I WANT to know what the mood’s like in Glasgow School of Art after all that’s happened. Two fires. Piles of rubble. Lots of scaffolding. Lots of criticism. Accusations of mismanagement. Calls for public inquiries. The art school, it’s fair to say, has become a bit of a bunker over the last few years. And the mood inside? Frustration.

It’s frustration because the men and women who run the school think the criticism that’s been thrown at them is unfair. Look at our record, they say: we’re among the top ranked institutions of the UK, and the world; we’re way over-subscribed for students; we’ve won lots of awards and we’re doing really innovative work. And yet all everyone wants to talk about is The Building.

You might say: no wonder. The art school’s world-famous, much-adored Mackintosh building was damaged by a fire in 2014. The students and staff stood in the street and cried. Then four years later the building was hit by another, much worse fire. And the students and staff stood in the street again, looking at what was left.

One of them was Professor Nora Kearney, chairwoman of the school’s board of governors. She remembers someone phoning her on the night of the second fire to tell her what was happening. No, there must be some mistake, she thought at first. Not again.

But it was true, and the next day Professor Kearney stood in the road outside the Mackintosh and surveyed the damage. After the first fire, the then chairwoman Muriel Gray said the majority of the building was still intact; it was a miracle, she said. But there was no such luck after the second fire. We were months away from opening, Professor Kearney tells me. It was devastating.

However, Professor Kearney also wants to make an appeal for perspective. She loves the Macintosh as much as anyone else, she says, but the art school is more than one building. She indicates the room we’re sitting in, at the front of the Reid Building opposite the Mack.

“The art school is the ethos that exists in every one of the buildings,” she says. “The fact that we had a heritage building as part of our estate was really important, and continues to be so, but the life of the school goes on. We’re not compromising on the education.”

Professor Kearney says it’s frustrating, but understandable, that the public and political reaction, and a lot of the media coverage, has continued to focus on the fires instead. In March, the Scottish Parliament’s culture committee said the art school did not give sufficient priority to safeguarding the building after the first fire; they also called for a public inquiry. Other critics have gone even further and suggested the management of the Mackintosh building should be taken out of the art school’s hands altogether.

The problem with this, as far as Professor Kearney is concerned, is that she believes a lot of what’s been said in public is just wrong. The responsibility for preventing the second fire, for instance. At the time it happened, she says, matters had been taken out of the school’s hands and it was the building firm, Keir Construction, not the art school, that was in day-to-day control.

“It’s the art school’s building – the perception is that it’s our building and we should be in control of it,” she says. “But some of the challenge for us has been that, while the board has come in for significant criticism, we haven’t seen the same attempt to criticise the people who were in charge at the time of the fire and that seems odd and unbalanced. I’m not saying we don’t deserve to come under scrutiny but I also think scrutiny should fall upon those who were in charge of the building.”

Professor Kearney thinks there’s been similar misinformation about the school’s relationship with the people who live and work around it. Residents and business owners were locked out of their properties for weeks and many felt they were badly treated, or ignored, when they complained. Again, Professor Kearney says the closures and exclusion zones that were imposed around the Mackintosh building were pretty much out of the school’s control, with the decisions being taken by the police, the fire service or Glasgow City Council.

But does Professor Kearney understand the anger of some residents, and does she think the school could have done things differently? “Of course we could have,” she says. “When you look back, there are always things you could have done differently.”

Like talking to the residents more for instance? “Absolutely and engaging with them in different ways. We’ve learned a lot of lessons from that. There is much more engagement now with the communities – we are liaising very closely with them, trying to understand what the issues are for them. It’s still not pretty; it’s still very hard to walk up your street; and it’s going to be like this for some time. But the relationship now with the community – and I don’t think I’ m overestimating it – it’s really, really positive.”

It’s hard to be so positive about the relationship with politicians. In fact, in a debate about the culture committee’s report in October, MSP after MSP laid into the school. Glasgow’s Adam Tomkins said the art school was an unfit custodian of the Mack and should be stripped of its ownership. “Under their stewardship,” he said, “Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s jewel has been allowed to burn down twice. The School of Art has straightforwardly failed in its custodianship of what is a national treasure.”

However, Professor Kearney rejects any idea that the school’s management of the Mack in any way led to the second fire. “Let’s be honest,” she says. “We don’t have the fire report so to make assertions about anything to do with the fire, the cause of the fire, any mismanagement is not helpful. Until we’ve got the report, it’s difficult to make any pronouncements about what happened or didn’t happen.” I ask her if she thinks we’ll ever know the cause. “The extent of the fire was such that I don’t know and I’m not going to speculate,” she says.

Professor Kearney’s focus, she says, is on the students and staff and specifically on finding a new director for the school following the resignation of Tom Inns in November last year. What kind of person are they looking for? Someone who understands the importance of art and design to the economy, says Professor Kearney. Would it be a good idea to have a Glaswegian in the job? That’s potentially a good idea, says the professor, but the search is international.

And what will be waiting for the new director when they start in the job (probably in the summer some time)? Boosting staff morale would definitely be a priority. Professor Kearney says it’s taken a while to recover from all that’s happened, but it’s getting better.

She also rejects reports that there has been a high turnover of staff. It has been reported the school lost 70 staff in the year after the second blaze. Not true, says Professor Kearney. The actual number is 40 and 30 of those were on short-term contracts. The staff turnover at the school is actually below the higher education sector average, she says.

There are other pressing issues for the new director to take on. For instance, one priority will be defending the reputation of the school and, in particular, fighting off the idea that management of the Mackintosh building should be taken away from the school and given to an independent body. Adam Tomkins has been one of those to suggest it, but, for Professor Kearney, it’s out of the question.

“The key priority for the board is maintaining the independence of Glasgow School of Art – it is absolutely crucial, including over the Mackintosh building,” she says.

“That’s why we have been able to punch above our weight in a whole range of areas around art and design because we’ve not been subsumed within a higher educational establishment, which with the best will in the world, places more emphasis on STEM subjects. Our strength is our independence.”

All of these issues will undoubtedly create more turbulence ahead, but Professor Kearney says she is looking forward to the reopening of the Mackintosh. The plan – as it was after the first fire – is still to recreate the building in its original form; once it’s reopened, there’s also a plan to teach every single first year student in the building at some point. “We’d like to give all the students the chance of learning in that building,” says Professor Kearney.

The slightly sad fact, of course, is that, because the building has been closed since 2014, there’s already an entire cohort of students that’s passed through the school without ever having been in the Mack. Professor Kearney says that’s a great pity, but insists again that the disaster of the fires should be kept in perspective. What happened to the Mack was devastating, but look at the work we’re doing, she says.

“The number of awards the students win,” she says. “Some of the really innovative work we’re doing. That doesn’t seem to be as important as ‘we’ve had a building.’” That is Professor Kearney’s main message, amid the criticism, and the upset, and the scaffolding: the Mack was a wonderful building and will be again, but Glasgow School of Art is more than a building.