ONE of Scotland’s leading architects has thrown his hat into the ring to become chairman of the troubled Glasgow School of Art in a bid to seek reform, saying it had “lost respect” in a strong attack over the way it has been run over recent years.
Professor Alan Dunlop, a School of Art alumunus, has been backing students who are planning a legal challenge of the institution over its handling of the first coronavirus lockdown and the impact of 2018’s devastating second fire at the world famous Mackintosh Building.
Last week, Muriel Gray said she was to step down as chairman of Glasgow School of Art (GSA) after the two disastrous fires that destroyed the world-famous Mackintosh building.
Professor Dunlop said outgoing Muriel Gray’s position had become untenable.
Seven years ago a blaze gutted the West wing of the building, and a second fire in 2018 destroyed most of the Grade A listed structure, regarded as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece.
Gray, 63, whose period of office was to end formally in October 2022, said she hoped her early departure would leave the way clear both for her boardroom successor and for Penny Macbeth, the recently appointed director.
She said: “I want to take the machine gun fire, so they stop aiming at GSA.
“All the negativity I appear to attract might still be in place if I remained.”
She has said that resigning did not mean she was “carrying the can” for the fires.
It comes as Prof Dunlop, whose work includes the Radisson Blu hotel in Glasgow, has helped fund a legal campaign by painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, fashion and product design Masters students against the School of Art who want redress after being denied accesss to the workshops and gallery areas which they say was an “essential component to our studies”.
So far £3,680 has been raised in a crowdfunding campaign which asserted that School of Art decisions heightened anxieties further as students were already “experiencing financial stress and declining mental health due to losing part time work, no furlough due to insecure job contracts or working in high-risk environments as key workers”.
The group added: “This followed an already disrupted year for our cohort, impacted by mismanaged studio and workshop access, UCU [University and College Union] strikes and closure of the student union.”
Prof Dunlop, who attended the Mackintosh School of Architecture between 1983 and 1986, has said he would try to rebuild the School of Art’s battered reputation if he became chairman, saying staff and students had pushed him to apply.
The architect behind the original plan to build a crossing from Scotland to Northern Ireland said he head been approached by students to stand and has had strong words for the way the school has been run.
“Yes I am interested, very interested and believe I have all the necessary experience in practice and academia and the vision to do the job and do it well (not that the previous chair had any similar experience before being made chair in 2013),” said Prof Dunlop, who said he has received hundreds of letters communications and emails about running.
“I don’t know if the idea of a ‘critical friend’ as one of the students suggested or someone who wants to reform the governance and the way the school operates would be accepted, and I’m suspicious of the way the GSA operates so I may be wasting my time. But I am seriously considering it.
“A number of post grad students from the GSA but also the Mackintosh School emailed me as soon as it was announced and encouraged me to stand, students have a vote.
“I’ve even had emails of support from local people who live around the school, who were seriously mucked around after the 2018 fire. Unfortunately they don’t have a vote, otherwise I’d apparently walk it.
“The next few years will be critical for the art school, with the future of Mackintosh’s masterwork still to be confirmed and contracts to be sorted and the eventual publication of the Fire Report.
“So, I’m asking architects and other friends if they might support me, as I thought they’d like to see a ‘distinguished’ alumnus but also an architect, teacher and artist as chair. I have my own strong views on this but I would work with whatever was agreed as best way forward.”
He believed change was needed.
“They take critisism as a personal insult,” said Prof Dunlop, a Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. “They’re living off past reputation. They don’t communicate. Their PR and messaging is terrible. They treat their students as cash cows and they don’t listen to independent reports.
“They don’t treat their neighbours with respect. There’s no leadership. The building burnt down in 2018 after over 150 years of occupancy.
“Now they’re facing legal action from the students. They’ve lost the respect of other schools. And they’ve dropped substantially in the university rankings.
“But I have been given hope that things could improve and I could make a difference.
“They need a chair that knows their way around a contract and can plan a future for a building that was the most important in Scotland and voted by the Royal Institute of British Architects as the most significant in the UK. I have that experience, and more.
“In the face of all that I will throw my hat in the ring, I just have to work out how to do it.”
A GSA spokesman said: “We have always had the greatest respect for Professor Dunlop which is why he is one of the people consulted as part of the Strategic Outline Business Case for the Mackintosh Building, an approach that was one of the recommendations of the Scottish Parliament Committee Report. We have also offered to meet with Professor Dunlop to discuss the points he has recently expressed, but unfortunately he declined our offer.
“Since June 2018 we have worked hard to rebuild our relationship with our neighbours, and with the appointment of our Director, Professor Penny Macbeth, in May 2020 the leadership and future direction of the School is evident, with the GSA maintaining its position as a top ten international art school in the 2021 QS Global university subject rankings, an improved position in the 2022 Guardian rankings, and a clear commitment to us providing the best student experience.”