Isabella Shields is the kind of instantly endearing person that you tell your most embarrassing secrets to the first time you meet her. This a) means that half of this interview had to be deleted, and b) makes it impossible to be mad that she’s managed to bag herself an art gallery at the age of twenty one.
She runs the uber-welcoming 16 Nicholson Street in Glasgow’s Southside alongside photographer and publisher Tine Bek. I visited during the Atelier Monday show to drink boxed wine and talk about mentorship, elitism, and ~the purpose of art~.
Thanks so much for having me! How did you end up in the art world?
I went to the Tate in London in 2009 with my dad – very old school, a very middle class entry to the art world. I was much more interested in reading about the art than I was in the actual art objects, and from that point I was more interested in the curation and contexts of art than the art itself.
When I was 17 I was lucky enough to get work experience with the Modern Institute and then the Common Guild as a gallery assistant which was amazing. The Common Guild is one of the best galleries, I still work there.
And how did 16 Nicholson Street get started?
This space was actually used a few years ago as part of Glasgow International [art festival]. It’s my dad’s building – another very middle class entry point to the art world – but Merlin James used it in 2012 and then Simon Gowing, a curator who’s in Berlin now, used it a couple more times. Then last summer Tine and I decided we wanted to do something with it.
I ended up spending the summer listening to podcasts and painting the place white, because it was more of a found space before.
It’s so beautiful now!
It was a horrible lime green before. A really brutal lime green.
That makes a lot of sense. When I came to visit I was like, this is amazing but if I had this building I’d live in it. I still admire your reservation, but the green probably helped.
We’re not really in charge of the space – it tends to be used as a collective base, and one of the things we’ve been most interested in has been using it as a discursive space. We’ve held a couple of meetings of the group Salon 16, which is run by Holly Gavin and Anna Wachsmuth – they hold discursive meetings that respond to the artworks we’re showing alongside other texts. They do a little presentation and have a chat.
Do people bring along work they’ve done that’s inspired by the current show?
People could bring a show-and-tell sort of thing. There’s a lot of information given beforehand, but sometimes it’s more interesting if someone just comes along with a pal and has to directly and immediately respond.
I mean, they don’t have to, we’re not going to force anyone to talk. But there is wine, so people do talk.
As we are.
Can anyone come along, or do you have to be an artist?
Anyone can come along. I think Glasgow’s such a tiny place that everyone in the art scene is notably ‘a member of the art scene’, so when you get people outside of that it’s always more interesting. Especially if someone hates something.
Let me explain to you why this is art…
Sometimes you just don’t know and you have to be like hmmmm.
‘I see your point there. Take it down!’
Yeah, immediately showing us up. We haven’t had an incident like that yet, but if we do I’ll be like, ‘you should know! It’s self-explanatory!’
‘That’s the point of art, you have to think about it yourself!’
‘Yeah, you’re supposed to be as excluded as possible!’
That’s an interesting point actually. The gallery is super-welcoming – I mean, I’m sitting in it right now drinking wine with you at a little kitchen counter, and you’re sitting on the counter welcoming visitors in with a cup of tea, and two different friends have come by to talk about their sex lives and eat snacks. Is that ethos a continuation of what you see happening in the Glasgow scene, or a reaction against the lack of it?
I think it’s both really. I think a lot of the time it’s very easy to feel excluded from art spaces as an emerging artist. That’s why commercial galleries thrive the way they do, because if you get it you get it – having a certain taste is such an easy way to categorise merit and put value on art.
For us, we’ve always wanted to be an accessible gallery. It’s really for people who’ve just come out of art institutions, who’re friends with people who’ve come out of institutions. We provide a platform for them, whether they’re international artists or Glasgow-based artists. Basically as many people people as we can possibly fit in. We’d love to have you!
How long did it take, from beginning to end, to get to where you are just now?
I’m in a such a privileged position that this could happen so quickly, and that the space already had some credibility because of what Simon and Merlin did. It was very much taking over and renovating rather than starting from scratch.
I started painting in about July last year. It took about two weeks of coming in almost every day to paint, and all that time we were planning the first show. We had a performance event in the last week of September, then Opposite Tendencies which ran for a month, and various other events during that month.
Then we had a big Christmas fundraiser, and that was great. It really emphasised how much of a collaboration it is. We asked the emerging artists and student artists that we knew to donate a piece for us to auction, and so many people gave us work. Our friend Sam has been working for auctioneers and art charities for a while – I don’t really know what he does – so he told us how to organise it, rather than just being like ‘DO YOU WANT THIS?’
So tell me about Atelier Monday, the show that’s on just now.
Atelier Monday is a mentorship programme that was inspired by some of Tine’s friends in Portland. They had a similar thing, getting five established artists paired up with emerging ones, having a dialogue, having events to bolster their practice.
It’s so valuable because one of the most difficult things coming out of art school, or any school, is that you’re in freefall. You don’t have someone to check your work against.
It’s been really fantastic – we’ve had so much support. The mentors are Catherine Cameron who is a Norwegian photographer, Matthew Walkerdine who runs the amazing Good Press bookshop, Sarah Forrest who just won the Margaret Tait award, and James McCann who actually did the performance on our first night. His relationship with his mentee was really interesting because it became a collaboration rather than a straight mentor-mentee thing.
The mentees have been fantastic as well. Cara Bonewitz did the big yellow room upstairs. She’s from California, so it makes sense.
How did you pick the mentees?
We advertised on Creative Scotland and our own website and Facebook, asking them to send a CV and an application form. We got something like 140 applications for the five places. We looked through them all and shortlisted, then we met with the mentors and sat down with pizza and shortlisted again – it was very collaborative – until we got down to the final five.
What did you learn from the process?
I think I’d have the mentees meet up a lot more than they did. I forgot that there would be first day of school vibes on the first day of anything. In this show the relationships have been more between the mentor and the mentee than between the mentees themselves, and I think that going forward, for a more coherent group exhibition, we should push the group aspect of it more. This exhibition has come from a set of dialogues rather than a group.
I like that though. You’ve got this kind of complicated, dysfunctional domestic space on the bottom floor, then this very intense first floor with the films about the war – it’s a very serious space but with red fortune telling fish all over the floor. Then you go up to this magical yellow playground of Cara’s. It does feel like you’re going through an experience.
I think a lot of it is to do with versions of reality – the performance of domesticity on the bottom floor, and then on the first floor, a lot of Toby’s shows deal with being made uncomfortable, and anticipation, and uncertainty. Then you have Cara’s immersive experience on the top floor and its relationship with the reality of Glasgow, which is quite funny.
Then Liam’s performance – on the opening night they were inside these sacks with the tape recorders just staring at people as they came in, knocking people off balance and making them uncomfortable to the point where they either laughed or left. So yeah, all playing with reality.
And that’s why you’re the curator. Just rhyme it off, sew it all up, link it together. Do you do any other creative work?
I was a journalist with the Skinny for a while, doing interviews with artists. I’ve done some writing too, for Tine’s Earth Saga photobook – the one I wrote for was called Age of Man.
You mentioned that you got into the curation side of things because you liked the descriptions at the Tate – I totally get that. I love modern art but it’s mostly because of the really obscure explanations at the side.
That’s hotly contested in art practice though. So many art students think you should have text instead of gallery labels, because the work should speak for itself – in the mind of the artist it does, but I think it’s a very restrictive way to present art. I don’t know if that’s just from an art historical perspective, because artists really hate gallery labels. It’s a very modern art, contemporary art kind of thing – you’re just supposed to know what’s happening. ‘If you knew anything about art, you’d know.’ I think that’s such a damaging way to look at it.
Yeah, it’s making what you’re creating less accessible, when the purpose is generally to communicate something. What’s the point in that? ‘I want people to be less able to understand my work! The artist’s dream!’
I think it’s a really good way to shoot yourself in the foot, but it’s totally about taste and money. If it’s more exclusive then it’s in higher demand.
I think having a university education plays a part in it – you know what I’m going to say, you study English Literature.
Yeah, you’ve got the shorthand for so many discourses, so many things are made easier to understand. But even if you’re university educated in business you’re not going to come in and go, oh, that’s a reference to Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, it’s about the confluence of identity! People come and and go, eh, can I get some information? Because art can be a very alienating thing. It’s like having access to someone’s brain.
Exactly. And it’s so referential too.
Yes, that’s a huge thing. Art is a hugely referential practice, especially contemporary art in Glasgow. Glasgow School of Art in particular has such a rich textual history. They’re very connected to the discourses they’re talking about, so a lot of people who come from GSA are very grounded in those discourses and it can be very easy to assume that other people are as well. They’re really not.
Yeah, a lot of the time people won’t have an understanding of the movements, even a sociological understanding of the history, because they won’t have had to.
And it makes absolute sense, because it’s not something that everyone necessarily has, and it’s really unfair to expect that from anyone.
There’s a lot of classism in that attitude.
It’s very classist. So much of the art world is very exclusive and reliant on a certain level of understanding that is almost impossible to reach without a high level of art education.
Or a family that’s very steeped in it. Which can either make you very interesting or the most dry person in the room.
[We joke about coming up with deep, unanswerable questions during interviews. I immediately do so.]
What do you think is the purpose of art?
I think the purpose is to represent, whether that’s a group of people, an experience, or a certain form of progression.
Interesting. I like Alain de Botton’s idea that art’s purpose is to teach us how to live our lives better. He runs Art as Therapy where they show art as consolation – they’ll take a painting of an awkward-looking dinner and say oh, he’s had an argument with his wife, you’re not alone in these experiences, these experiences are valuable.
That’s something I was trying to get at, because in representing any kind of feeling or experience, you let people know that they’re not alone. They’re not excluded from this big thing that shapes how we respond to the world.
Do you think that there’s a progression towards having a more inclusive, more progressive art world? Obviously minorities haven’t been historically represented, but are they now?
There was actually a really interesting talk we had at the beginning of the Atelier Monday programme from Adam Benmakhlouf, a mixed race queer artist, about tokenism versus representation. There’s a lot of argument about the idea that if you include a queer artist or a black artist, is there a level of, oh they’re queer and black so we’ve got a diversity tick now? Do people think it’s important to include minorities so they can say they did rather to include that voice?
And obviously, diversity in art isn’t what it should be because the people who can become artists and curators tend to be people who have some kind of middle class economic stability.
You do hope at some point that there’s some meritocracy.
Universities and institutions are businesses first and foremost. So the people who would benefit from it being a meritocracy are never going to get included the way they should be.
In the art world, you don’t necessarily need actual life experiences, you just need experience in that world – you need to be the best in that world at schmoozing. You need to know the right people.
I think Glasgow is a good counter to London. The scene here is so different because we don’t have much money at all, so we’re less reliant on people who already have tons of money.
What are you plans for the future of 16 Nicholson Street?
We’ve been working with the Czech Centre in London, and we went over to Prague in January to look at some artists based there. Radek Brousil is going to come over. He’s been doing some new work based on Glasgow.
After that we’re planning for the Titanic show. It’s a GI thing in April 2018. We found out that a textile company in Glasgow did the carpeting for the whole of the Titanic, and one of Tine’s friends worked in that factory as it was closing down, so it’s based on that. And class, and industry. And the fact that Tine’s in love with Leonardo diCaprio.
What about in the further future? Do you see yourself sticking with this gallery for a long time, or do you want to use it as a launching pad?
I’d love to keep it going for as long as I can, but there are so many funding issues in Glasgow. Trongate 103 has had funding pulled by Glasgow Life, and that’s very scary for other galleries in Glasgow. It’s a big shutdown. We’re managing just now without funding, but we’re hugely reliant on other people supporting us. The Glasgow art community is exactly that, a community, and we’ve been incredibly lucky.
We’re also really excited about the artists graduating GSA this June. The upcoming degree show is a really rich and exciting showcase for the future of Glasgow’s art scene, and that’s keeping us optimistic!