Opinion: What next for Glasgow's Art School union?
- David Pollock
- 31 December 2019
Having recently closed indefinitely due to financial difficulties, David Pollock reflects on what the future holds for the Glasgow institution
Few institutions in Scotland have had as much bad luck in the past decade as the Glasgow School of Art, with its most recognisable building, the grand old edifice in Garnethill designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, having twice been devastated by fire. Yet as the final year numbered in the 2010s draws to a close, there has been relatively little commiseration for another aspect of the GSA which has been beset in the past twelve months – the Art School student union, across the road from the 'Mack' building, which has been closed indefinitely due to financial difficulties.
In the past three decades the Art School (as the union building was known, giving rise to understandable confusion that it falls under the remit of the School of Art itself) has established itself as one of the key music institutions in the city; not just due to the number of bands, producers and artists-cum-musicians who have passed through it during their student careers, but also due to the many gigs and seminal club nights which have occurred there.
In the 1990s, the club night Divine! saw the biggest Glasgow bands of their era and their guests, from Belle & Sebastian to Jarvis Cocker, dance at the union, while Franz Ferdinand (okay, only one member) studied at GSA, and clubs and promoters including Numbers, LuckyMe and Optimo have all hosted parties. For many years the latter's Hogmanay event was the finest in the city, while clubs like Record Playerz made Thursday nights unmissable.
At the beginning of November, however, all bookings for upcoming gigs and clubs at the union were cancelled, with the opening hours curtailed to effectively 'restrict trading (of the) commercial operation'. While the building remains open during the day for use by all students as a dry café/bar, with student support and project spaces still operating, there will be no more public programme for the foreseeable future.
Speaking to people behind the scenes paints an unhappy picture of how this came about and a gloomy one for the future. With the venue operating at a loss for years – a situation described to us as 'financial freefall' – the new elected student sabbaticals in charge of the Students Association, the Student President and Entertainments Officer, were put in place at the beginning of August.
Straight away the latter (who had a nominal remit over these public-facing aspects of the union, although these sabbatical roles are largely a link between students and the upper school, with professionals employed to do the day-to-day running) had to deal with both the departure of the Art School's two commercial managers and a financial audit revealing the depths of the hole the Art School – technically GSASA Ltd, aka the commercial, fund-raising arm of GSA Students' Association (GSASA SCIO), which is a separate organisation from GSA itself, and which leases the building from the School of Art – was in. As part of these cost-saving moves, the Art School's already zero-hour-contracted casual bar staff were told that there would be next to no hours going over the next few months, a situation which understandably precipitated union involvement and commentary in the press.
However, we were told that these moves were not made by long-standing managers looking to hang staff out to dry to clear up their own mistakes, but rather by a brand new nominal head of GSASA Ltd with no technical superiors within the School of Art itself (the sabbaticals sit on GSA's board, but these are largely symbolic positions) and no help from professional commercial managers, in an effort to stave off the financial collapse of the whole operation. They were, in effect, the person left in a years-long game of pass-the-parcel – one which precedes both Mack fires – when the final layer was unwrapped and the financial turd inside was revealed.
All of which is to say, the future for the Art School as a renowned and publicly-accessible hub of music and clubbing in Glasgow doesn't look great. The most cheerful prognosis we heard was that the effort to save it would not be a quick fix, but might rather involve a hopeful five-year plan to restructure the business and its debts.
In the meantime, those gigs which have been cancelled have been shifted across to new venues including SWG3, while an array of club promoters are in search of new homes. By the sound of it, the best we can do is lend all of them – and all of Glasgow's other great venues and promoters – our support, rather than holding our collective breath for the Art School's imminent return.