under the jurisdiction of Bridget McConnell, who arrived in the city, from Fife, on the arm of the future First Minister of Scotland. In acceding to its paradigmatic role as a creative city, Glasgow cherry-picked from Landry’s advice. On the one hand, the realisation seeped in that culture might be more than just a succession of spectacles. On the other hand, the succession of spectacles continued, with the mantle of UK City of Architecture and Design being assumed in 1999. At the same time, the expertise and joined-up thinking that the urban–cultural gurus had missed remained in absentia.

In the autumn of 2003, the arts communities of Glasgow realised with a jolt that the city lacked a tangible cultural policy. The occasion for this discovery was the threatened loss of the main visual arts space at Tramway.[16] In 1999, the building had undergone a renovation with capital lottery funding, and it now became clear that Scottish Ballet had been discussing plans to relocate there, apply for more lottery funding with the council’s blessing and commandeer the main space for rehearsals. All of which is rendered retrospectively ironic by Comedia’s identification of Tramway’s strength to lie in its multidisciplinary approach. Equally ironic was the use of low attendance figures as a stick with which to beat this out-of-the way venue, especially as the Cultural and Leisure Services annual review for 2003–4 referred to Tramway recording ‘35,000 attendances at exhibitions and performances representing a 55% increase on the previous year’s performance’.[17] A 2009 issue of Mute magazine, dedicated to the theme of the creative city in ruins, would suggest that, within the creative city construct, ‘creative expressivity is so narrowly defined as to be utterly meaningless’, which possibly explains the municipal inability to differentiate culture in anything other than numerical terms.[18] In the meantime, an unprecedented mobilisation by Glasgow’s disparate cultural communities salvaged the visual arts at Tramway.

It would take another two and a half years after the Tramway debacle for the city to publish a cultural strategy, entitled Glasgow: The Place, The People, The Potential. This twenty-page document included two forewords. The first of these was by Steven Purcell, Leader of Glasgow City Council and a rising star of the New Labour project north of the border. Purcell wrote breathlessly of Glasgow’s renaissance, and relentlessly spliced culture together with sport at every mention. (Four years earlier – in July 2002 – the decision had been taken to bid for the Commonwealth Games, and property developers had begun buying up blighted land around the proposed games site in the east of the city.) The second foreword was contributed by Bridget McConnell, who referred to record investment in the city’s cultural infrastructure and ‘acknowledged the link between cultural participation, economic regeneration, and the provision of enhanced opportunity for our citizens’.[19] This marks a transition from the creative city construct – in which the creativity of citizens is purported to save cities – to the rhetoric of culture-led regeneration – in which cultural participation is expected to save the citizenry.

Further into the cultural strategy, the demographics of the city were considered, with the admission being made that ‘more than one in four Glaswegians of working age [are] claiming benefits’ and ‘almost half (47%) of Glasgow’s citizens [are] living in the 10% most deprived areas in Scotland’.[20] This segued into the confession that ‘Glasgow’s health remains poor compared to the rest of the UK and Europe, with 26% of the population identified as having a limiting long term illness. We must conclude therefore that, despite Glasgow’s successful and continuing transformation, the energy and vitality of this vibrant, metropolitan city, with a significant cultural infrastructure, does not impact on the health and wellbeing of a large proportion of the city’s population’.[21] This stark admission encapsulates the limitations of culture-led regeneration, or what might be thought of as trickle-down cultural economics. While the municipal centre has been regenerated (at the expense of outlying areas), with expensive shops, restaurants, hotels and car parks clustered around the cultural attractions, this has failed to have a positive impact on the city as a whole. A World Health Organization report, published in August 2008, found that a man living in one Glasgow suburb (Lenzie) could expect to reach the age of 82 while his counterpart in another (Calton) had the average life expectancy of just 54.[22]

On 14 May 2010, Bridget McConnell delivered the Robert Owen Commemorative Lecture at New Lanark. In her presentation, ‘Culture and Sport: a matter of life and death?’, McConnell cited two Nordic studies which seemed to suggest that attendance at cultural events increased life expectancy. Of the second, she asserted that ‘[a] 14 year-long Swedish study of the impact of visiting the cinema, museums or art exhibitions and concerts showed an influence on mortality in a positive direction – again this was medical research and was controlled for gender, smoking, economic status, education and chronic illness – in other words, cultural participation was identified as a separate variable’.[23] The study to which McConnell refers was the continuation of a longitudinal analysis of a Swedish dataset, first published in the British Medical Journal in 1996. In the earlier study, a range of factors that might mediate between arts engagement and life expectancy were taken into account, and, once the necessary adjustments were made, although no causal relationship could be claimed, it seemed that ‘people attending cultural events occasionally were more at risk of dying than those attending either seldom or often, those attending least found to have a 60% higher risk of death’.[24] Of all the potential mediators, income level was found to play an important part, which led the authors of this study to conclude that ‘perhaps cultural participation underlies some of the notorious social class differences in survival’.[25]

When art form differentiation was introduced into this study four years later, in the paper cited by McConnell,[26] ‘a positive association was observed for cinema, concerts, art exhibition and museum visits but not for theatre, church or sporting attendance’.[27] Understandably, attention was not drawn in New Lanark to the negligible impact of theatre-going and sporting spectatorship. Less excusable is the attempt to deny the mediating effect of economic status (which came out of the first study) and educational level (which came out of the second). Surely those responsible for cultural policy in the paradigmatic creative city have a responsibility to more fully interrogate the ‘notorious class differences in survival’, rather than using culture – and sport ­– as a façade to mask growing inequality.

Fast-forward to 2015 and post-match analysis of the Commonwealth Games. The official evaluation of the compulsory cultural component euphemistically describes how the ‘pattern of cultural attendance and participation […] largely replicates the existing uneven pattern (i.e. by gender, by disability and by ethnicity) that is characteristic of Scotland as a whole’.[28] Still nothing about the notorious class difference that characterises modern Glasgow. Evidence on the ground suggests that cultural organisations with excellent track records in community engagement were overlooked in favour of the tourist-friendly spectacles that characterised Festival 2014. By now, the archetypal creative city has become an exemplar of post-industrial malaise, and history continues to repeat itself, more farcical every time.

Text published in Inventors of Tradition II (Panel, 2016).


[1] This connection was made in Creative Scotland and Glasgow Life, Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme Evaluation, Final Report, July 2015 and in Glasgow Life, Together We Delivered: Our Glasgow 2014 Story (Glasgow: Glasgow Life, 2015).

[2] Simone Pekelsma, ‘European Capital of Culture 2010’, unpublished research report co-supervised by Hans Mommaas, September 2007, p. 12.

[3] Peter Booth and Robin Boyle [1993], ‘See Glasgow, See Culture’ in Franco Bianchini and Michael Parkinson (eds.), Cultural Policy and Urban Regeneration: The Western European Experience (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 36-7.

[4] Neil Gray, ‘CG 2014: Formulary for a Skewed Urbanism’, Mute, Vol. 2, issue 12, 2009, p. 35 (italics in original).

[5] Booth and Boyle, op cit., p. 22.

[6] Loc cit.

[7] Gray, op cit., p. 30.

[8] Booth and Boyle, op cit., p. 45.

[9] Ibid, p. 43.

[10] Comedia, Making the Most of Glasgow’s Cultural Assets: The Creative City and its Cultural Economy, May 1991, p. 4.

[11] Loc cit.

[12] Ibid, p. 5.

[13] Ibid, p. 7.

[14] See http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Demos

[15] Charles Landry and Franco Bianchini, The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators (London: Demos, 1995), p. 7.

[16] See http://www.itchyfingers.org/sostramway/

[17] Cultural and Leisure Services, Annual Review 2003–4 (Glasgow: Glasgow City Council, 2004), p. 22.

[18] Josephine Berry Slater, ‘Editorial’, Mute, Vol. 2, issue 12, 2009, p. 7.

[19] Glasgow: The Place, The People, The Potential, March 2006, p. 2.

[20] Ibid, p. 4.

[21] Loc cit.

[22] WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health, Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health (Geneva: World Health Organisation, 2008), Table 2.1, p. 32.

[23] Bridget McConnell, ‘The Robert Owen Commemoration [sic] Lecture’, made available to the author in response to a request made under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act.

[24] Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, Exploring the Longitudinal Relationship Between Arts Engagement and Health (Manchester: Arts for Health, 2015), p. 16.

[25] Lars Olov Bygren, Boinkum Benson Konlaan and Sven-Erik Johansson, ‘Attendance at

Cultural Events, Reading Books or Periodicals, and Making Music or Singing in a Choir as Determinants for Survival: Swedish Interview Survey of Living Conditions’, British

Medical Journal, 313, 21–28 December 1996, p. 1580.

[26] Boinkum Benson Konlaan, Lars Olov Bygren and Sven-Erik Johansson, ‘Visiting the

Cinema, Concerts, Museums or Art Exhibitions as Determinant of Survival: A Swedish

Fourteen-Year Cohort Follow-Up’, Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 28, 2000,

  1. 174–78.

[27] Gordon-Nesbitt, op cit., p. 17.

[28] Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme Evaluation, op cit., p. 2.