There have been few iconic institutions more beloved that Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.
When it caught fire twice in four years, with the 2018 fire resulting in complete destruction, disbelief and heartbreak prompted international sorrow. We wept the first time. We were enraged the second time. Celebrities like Brad Pitt, Peter Capaldi and Bryan Ferry stepped up.
Since then, tragedy has turned to travesty and toxicity as a wall of silence coupled with multiple sackings has left Glasgow reeling. The city that was once renowned for both its hundred-plus years of artistic heritage and current can-do dozen Turner prize winners now has a vast burnt-out shell – literally – at its city centre and an even bigger hole in the Art School’s spiritual psyche.
So one wonders how this week’s interviews for a new director are going! It will need a remarkable person with a singular combination of incredible qualities to root out the current flaws and flawed, re-jig the board, cope with ongoing mismanagement, get rid of inappropriate people, build a supportive team AND oversee the rebuilding of the famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh building. Some task. Some poisoned chalice. Who will want that job? Let’s pray for a strong leader with great integrity.
Glasgow School of Art is in a perilous position. If it stumbles now, it may well be taken over by Glasgow University – which already validates its degrees. That will be a terrible end to a unique, proud, renowned independent, institution, Scotland’s only self-governing art school with 170 years of private enterprise and distinction. It is now a case of do or die.
Currently, the teaching gap left at GSA due to a toxic atmosphere is 70 staff down and counting, with the loss of one chair, two directors + one finance director. Non-disclosures have been common with heavy recriminations for anyone outspoken. So what are they hiding?
Now the tables have turned. Architect Gordon Gibb is robustly fighting his recent dismissal as Director of Professional Studies at The Mackintosh School of Architecture. This has precipitated some welcome focus. Gibb is very well-liked by students and his abrupt departure resulted in a serious student protest, via letter, poster & vigil demo by over 200 architecture students.
Earlier Professor Nora Kearny, chair of the board of governors, announced that they were looking for “a director who will reflect the GSA’s international position; seeking someone who is passionate about creative education, who understands the crucial importance of the Glasgow School of Art both to Glasgow, one of the world’s leading creative cities, and to Scotland. The director we appoint will have the vision to take us forward in the next phase of our development, maintaining and extending our position as one of the world’s leading creative higher education institutions.” With creative used three times, one does wonder.
It must be remembered that the previous director Tom Inns, was summarily sacked, his GSA email disconnected, escorted off the premised and defamed by untrue accusations of mental illness. He has not so far broken his gagging order.
What next in this saga of suspicion, lies, and tragedy. We still await the official Fire Report, though it seems the insurance money is available. The contractors Keir remain very quiet. No doubt many independent inspectors are inspecting the rubble; making their reports. International students continue to come to GSA, contributing heavily to the School’s income. But for how long?
It seems there will be no further public enquiries, (there were four Scottish Parliament Culture, Tourism & External Affairs Committee Inquiries in 2019) and no future parliamentary enquiry. So what comes next? How and when will the School be rebuilt; how and when will things ‘move forward’ to rectify the current situation of suspicion and even paranoia?
There are a variety of options, from the stop-pointing-the-finger, let’s just get on and build, to a desire for detail and transparency.
Observers feel that it’s fundamentally an issue of openness. To progress many believe there needs to be a genuine forum, a structured debate in public to dissipate the current climate of secrecy and sorrow which affects not only staff and students, but especially the community living around GSA whose homes, lives, and shops have been ruined by the fires.
Overall it is felt that management of the Mackintosh building should be devolved away from the GSA board. There has fundamentally been a lack of care – not just with the actual building – but with students too, with devastating results. I am even told an “Axis of Evil” exists in the upper echelons. The one good thing is that GSA seems in favour of rebuilding. Happily detailed plans exist down to the last millimetre. The sooner the rebuild starts, the better.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has stated “Whistleblowing is not a sacking offence. I have no hesitation in reinforcing the importance of whistleblowing and protecting whistleblowers. Whether that’s a message to the chair of GSA or any other institution, I unreservedly do that. It’s important everybody acting in any position in any public authority is mindful of that.” Yet she did not think it time to use her powers to review the governance of GSA, preferring the Scottish Funding Council monitor the situation. A clear message there.
We are on the brink. Can this widely loved architectural masterpiece ever be resurrected? We must all wait, hope, and see!
Words/Photos Clare Henry © Artlyst 2020