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Expert: Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building should be taken over by National Galleries

Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh

The world-renowned Charles Rennie Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art should be run by the Edinburgh-based National Galleries of Scotland, according to a renowned expert.

A report into a fire that destroyed the building three years ago has still not been delivered by fire service investigators but Roger Billcliffe, honorary president of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, said the cause of the blaze is less important than the building’s future management.

School director Penny Macbeth announced in October the building will be restored but the work may not begin for six years. The fire broke out as the art school neared the end of a £35 million restoration project following a previous fire in 2014.

Holyrood’s culture committee has called for a public inquiry with judicial powers into the circumstances surrounding the fires.

© Robert Perry/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Firefighters attending the scene of the 2018 fire at the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building

Now Billcliffe says an inquiry should look at the future control of the building. In a 16-page article for the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society Journal, he said: “Whether the 2018 fire happened as a consequence of arson, negligence, materials or process failure, or simply accident, is almost immaterial. The questions which need to be addressed and answered by the school stem not necessarily from the 2018 fire but from the decisions, events and nature of the school’s administration and governance during the period 2000-14 prior to the first fire.

“The school has been described as the most important work of art in Scotland; if this is so, it clearly follows that its care should lie in the hands of an institution well-versed in the handling and protection of architecturally significant buildings and their contents.”

Billcliffe said “a combination of the use of the studios by established artists alongside a more museum-oriented approach might be best administered under the umbrella of the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS)”. He added: “Mackintosh may be thought of as belonging to Glasgow and of huge importance in Scottish art, but he is also regarded as a major, even pre-eminent, figure worldwide. The long-hoped-for association of the NGS with Glasgow could only be beneficial.”

The first fire in 2014 happened after a projector ignited expanding foam used for a student’s degree show exhibit. In the article, Billcliffe claims the student had 50 cans of foam despite it being banned by the school but was allowed to carry on working with it after claiming their artistic freedom was being curtailed.

He said: “It is highly unfortunate that a small fire in the basement should have been able to spread through the Mackintosh building’s original ventilation system to an unprotected vertical riser and cause such devastation on the upper floors.

“It is a matter of record that the school had been warned by fire specialists in 2006 of the possibility of such a sequence of events; in addition, the administration is believed to have been alerted by members of its own estates staff of the risks of leaving the original ventilation system unprotected.”

I started to cry: Artists tell of despair watching Glasgow School of Art burn

He also said Kier Construction, the main contractor of the rebuild, should be “made to account more fully for the period during which they were in control of the building before the June 2018 fire, just as the school must account for its supervision of the contractor, or lack thereof”.

Glasgow School of Art said: “All the points raised have been thoroughly answered to the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee. We are committed to listening to the wide range of views that are held and will continue to consult as we develop our plans in a rigorous and transparent way.”