Glasgow’s fallen Arches

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Like many cities before it, Glasgow found a way out of post-industrial decline by way of culture. The 1988 Garden Festival paved the way for the European City of Culture award in 1990.

One of the great successes of those times was Tramway a former transport museum that became an impressive, adaptable arts space. It showed just what creative imagination could do to resurrect near-derelict industrial buildings.

Another venue used at the time (for Glasgow’s Glasgow an exhibition on the history of the city) was the dank, brick arched Victorian spaces under Central Station – 7,800 square metres of potential awaiting their destiny.

Brickwork: A Biography of The Arches, edited by two former employees David Bratchpiece and Kirstin Innes, is an oral history of those times. A multi faceted arts phenomenon, which in its 25 years encompassed dance superclub, experimental theatre, concert venue, exhibition space and ‘happenings’ and was hailed as one of the most exciting cultural spaces in Europe.

The business cards at the time proclaimed it was ‘the coolest arts venue in the world’ and nobody was about to make a claim for false pretences. Its public/private model of funding was hailed as an example for innovative arts makers. The venue was famous internationally for its can-do punk spirit.

During its lifetime it attracted the likes of: Banksy, the Chemical Brothers, John Cooper Clarke, Damon Albarn, Daft Punk, Massive Attack, Leigh Bowery, Irvine Welsh, Lily Savage and Sigourney Weaver’s boots. Hosting everything from panto to performance art.

At the end of Glasgow’s Glasgow in the 1990s, the venue was due to be abandoned but the founding artistic director Andy Arnold was determined to keep the unique setting alive. He established a studio theatre as a fringe venue for 1991s Mayfest and one of the first productions was Glad: part of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket Project about homelessness.

Next came a largescale animatronic exhibition, Dinosaurs Alive! Which made use of the vast untapped space at the back of The Arches, opening up the potential of the venue.

Alien War, an interactive ‘scare attraction’ followed, based on the 20th Century Fox movie; it was a shoestring enterprise, which attracted queues around the block.

A hip, art-school crowd were early devotees of The Arches’ dance club, attracting up to 2,000+ partygoers. Over the years the club nights became victims of their own success. When superstar DJs demanded big fees The Arches management began to lose sight of the venue’s make-do-and-mend ethos. Attracting weekend punters and lucrative bar takings became the be-all-and-end-all.

Then a clubber died.

The Arches claimed to have done everything it could have done to prevent drug-taking (such a huge part of the 90s dance scene) within the venue but could do nothing about clubbers getting off their dial before they arrived.

There was also a sense that the police had it in for the venue. It’s success certainly made rival nightclub impresarios very envious. As did a 2001 £3.7m National Lottery grant that enabled a refurb which saw a new café-bar, entrance and box office, dressing rooms, heating and damp treatment.

However, the death of 17-year-old clubber, Regane MacColl after taking ecstasy in 2014, sealed the venue’s fate.

The media coverage was devastating, funders like Glasgow City Council and Creative Scotland nervously backed away and the venue lost its licence. Without the huge revenue that the clubbers provided the venue could not continue.

It might have been saved, had the will been there, the tabloid headlines less toxic, and funding agencies less lily-livered. Joyce McMillan described the lack of support from funders as ‘an act of cultural vandalism’

The closure devastated its fans:

‘The great irony’, wrote Lyn Gardner in June 2015, ‘is that at a time when the government is calling upon arts organisations to look beyond subsidy and be more entrepreneurial it is The Arches’ commercial business model – in which [the club revenue] supported the art – that has resulted in this disaster’.

Thanks to working there many young people gained invaluable experience and a toehold into the arts, going on to greater things in the Scottish arts scene – although many complained privately about the low pay.

If there’s a fault in the Brickwork it’s that it dances too close to hagiography. Dissenting comments are few and there’s nothing from representatives of, say, the police or Glasgow council, defending their actions. There’s much mourning over the demise of The Arches but not much said of drug deaths there (the first was in 2007).

Every dog has its day and it was perhaps inevitable that a reputation that was predicated on the risky cutting edge would eventually lose focus. Staff may well have felt like one big family but as Jackie Wylie (who started there in 2004 and was co-CEO from 2008-15 and now runs the National Theatre of Scotland) says:

“…As a family we had fights, let’s not put rose-tinted glasses on… There was conflict around scheduling and priorities. [The lucrative club nights financing the art programme] as a business model is so fragile because it’s so inherently complex.”

@KenWilson84

Info: Brickwork: A Biography of The Arches, by David Bratchpiece and Kirstin Innes, £12.99, is published by salamanderstreet.com

Interior and exterior of the much-missed Arches, Glasgow

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In its 25 years it
became a multi faceted arts phenomenon, hailed as one of the most exciting
cultural spaces in Europe

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