Glasgow applied to become the 1990 European Capital of Culture in the mid 1980s. The Scottish city had a strong shipbuilding tradition and a very strong industrial past but it was hit by a massive economic decline throughout the 1960s, 1970s and the early 1980s. It had important collections of art within its museums, amazing architecture and very original and strong music and visual art scenes. But none of this was widely known, it was not something that people, especially around the UK, would associate with Glasgow. It had a very bad reputation as a place of violence, unemployment and health issues.
With the 1990 event this discourse changed. A significant part of Glasgow’s success was its ability to tell its story in very powerful terms through the press and the television. It was able to attract artists from other parts of Europe to actually come to the city and engage with the art scene that existed there. I was in charge of a research programme conducted by the University of Glasgow to assess the legacy of Glasgow 1990 ten years on.
In retrospect, three issues are particularly important as regards Glasgow 1990. One of them is that it demonstrated that it was possible to change the image of a city through hosting the European Capital of Culture title (it was then still called the European City of Culture). Glasgow showed it was possible to change the narrative, overcome the negative stereotypes and change them into positive statements, which were also true. Glasgow managed to generate a whole new discource not only in the UK but also internationally about it as a cultural centre and a creative city. This is something that has lasted till today.
Thanks to what we could call „symbolic regeneration,“ it was also possible to drive a wider economic regeneration and attract tourism. Until 1990, Glasgow wasn’t seen as a tourist destination. The main destinations in Scotland were Edinburgh and the highlands. With the European Capital of Culture year and the showcasing of its visual art and especially it’s music scene, a whole new tourist dimension was developed. There was a dramatic growth in visits to Glasgow in the lead up to 1990.
Beyond the image transformation and tourism, another important legacy of the year was the opportunity for different artistic comunities to connect with each other in different ways. It got certain conversations going that had not been possible before the pressure was on the city to make the ECOC year a success.
The challenge was whether Glasgow could maintain the hype after the ECOC year, on which much of the invesment focused, was over. There followed about five to six years in the mid 1990s when this notion of culture-led transformation was put in doubt, especially in some circles. However, my research has shown quite strongly that the seeds of the change we see today in Glasgow were actually sown through the 1990 project. The image transformation was real and survived, it transformed the discourse within the media internationally and helped to build up a critical mass of artists and creative enterpreneurs who were able to continue working in Glasgow. It also helped develop new links within the city and laid the base for the creative renaissance we’ve seen in Glasgow from 2000 onwards.
As a result, today – 20 years on – Glasgow has a much stronger cultural scene and a much stronger position as a creative centre. I think this is a very powerful story. It took some time for the legacies to become sustainable, but they are there and much of their origin can be traced back to 1990.