For many Transmission gallery is synonymous with contemporary art in Scotland, an artist-run Glasgow institution that epitomizes the DIY attitude that has helped establish the city as an international centre for art. Judged on its recent actions, you could be forgiven for thinking that the arts funding body Creative Scotland favours a different view. It has dropped the gallery from its 2018-21 portfolio of regularly funded organizations (RFOs), a move that, based on its award for 2015-18, will lose Transmission guaranteed support of GBP£210,000 over three years. It is a decision that has left artists, curators and gallerists expressing anger and disbelief.
Transmission was founded in 1983 by graduates of Glasgow School of Art and has had a key role in the city’s visual arts ecology ever since. It has remained a vital, continually evolving force, in large part because of the way it is run. With a membership of more than 300, it is led by a rolling voluntary committee – typically consisting of six people, although at present it is four – with committee members usually staying in the role for no more than two years, occasionally more and often less. It’s a model that ensures a continual process of renewal and, by its nature, dispenses with the usual arts establishment hierarchies of CEOs, deputy directors and chief curators. Past committee members have gone on to become internationally-known artists and gallerists, and include: Claire Barclay, Christine Borland, Douglas Gordon, Jim Lambie, Tanya Leighton, Carol Rhodes, Eva Rothschild, Lucy Skaer, Simon Starling, and Modern Institute founding director Toby Webster.
The Glasgow-based artist Martin Boyce was on the Transmission committee from 1991-93; The Modern Institute, which represents him, is just around the corner from the King Street venue. ‘Transmission was and is an outsider,’ Boyce says. ‘It allows artists to be responsible for cultivating their own ecosystem that then develops outwards into the city and beyond. It becomes part of the DNA of the artists themselves.’ Remembering his involvement as a recent graduate of Glasgow School of Art, he adds: ‘For me, Transmission was a lifeline, a school, a salon, a gathering place, an invitation, typewriter and a photocopier, an excuse to reach out to other artists, self-determining, responsible, tentative, self-perpetuating, open. It was the first port of call when artists and friends arrived off the train.’
Katrina Brown, director of Glasgow’s Common Guild gallery and a former director of Glasgow International, was a Transmission committee member at the same time as Boyce. She echoes his point about Transmission’s importance to the city and its artists. ‘It’s such a fundamental and foundational component of the [Glasgow] ecology that it’s impossible to imagine the landscape without it.’ While accepting that ‘not everything should necessarily exist for ever just because it has existed once,’ she describes what the gallery offers as ‘rare, special and important’, believing it ‘fosters a strong sense of both individual and collective agency which has undoubtedly fuelled the now legendary DIY spirit in Glasgow’.
Brown also points out that the Transmission model has been copied by other artist-run spaces in many countries. This is undoubtedly the case, although aspects of its approach have in recent months been put under close scrutiny by the Transmission committee itself. In June 2017, it took the surprise step of postponing the gallery’s annual members’ show, citing ‘multiple burnouts’ amongst the committee due to the pressures of fulfilling their unpaid roles while also holding down paid work. The committee’s decision was accompanied by a pledge to strive ‘towards an alternative’ model that doesn’t rely on free labour and all the stresses and social barriers this creates. It seems that Creative Scotland concluded that an organization in such a constant state of flux does not belong in its portfolio of RFOs. Amanda Catto, Head of Visual Arts at Creative Scotland, puts it differently, stressing that the decision: ‘was not taken with any intention to damage Transmission. We respect and value their very long and quite exceptional history in terms of being an artist-run space’. Citing Creative Scotland’s Visual Arts Sector Review, which was published in October 2016, she tells me: ‘There are many artist-run spaces across Scotland, it’s a different landscape to 35 years ago. What we wish to do is create a targeted fund that will support many artist-run initiatives across the country, including Transmission, and create a much more considered and strategic response to their needs.’ She adds that the gallery has transitional funding in place up to October, ‘and then we will work with them to see where that leaves us’.
Transmission was aware of the still to be confirmed artist-run fund when it issued its robustly-worded statement in response to the Creative Scotland decision. It expresses the view that Transmission was considered ‘too messy and unpredictable’ and ‘subject to quick change’ for Creative Scotland to continue investing in it: ‘Transmission believes that Creative Scotland has chosen to cut our funding because they are no longer prepared to invest in an institution that refuses professionalization, and yet by virtue of its unique history operates at a scale comparable to more professionalized institutions.’
Paradoxically, this rejection of professionalization makes the certainty of regular funding all the more crucial, offering continuity as the organizing committee keeps changing. And while Catto states that her organization is ‘very aware of the vulnerability and precarity of all these [artist-run] spaces’, to remove Transmission’s existing route to funding before any new strategy has been developed seems – whether by accident or design – to be perversely destructive. As Kirsty Ogg, director of New Contemporaries and another former Transmission committee member, puts it: ‘It’s crazy to think that the voluntary committee structure could sustain the gallery’s activity through project-by-project funding applications – they [Creative Scotland] clearly have no sense of the pressures that younger artists are under as members of the precariat. The incredible, cooperative membership-based structure that has lasted for 35 years needs at least one cornerstone of stability.’
The backlash over the decision to drop Transmission is just one aspect of a wider crisis that is enveloping Creative Scotland following its recent regular funding announcement, which included the defunding of three performance companies working with people with disabilities. Two board members – the journalist Ruth Wishart and Professor Emerita of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Maggie Kinloch – have resigned over the lack of time and information they had to consider the decisions, with Wishart stating that Creative Scotland ‘finds itself a family at war with many of those it seeks to serve.’ In total, 20 organizations have been dropped. Other visual arts bodies that have lost their RFO status include the Glasgow-based public art producer NVA and Edinburgh’s Dovecot Foundation. (There have also been 19 additions, with Stills Gallery in Edinburgh becoming an RFO for the first time.) As for Transmission, Boyce captures the feeling of so many artists, curators and others in the visual arts who are perplexed by the Creative Scotland decision. ‘Transmission introduced me to the idea of a supportive network that has always stayed with me. It is unfathomable to me to understand why this ethos is no longer considered relevant.’
Kameelah Janan Rasheed, How To Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette), 2017, installation view, Transmission Gallery, Glasgow. Courtesy: the artist and Transmission Gallery, Glasgow