Who is going to champion Glasgow? Life after the GSA fire and the threat to the CCA

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 12th 2018

Glasgow hasn’t had to look too far to seek its troubles of late. There has been the devastating Glasgow School of Art fire (the second in four years), followed by the seeming abandonment of Sauchiehall Street businesses and residents. And if that weren’t enough in the last week there have been concerns that the acclaimed arts and cultural venue, the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), shut since the GSA fire, faces the prospect of closure.

The CCA has played a vital part in the cultural story of the city. It began life as the Third Eye Centre opening in 1975 where it gave a whole host of emerging and radical artists a platform, providing a hub for debate, exchange and hanging out. This morphed into the CCA in 1992 and subsequently the space was overhauled to create a stunning atrium with a café, along with a cinema space and music venue, with over a dozen businesses and enterprises renting and using space, in a rich eco-system which made it a place to go for interesting conversation, an unusual art exhibition or film, or just food and drink.

Today the CCA has been shut for nearly three months. It feels unloved and even unforgotten. Francis Mckee, director of CCA, is careful what he says in public, but on the most basic levels of support he feels let down. In the time it has been shut – not only the public, but also staff, have not been allowed in – apart from the briefest site visit by Mckee. This found the CCA building has suffered damage due to water leakage including to one of the gallery’s ceilings, one art piece in this space, and a video screen. Mckee says that ‘the ceiling will need to be repaired, the video screen will need to be tested to see if it’s also sustained damage, and the artist’s studio has costed the piece at £3000 for replacement.’

All it would take to repair and secure the building would be if tradesman could enter with an official escort; it isn’t even, as Mckee points out, at the side of the premises on Scott Street nearest to the GSA. But Building Control, part of the council, will not allow it. On top of this there is the human cost with staff who work in the building worried about their futures, with the viability of many small businesses under threat, and no sign of an entry date from the authorities.

Maybe on its own the CCA story might not seem to matter, but to many it forms part of a bigger picture and not one that is positive. Joyce McMillan commented about this:

If the CCA goes, after the shocking closure of the Arches, Glasgow can wave a last goodbye the huge reputation as a City of Culture it won in 1990. Truly hope this great arts centre, founded by the late Tom McGrath & others as the Third Eye, can be saved.

This is a city which feels in places a bit lost and yearning for direction and leadership. The new SNP administration and council leader Susan Aitken have good intentions, but they have knocked by events and the need to firefight; they have also had to deal with summer social media spats with a host of Glasgow opposition MSPs (Pauline McNeill, Frank McAveety, Anas Sarwar, Adam Tomkins) spearheading a defence of Rangers FC and a proposal for a fan zone across from Ibrox: all of which produced an avalanche online abuse of SNP leader Susan Aitken and her deputy David McDonald.

There are also internal tensions and conflicts between a new generation of councillors eager to do things differently and a senior council officialdom who have only worked under Labour one party rule. All over the city there seems to be an inability to communicate, connect and reach out, which people often lay at the door of the council, but is actually about a deeper malaise.

There are numerous actors in this mix. There is the role of the GSA and their invisible public leadership: director Tom Inns and chair Muriel Gray. Neither of them have been very vocal in public. More critically, there has been minimal support for, or embracing of the displacement of, the wider local community who have suffered as a result of the fire. There has been no articulation of a deeper GSA civic responsibility to the city, their neighbours, and institutions such as the CCA with which the GSA is intrinsically interwoven, sharing common projects and personnel.

Residents adjacent to the Art School had to leave their homes on the night of the fire, and were prevented in entering them for more than 70 days. In that time, they had to borrow everything they needed from friends and family, and find accommodation and support elsewhere – away from the policed exclusion zone. This seemed to fly in the face of the compassionate front the city likes to present to the world. Similarly, Sauchiehall Street businesses have taken enormous hits, with some still closed, some already gone and others unsure if they will ever re-open.

Truth is Glasgow has been drifting for years. You can feel it in the air, in the streets, the awful cracked pavements, the debris of crumbling buildings, the state of the city centre and iconic architecture such as the Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson designed Egyptian Halls on Union Street which are a national disgrace. Of course, there are many things the city does well: it is a buzzing place for night life, as a live music venue, and it does big things, such as the Commonwealth Games and recent European Championships, with aplomb. It is also true that as the city centre struggles, local neighbourhoods, a short walk or a bus or taxi ride away, take its place for socialising and shopping – from Finneston to Dennistoun and Strathbungo.

I love Glasgow and I have loved living in it for over twenty-five years. I consider myself although a Dundonian as an adopted Glaswegian – and also that the city has adopted me. I would never want to talk the city down or to paint its challenges in black and white.

Yet, we have seen retreat after retreat in recent years. The closure of the Arches three years ago, the wonderful labyrinth of cultural and social activities under the arches of Glasgow Central station, brought into being by Andy Arnold, was a national tragedy. The Arches was that rare beast – a multi-disciplinary space combining commercial and publicly subsidised arts and culture, which because of the mix could afford to take risks.

Its closure was an act of brazen, ignorant council cultural vandalism which occurred under the watch of Labour and then leader Gordon Mathieson and not reversed by Frank McAveety. The Arches did have problems; in its club nights there was a drug culture and one very public fatality just before its closure, but the licensing committee seemed to act with indecent haste, strangling and suffocating a venue with an international reputation. If there ever was an act of philistinism this was it.

Now to cap it all there are unsubstantiated rumours that the controversial G1 Group headed up by Stefan King who own several Glasgow venues (including Arta, The Corinthian, The Polo Lounge), are interested in taking a significant space in the Arches: part of it at the moment being a ‘continental’ food hall. It seems all too predictable, and points to Glasgow leaders not really understanding the uniqueness of fuzzy, messy, idiosyncratic, independent cultural spaces. Places such as the Arches and the CCA contributed hugely to Glasgow’s sense of itself as somewhere special, with international pull and profile beyond football.

What Glasgow is missing is local champions and civic leadership. This isn’t just down to the current council – who have inherited a backlog of problems, institutional indifference and neglect – and are hemmed in financially. But with the decline of the ‘Evening Times’, a paper which traditionally saw itself as an advocate for the city, and an absence of any kind of citizens or independent cultural voice, you can almost feel the void and vacuum.

Glasgow has wealth, commerce and innovation, but it is also in places struggling. It needs to find a new role for itself, new ideas and new voices. It has lost its sense of swagger and self-confidence, which might be no bad thing, given there was a downside to that, but has become riddled with doubt and division. There is too much party pointscoring, with for years, the SNP and others laying every problem at the foot of Labour, and now people doing the same to the SNP who are barely in the door. Step forward Tory MSP Adam Tomkins last week claiming in the ‘Evening Times’, ‘Sauchiehall Street is dying on the SNP’s watch’; the reality is Sauchiehall Street’s problems long predate the GSA fire and everyone, Tomkins included, knows that.

People love and care for this city. It is time to show that and act upon that with words and deeds. We need people to reach out and reconnect, have conversations and even disagreements which go beyond the party partisan, and bring into the mix the missing voices and alternatives stories to that of Glasgow plc. We need institutions to step up and take civic responsibility and accept that the council can’t do everything. We need a people’s Glasgow – one which draws from the best of the city’s tradition – but that ultimately is down to the people of this city. Do we really care enough to do something?