Glasgow After the Fire: What Has Been the Impact on the Wider Arts Community?

Cancelled events and financial woes have left neighbours such as CCA and its cultural tenants in a state of limbo

BY Chris Sharratt in Critic's Guides | 17 JUL 18

As the brick-by-brick dismantling of Glasgow School of Art’s Grade A listed Mackintosh building slowly progresses following the devastating fire of 15 June, the extent of the work that lies ahead becomes ever clearer. Much of the initial focus of the incident has understandably been on the building itself and its architectural and cultural significance to the city. Yet as time passes and the safety cordon around it remains in place, the immediate, day-to-day impact on the Garnethill area of Glasgow is becoming an increasing concern. Local residents remain locked out of their homes and many businesses on nearby Sauchiehall Street, where the fire-damaged 02 ABC gig venue is based, are closed due to fears of falling masonry from the gutted Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed art school. The work to make the structure safe before rebuilding can begin is expected to go on throughout July and into August – a pin prick of time when compared with the mammoth reconstruction task that lies ahead, but an eternity for many of those small businesses affected.

Centre for Contemporary Arts, Sauchiehall Street entrance, Glasgow. Courtesy: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow; photograph: Alan Dimmick

A long time, too, for another Grade A listed building vital to the city’s cultural life which occupies the next block west from Glasgow School of Art. The Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), based in the Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson-designed Grecian Chambers (originally completed 1865), has been closed to both the public and staff since the night of the fire – the same night as the private view for its current main exhibition, ‘The Scottish-European Parliament’ by the Dutch artist Jonas Staal. Stuck in a ghostly state of limbo, the show can neither be viewed or deinstalled. Instead, like the rest of this multipurpose venue with its small cinema, theatre, residency spaces, meeting rooms, café, bar, book and design shop, it is gathering dust as days turn to weeks and now months

With no agreed reopening date (the beginning of September at the earliest) and around 127 staff – 45 from CCA alone – displaced from the 18 organizations based in building, these are worrying times for the venue. However,  director Francis McKee is keen to dismiss any talk of a crisis. ‘Crisis isn’t a useful word, it’s a very dramatic, hysterical word,’ he says over coffee in his temporary ‘office’ – a corner of Tinderbox café in Charing Cross, a short walk west from the CCA building. ‘It’s all about how we get this back up and running – we need to start making plans now for when we get back in, for how we service the people who we aren’t able to give a space to right now.’ 

'The Sky is Falling', 2017, installation view, CCA, Glasgow. Courtesy: CCA, Glasgow; photograph: Alan Dimmick

It’s this idea of being a provider of space, a facilitator for arts and culture in Glasgow, that has come to define CCA’s role in the city. Since becoming director 12 years ago, McKee – who has taught on the Glasgow School of Art MFA for more than two decades – has implemented an ‘open source’ approach, built around a core exhibition programme curated by the organization. Working with around 250 partner organizations and individuals, space for public events is provided free of charge, the idea being that the busier and more diverse the programme is, the greater the benefit to artists and audiences and the more sustainable CCA itself becomes. It’s been a huge success. When McKee became director, the organization was near to financial collapse and the building was underused. It now hosts around 1,200 events and 26 festivals a year, including Glasgow Film Festival, the international human rights documentary festival, Document, and the Scottish Queer International Film Festival. Last year, according to its own figures, the building attracted nearly 350,000 visitors.

As such, CCA increasingly feels like the city’s key cultural hub for contemporary art, music and experimental film – particularly in light of the 2015 closure of club, performance and gig venue The Arches and the ongoing challenges facing the contemporary art scene, from the recent defunding of Transmission by Creative Scotland to the halting of Glasgow Sculpture Studio’s exhibition programme at the end of 2016. Yet the success of the CCA model inevitably means that the current closure has a much bigger impact than it might at first seem. ‘There are 115 events we’ve cancelled up to the end of August, a massive amount of things,’ explains McKee. ‘You’re ripping out a huge section of the city’s cultural infrastructure. It’s a collective enterprise – our core programme we can rearrange, but because we provide the space for free a lot of these partner events can’t just be moved somewhere else.’ 

Romany Dear ‘Dancing in a circle is a reminder that we are part of the whole’ exhibition opening, 2015, CCA, Glasgow. Courtesy: CCA, Glasgow; photograph: Alan Dimmick 

CCA is a Creative Scotland RFO (regularly funded organization) and McKee stresses that the much-criticised arts funding body has been ‘immediately supportive’, understanding the wider impact of the closure ‘because they fund many of the people who put on events at CCA.’ It’s an example of how interconnected Glasgow’s arts scene is, but also how precarious and fragile. While a number of events have found new homes and other arts organizations have offered help – The Pipe Factory in the city’s east end, for example, is hosting Sogol Mabadi and Emma Helen Reid’s ‘Encounter no.1’, part of CCA’s Intermedia gallery programme – some creative businesses are already struggling to stay afloat. Based in the building’s foyer, both the independent book shop Aye-Aye Books and the design/craft outlet Welcome Home have launched Go Fund Me pages in an effort to plug the financial gap. The ‘inclusive music and arts organization’ Paragon – one of CCA’s 14 ‘cultural tenants’ who rent office space at below market rates – has done the same due to the cancellation of its annual June fundraising event. Other tenants who have been displaced by the building’s closure include LUX Scotland, Scottish Writers’ Centre and the multi-media art producers Cryptic. 

‘It’s not about CCA as a small organization doing visual art,’ stresses McKee. ‘It’s about the building as a utility for everybody.’ When the building will once again be a cultural utility for the city is of course dependent on the progress made with the Mackintosh building – the rebuilding of which was recently promised by director Tom Inns – and the decisions of Glasgow City Council’s Building Standards department regarding the safety cordon and access to premises. McKee meanwhile is unequivocal in his desire to see the art school rebuilt and, most importantly, used as it was originally intended. ‘I’m for build it, use it, trash it,’ he says. ‘It’s a beautiful building, but the real gift that Mackintosh gave was that it’s a beautiful building that artists can work in and be inspired to make new things. That’s the function of the building and the function of CCA - the production of new art.’

Main image: Interor of CCA, Glasgow. Photograph: Neil Thomas Douglas

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt