Happy Birthday New Work Scotland

In celebration of a milestone tenth birthday, we've taken a closer look at the Collective Gallery's visionary artist-development programme to see exactly what everyone's raving about

Feature by Rosamund West | 03 Dec 2009

New Work Scotland is ten. It’s somehow surprising that the project is so young and yet seems to be completely intertwined with the Scottish art world: an inevitable stopping off point for the emergent artists who each year file out of college hoping that they might someday be able to make a living out of this, even a name for themselves. NWS helps them along the way, giving them a leg up and a shot of confidence at an otherwise vulnerable time. A brief perusal of the programme’s list of alumni reveals names that are now familiar: Neil Clements, Jonathan Owens, Jenny Hogarth, Rabiya Choudhry. They might not be quite up there with the YBAs in the notoriety terms just yet, but they’ve certainly exhibited widely enough and been mentioned in enough media to be well past the point of the post graduate debutante. Simultaneously, the programme keeps evolving in such a way that it continues to be fresh, and young, and oddly anarchic. It may be established, but it sure ain’t establishment.

Organised by the Collective, New Work Scotland came about in response to the needs of both the gallery and the country’s young artist population. The gallery had always put on student and emergent local art; but ten years ago, as they were going through the lottery-funded refurbishment that has made it what it is today, and the centre of operations had relocated to the attic of the quantity surveyor who was working on said refurb, then-director Sarah Munro had to fill in funding applications to clarify the programming for the year ahead. “The idea came to me in about 15 minutes, and I wrote it up in about half an hour,” she says now. “But in a way it was the outcome of a variety of different concerns.“

Concerns such as the opportunities offered to young artists, and the nature of the gallery itself. “You could see in young Scottish artists, if someone was picked up and given a bit of profile at a certain stage it got picked up and picked up and picked up. Whereas if you weren’t getting in on those early opportunities it could kill something before it even got started.

“Another thing that was very apparent to me when I started at the Collective was that the majority of emergent artists were not getting solo shows but were getting pieces in group shows with a curator and were being brought in almost to illustrate a curator’s point. I like solo shows. They’re always the things that are in my mind, the memorable ones. I want to give an artist the opportunity to really present their practice.”

New Work Scotland is, to again quote Sarah Munro, “The Ronseal of the art world. It does exactly what it says on the tin. New. Work. Scotland.” Application is open to final year undergraduates at Scottish art schools, and up to two years after graduation to those who studied here then stayed, and those who studied elsewhere then moved here. The selection panel has changed every year, but has always contained at least one artist who has previously exhibited in the Collective but is from outside Scotland. This somewhat arbitrary-sounding decision is in fact very clear in its intention, aiming to prevent the basic nepotism that seems to creep into decisions on exhibitions and opportunities all too frequently.

Says Munro, "The plan was that those artists were selected not because of their CV, or because they knew someone, but because their work had some sort of resonance with the four members of the selection panel. There was that idealistic part of me that thought ‘We’ll give the perfect opportunity to the perfect artist totally on merit and there’ll be no politics at play’. And of course there is, because that’s just how it works. But it was trying to get away from that idea that the very best work at the emergent level is the artist that you already know."

The selected artist is given a portion of funding, and the opportunity of a solo show in the Collective for the autumnal New Work Scotland Programme (NWSP). They are also, now, given a designated writer with whom they can maintain a dialogue as they develop their exhibit. This is then turned into an essay that is included in a publication, giving the writer the opportunity to develop their style and really engage with art and ideas outside the straitened worlds of academic essays or newspaper reviews. It also gives the artists something tangible to take away, and perhaps the first serious critical dialogue entered into with a peer. This in turn helps to build a relationship between the different branches of the art world, the practitioners and the commentators if you will. In a way, this helps form a support network, a necessity for those who have just been cut adrift from college with all its structures of peer crits and tutorials.

Another new development in the programme are its off-site projects, and the new opportunities offered to emergent curators. This reflects both the appointment of a new director, Kate Gray, and the natural evolution of emergent artists’ practice. Says Kate, “It’s great to get a gallery show if that’s what your practice is, but people have a much broader range of practices that are really important to support, and to develop in Scotland as a whole.”

Something that is particularly striking when talking to anyone involved with the programme, be they past participants, selectors, organisers or just annual attendees, is how people care about it, and indeed believe in it, passionately. Why is NWS so important? Says Kate Gray, "One thing that was said to me when I was at college that I hadn’t thought about at all, but really made sense when I was thinking about it afterwards, was that your degree show can’t be the most important thing you ever do. While you’re at college it does feel like everything’s being funnelled into this point, when in fact it’s what lies beyond that... It’s not a point in itself, it’s just part of continuing."

"I suppose what we want to do is really give people the tools to continue if they want to. That can be through making the application – maybe it’s the first application they’ve done. It can be through the interview process. We change the panel every year because we want people to be exposed to as many different people as possible, because it doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t get picked up for anything else, just because they don’t get picked up for NWS.”

New Work Scotland is all about giving people the first step in the right direction, instilling them with the confidence and self belief to make their own work, and begin to create the structures and relationships that can lead to a viable career in the art world. In some way it tries to fill in the gaps that art schools leave gaping open and can act as a safety net for those at a crucial moment in their lives. In terms of exhibitions, sometimes they’re great, and sometimes they’re not. It is interesting, though, to see their work a few years down the line. Most have gone on to develop their practice and present more confident, resolved work in later shows, in the Collective or elsewhere. In ten years, NWS has given successive batches of young artists the confidence and the self belief to continue making work in the years after graduating and to regard themselves, on a fundamental level, as artists. It is a fine achievement, and long may it continue.

We spoke to some previous contributors to hear their views on taking part:

Rabiya Choudhry (who made our amazing cover for this issue) was part of New Work Scotland for 2004. She’s been exhibiting ever since, at home and abroad, and was recently the Scottish artist chosen for Diaspora, Edinburgh International Festival’s mega theatre / art production for 2009. She was the Skinny Showcase artist – obviously a career highlight – in February 2008.

I made two large paintings for New Work Scotland, one of my mum as a goddess (Moona Mother Paki Lover) and another that was of a head on a plate being consumed by cats that were round a big board table and that was called Braindeid. They were two of the best paintings I’ve ever done, I think.

When I did the interview, my proposal was to make a giant head you could walk into and the eyes would be screens and there would be film pieces and sound pieces. I think I approached the proposal trying to imagine my ultimate show, and that would be it. At that point I thought £500 for an art project was a lot of money and I could do anything! Now I realise it would take about ten times that. They didn’t seem to mind that I changed it completely. I remember them saying “So do you see this as a learning curve?” and I just nodded and said “Yeah.” They were really up for it though. They really liked the paintings, and they were really up for me to do whatever I wanted.

Everything comes back, for me, to 2004. NWS definitely gave me opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have had. It’s funny, people always go back to the Collective to find out information about me, because I still don’t have a website. And they’ll always let me know.

Craig Coulthard took part in NWS in 2004. He recently fought off competition from such public art veterans as Kenny Hunter to get the Artists Taking the Lead funding for the London 2012 Games Cultural Olympiad. He plans to create a football pitch in the middle of a commercial forest, which will host two football games between amateurs, before being handed over to the local community.

New Work Scotland was very significant for me. It came at a time when I'd been out of college for two years, and was just about to start my postgrad. I had spent those two years considering what I wanted to achieve, and what my work meant to me. Getting NWS gave me the confidence and belief that the decisions I'd made during that time out were justified. It also allowed me to think of myself as a 'real' artist in that I was showing work that had been proposed and then commissioned. Another important thing for me was having Charles Moonstone write a short essay about my work, which was interesting in itself, and gave me an objective insight to my own work which I don’t think I had had before that.

NWS bridges a gap for younger artists, between leaving college and establishing themselves a bit more. It allows for artists to be treated professionally, to reach a wide audience and to see their work in a different context to that which they might be used to. It’s very important that it exists, as there are very few opportunities like it for young artists, to be treated with respect and confidence, but also with a very comforting amount of support.

Tessa Lynch had a New Work Scotland show in 2007. She’s worked with the Collective on several occasions since, and will have her first major solo show in the gallery in April 2010.

It was amazing having something straight after graduating, to make a whole exhibition outside of college and have this support network of people who could help you do it. It made you feel like you were an artist.

One thing that I thought was really critical to the experience was working with the writers. They contextualise your work, and make you think of it as someone else looking at it. It’s also useful to have your work exposed to people from outwith Edinburgh. Matt Stokes [artist and Beck's Futures winner] was on the selection panel, and I really like his work. He might have hated mine, I don’t know, but it was still exciting to have him look at it.

I remember doing the proposal. I just hand wrote my application, and then sent it off, and when I got called in for an interview I couldn’t even remember what I’d written. I had to look back at my sketchbooks of the time and kind of piece it together from notes. It just shows, you should just apply for stuff, because you’ve got nothing to lose. Sometimes it’s just those little ideas that you write down and send off that work.

Jenny Hogarth was part of NWS in 2001. She went on to co-found the Embassy Gallery, and often works collaboratively with artist Kim Coleman. Their most recent commission was the live video installation Players, one of the Frieze Projects at the Frieze Art Fair 2009

For NWS I made a new body of work called Does This Sound Like Something You've Heard Before that was a combination of sculpture and video. The show was a year after my undergraduate degree show and provided the perfect chance to make new work for a solo show and keep the motivation up after leaving art college.

It was an unbelievably significant opportunity for me as it began a relationship with the Collective Gallery. I've worked with them a number of times since on solo projects and group shows, helping select for the programme and other open commissions, as well as sitting on their Board of Directors. It has been a mutually beneficial relationship that has been an invaluable part of my development as an artist over the last 8 years. It lead to everything I've done since then. It was the confidence boost in the 'real world' (after art college) that I needed at that time. It made me realise it was possible to be an artist and that there is an art scene in Scotland that is vibrant and serious.

To find out more about applying for next year's programme, visit www.collectivegallery.net/nwsp.html
There will be a talk celebrating ten years of New Work Scotland in the gallery on Saturday 16 January, 2-4pm.