“I didn’t realise I was going to be here this long. It didn’t look that likely at the time, I thought it was going to be reasonable temporary.” Nine years after taking on the role of director at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), Francis McKee smiles as he reflects on his tenure at the head of an organisation that continues to grow and flourish. Quite a feat in these times of cutbacks and reduced budgets.

It wasn’t always that way. When McKee took over CCA he was basically told he could do what he wanted as the centre on Sauchiehall Street continued to fail to attract visitors. His answer was to create a revolutionary blueprint to open it up that has been adopted in cultural centres around the world.

The idea was simplicity itself: turn the centre into a hub. The quiet revolution he started has shifted the venue to a more democratic way of working and is the perfect solution for what to do after the building was redeveloped, taking over a villa at the back and a building on Scott Street, doubling its size but unfortunately not with an operational budget to match.

By opening the doors, welcoming in artists and performers, as well as the public, and encouraging them to stay, McKee transformed the fortunes of CCA. The latest figures say it all: more than 300,000 building admissions and 802 events were reported in the past year. More than 20,000 people attended CCA’s six main gallery exhibitions by artists Khaled Hourani, Rachel Maclean, Tony Cruz, Remy Jungerman, Adele Todd, Gregor Wright, Manuel Chavajay, Rebecca Wilcox and Romany Dear. While the Creative Lab - a space for artists to explore new ideas and methods - was home to 12 residencies, and Intermedia Gallery - an independent space dedicated to emerging artists via open-call submissions - hosted 10 exhibitions and two residencies.

“There was a discrepancy in terms of the sheer scale of the building and no-one realising the impact that was going to have. To just have CCA in that building was going to be reasonably arrogant and lonely. It just didn’t seem sensible in terms of public money,” reflects the 55-year-old. “The office space was cut in half and used as a residency space. Big offices for a director and a PA seemed irrelevant and a lot of spaces were repurposed to get more art in.

“Then we realised people who wanted to use the building couldn’t afford to, so it was better to give it away. They get to use this beautiful building and we get the fact they are using it, their programme happens here and their audience. The momentum has built up over the years and you can see how it all works.”

From South Armagh in Northern Ireland, McKee arrived in Scotland in 1986 to undertake a PhD, studying 18th century literature at the University of Glasgow. He started archiving in the library to make money and went on to become a historian in medicine there, and then work as a programmer before moving to Glasgow School of Art (GSA) as a researcher and lecturer. He still has a connection with the art school.

“It feeds really well into CCA. You see younger artists coming through and understand more about what they’re doing. And you can follow their careers from the start. The research keeps you focused on art because you can get lost in spreadsheets and bureaucracy,” he laughs.

The medical historian turned arts director says he was self-educated in the world of contemporary art after meeting Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon and artist Christine Boreland in 1990, then people such as sculptor Martin Boyce.

“I began to see how they were thinking about contemporary art. They were very generous. Through that I got quite excited, as opposed to academia which was all detail and footnotes,” he remembers.

“The 1980s were very figurative but quite cellular, they all worked on their own. In the 1990s they all moved as one and so they all promoted each other and that brought a lot of attention to the city and it became conceptual and that was quite rigorous for a while.

“Later in the 1990s it opened up and smaller groups of people, younger artists, were coming through who were more diverse and that has just kept happening. I think it’s because the art school, the city and the Scottish Arts Council all worked well together and created the infrastructure.”

You would think this might be time for McKee to put his feet up, sit back and enjoy the fruits of his success. He jokes that his three-year plans - “a bit like Chairman Mao” – keep CCA moving forward. He is now overseeing the archiving of 40 years’ material dating back to the birth of the Third Eye Centre in 1975.

Working with GSA, it will look at both archives but how do you begin to look at the history of Glasgow over the past 40 years?

“It’s a weird history because industrialisation disappears and art comes to the fore. Something like the Glasgow Miracle emphasis everything from 1990 onwards but actually there’s a whole history before that and an organisation here we didn’t know anything about. We were working in a building and didn’t know what happened 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago. We didn’t know how we got here,” he explains.

“Now a lot of intern students are working on the archive and they can do projects, that constantly gets us talking about the organisation and that reminds you constantly to keep that as a goal and not forget why you’re here.”

So far the archive has uncovered a treasure trove of material from the past four decades: grainy footage of beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg playing a gig in the original makeshift home of the Third Eye Centre on Blythswood Square, 1970s minimalist composer Julius Eastman playing in the Haldane building of GSA and quirky pieces of social history recorded when someone borrowed a video camera and took it home.

“We have film of a wedding in Drumchapel in the 1970s, a gospel meeting at Glasgow Green, the church at Garnethill with the convent and gas lighting in the close in 1975. You think, really, in 1975 they were doing that?” he wonders.

“The city was getting knocked down and rebuilt and it was the time when Oscar Marzaroli did two or three exhibitions here in Sauchiehall Street and at the same time there were conferences and filming around here as it was changing.

“That was a big issue you forget now, everyone was talking about changes in the city and here they were recording that. The footage is very valuable.”

There are other gems such as poet and songwriter Ivor Cutler recording his Life in a Scotch Sitting Room and rare recordings of anti-apartheid musicians Johnny Downie and Lewis Mahalo, connecting back to when Nelson Mandela was given the freedom of the city in 1981 when he was still in prison.

The archive has brought some artists full circle. Sonia Boyce, Pavel Buchler and Susan Hiller all showed work at the Third Eye Centre in the 1980s and were invited to make a new exhibition recently.

“I don’t know what we’ll do next. It keeps inspiring new ideas and it makes continuity. If you can find someone you have been working with and regenerate that connection and do something else ...” suggest McKee.

He has been invited to South Africa, a nation only now learning the skills of archiving as it is just 20 years since the end of apartheid. Its arts organisations are keen to learn from CCA and in turn have passed on a few ideas to McKee, one that particularly appeals is to work with live artists. The Glasgow people are a great resource and could provide vital material for McKee and his team.

Now four South African cities want to follow the model of CCA, Durban, Johannesburg, Capetown and Stellenbosch. Coming from a completely different starting point, these cities don’t have public funded work.

“There have been a lot of discussions around sharing the open source model. When there’s not a lot of money to spend on art they could actually do a lot more. The country is amazing for culture, so how do you find places and an economic way to work that? Our model seems to work,” he says.

You get the impression McKee will be at the helm of CCA for a long time to come.