The Biennial Questionnaire: Sarah McCrory

The director of Glasgow International talks ArtReview through her first festival

Sue Tompkins, Head Love, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 39 x 49 x 4 cm. Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute, Glasgow Hudinilson Jr, Exercicio de me ver II, 1982, performance documentation. Courtesy the estate of the artist and Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo

The festival guide to the forthcoming Glasgow International, which opens 4 April through to 21 April, stretches to 71 pages. Inside there are over 50 exhibitions listed, together with a plethora of talks, films and performances. The person in charge of pulling all these events together, as well as curating her own programme of commissions, is Sarah McCrory. ArtReview pulled the festival director out of her maelstrom of work to find out what visitors to the jamboree should expect. 

ArtReview: This is part of an interview series titled the Biennial Questionnaire, but Glasgow International is a festival. What's the difference between the two?

Sarah McCrory: Well, we are kind of a biennale in that we are biennial! But you’re right. The festival is a fairly unique model. It came from being a satellite project to an art fair that included art activity in all the city’s spaces, from commercial galleries to artist-led projects, to organisations who do more than work with artists (the Women’s Library for example). The fair closed, but the enthusiasm for the festival continued. I think it works in Glasgow as it’s quite a geographically small city yet has a large and disproportionate amount of artistic activity. The festival is closest to a combination of a gallery weekend and the activity created in the week a fair or biennale comes to town.

This is your first GI at the helm. Sometimes it's been hard to work out where the festival programme starts and ends previously, there are so many other shows and projects going on across the city. Is this something you've looked at with the banner the 'Director's Programme'? Is there a broad curatorial theme to these commissions?

I think it’s imperative art students get to see artists like Avery, Aleksandra and Jordan's work first hand

Actually the Director’s Programme has always been as such, but for the first time – and before I took on the role – it was negotiated that the director would have some of the main art spaces across the city to work with. I have built on that development slightly by also utilising the McLellan Galleries, a purpose-built museum that currently stands empty.

There’s no overarching curatorial premise, and that’s a purposeful decision. As organisations across the city are independently putting together their own exhibitions and events, to have the eleven shows curated thematically doesn’t really make sense. Instead I have curated a programme of very different artists – some in order to show practices that are unfamiliar in Scotland, some because I think the artists are dealing with very important and prescient issues, some because it’s the right time for the artists to take on a more ambitious project than they might have had a chance to before, and some because I just love the work.

Overall though, the confusion between the Director’s Programme and the rest of activity doesn’t matter so much. We’re happy for the festival to be viewed as one large project.

How much do you think about who your audience is? Quite a few of the names – Avery Singer, Aleksandra Domanović, Jordan Wolfson for example – are younger artists that might be new to a wider public.

I think about our audience all the time. The current condition of the festival necessitates a constant scrutiny of a number of different potential audiences – pragmatically if nothing else, different funding pots often require specific attention to different demographic groups. So it’s an ongoing discussion as to how to make sure those different groups and more are addressed. Whilst the artists you’ve mentioned might be younger and less wellknown, one large audience in Glasgow is its wealth of art students. I think it’s really important they see work by these artists – they are all exceptional people who show a level of ambition (in the work) and ability. I think it’s imperative art students get to see artists like Avery, Aleksandra and Jordan's work first hand.

Their projects – and those by others in the programme such as Sue Tompkins, Charlotte Prodger, Michael Smith, Bedwyr Williams, Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne – are however accessible to those without an art education.

Glasgow allows a bit more time for reflection, the support structure around artists is better

We're very pleased to see Hudinilson Jr getting some recognition – his work is pretty unknown outside São Paulo. He sadly died last summer however – did you get to meet the man himself?

I did meet him, shortly before he passed away, via a curator in São Paolo called Tobi Maier, who kindly acted as translator at a brief chance meeting between us at an artist-run space called Phosphorus. On the back wall of a group exhibition I saw two collages that I loved; collaged images of men’s torsos and monuments together. Very lo-fi, yellowed and looking really handled. I asked Tobi whose they were and Hudinilson was sat next to him. So we met briefly and chatted a bit about the diaries or notebooks he made. On my return to the UK I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and decided to try and work with the artist which was going to be difficult due to the language barrier, but I felt the work had something special. After he passed away, Jaqueline Martins, his gallerist, and Tobi kindly helped me make sure this exhibition still happened. The work is an incredible story of an artist whose personal life; his sexuality, his financial constraints and his personal battles with health issues, somehow resulted in beautiful works being produced. We have over 95 works to show. I hope we do him proud. We’re really lucky to be showing it.

You're new to Glasgow too. What's it been like personally fitting into the city's scene?

I am. It’s true. It’s been good. Up and down. I miss London: the pace and the sheer breadth of things to do, my friends obviously, the amount of art to see. However, Glasgow has a lot of good qualities – it allows a bit more time for reflection, the support structure around artists is better, funding is much better, and generally it’s a great city to live in. I see more film and music up here as I have more time (less of my time is spent running about to private views!). And here’s the thing – I don’t mind the rain. I have a garden. I have a car. I go to more museums around the country. I have hobbies. I go to the countryside. It’s pretty great.