Lessons from Glasgow

Not so long ago, while idly twitter-bantering with a Buffalo-based artist friend and fellow graduate of my MFA program, we found ourselves floored by the realization that it’s been ten years since we had graduated from the Glasgow School of Art. Ten long and eventful years, yet the memory of the place continues to cling closer than the harsh reality of time.

Some things in Scotland were radically different from Hamilton – smoking in bars and school corridors alike before the ban kicked in, mountains visible from my studio window that actually lived up to the name – but living in Glasgow never felt particularly strange because it was so uncannily similar to my hometown. The industrial legacy, the unapologetic grit and the open authenticity of the people were all familiar to me, even if the latter was sometimes obscured by the thickest, most incomprehen- sible Glaswegian brogue imaginable.

More significantly, Glasgow shares many of the burdens we bear here in Hamilton – the post-industrial unemployment and ensuing social struggles, to say nothing of ill-conceived infrastructure projects in the 1960s that forced whole neighbourhoods into distant apartment tower blocks and carved a highway clear through the city centre – and when I say highway, I mean a proper expressway that makes our Main Street almost look reasonable by comparison. Almost.

Despite this, crossing the M8 on foot as I did near-daily for two years was a remarkably humane experience: not terrifying enough to deter a Starbucks from setting up shop on its pedestrian intersection at Sauchiehall Street, which gives way further east to a long stretch of pedestrian-only streetscape bustling with human traffic. That lively public realm is one face of what people are referring to when they talk of ‘the Glasgow miracle’ – a transformation starting from the 1990s when Glasgow gradually shed its reputation as an impoverished post-industrial ruin to become the major cultural centre that it is today.

To call this a miracle is, of course, a complete misnomer. A constellation of variables worked together to make Glasgow a great cultural destination, from its progressive music scene and built heritage to the strong political will it took to invest in these advantages. I fell in love with the city immediately, but with a heart that was always reaching back to Hamilton. What I saw in Glasgow was the blueprint for what Hamilton could become with so many of the same raw materials at our disposal. Eddie Friel, one of the architects of Glasgow’s cultural renaissance, has visited Hamilton multiple times since I moved back to strike this same comparison for local audiences. The similarities are too numerous and inspiring to be ignored.

That said, the longer I’ve been back in Hamilton, the more I think back on my student experience there as a crucial difference. Glasgow’s city centre is almost absurdly packed with higher learning institutions: four universities, three colleges, two renowned arts schools and a heap of vocational colleges, all woven into the fabric of the inner city rather than cloistered away in sprawling campuses on the outskirts. The University of Glasgow – the fourth-oldest university in the English-speaking world – is pressed tight to the bustle of Byres Road to the west (a sort of hyperbolic Locke Street that is no doubt a by-product of the university itself). The Glasgow School of Art is an iconic part of the city centre, its students working within ten minutes’ walk of most major art galleries and performing arts venues.

This intimate access to the cultural life of the city far exceeded anything I had experienced in my four years at McMaster, and this connection went deeper than geography. The Glasgow School of Art, in many significant ways, made the contemporary art scene that flourishes in the city today. Its instructors are the same artists who exhibit in Scotland and beyond, and its students form successful galleries and rock bands with shocking regularity.

The sort of cultural scene that makes cities great, needs the collision of ideas and audacity that comes from a strong interplay of professional artists and students such that the latter are visibly mentored and championed in the wider community. Our active and growing arts ecosystem would be stronger still with our student artists as active and embedded equals in making the sort of scene that will make them stay and sustain the arts in Hamilton for years to come.

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