BY any measure the last half decade or so has been a torrid one for the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), the much-loved city institution whose reputation for innovation and go-getting is embodied by generations of successful graduates, and symbolised by the building which, to a greater or lesser degree, has shaped the artistic world-view of each one of those young people – the Mackintosh Building on Renfrew Street, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, completed in 1909, and one of the architectural wonders of the modern world.

You’ll need both hands to properly count the mishaps, missteps and (if you’re so inclined) acts of God which have contributed to the GSA’s recent ills, but here we go with a few of them. First there was a fire, requiring an extensive (and expensive) re-build of the Mack, as the Mackintosh Building is known. Then came a second fire, causing those same Glaswegians who had watched through tears the first time to feel disbelief and anger that the same thing could be allowed to happen twice. And not just Glaswegians, but GSA graduates of all nationalities, across the world.

In the wake of that anger came recriminations, questions, investigations and resignations. Then came rumours of internal feuding, and grumblings of discontent among students for whom the dream of an education at one of the world’s most storied institutions had, literally, gone up in smoke. On top of all that, the school had been without a long-term director since the abrupt departure of Professor Tom Inns in late 2018 after a turbulent five year tenure: his successor, Professor Irene McAra-McWilliam, was appointed on only an interim basis.

That last problem, at least, has been fixed. The new director is Penny Macbeth, who started work at the end of May by chairing a meeting via a video call. If in her two-day interview there was a section devoted to straight-talking she will have scored top marks. She isn’t one to duck the hard questions. A self-described “catalyst”, the 52-year-old has experience of turning around failing departments, collaborating with people and organisations far beyond the relatively narrow world of the art school, and a CV which involves leading a major infrastructure project in Manchester, a city every bit as dynamic and rumbustious as Glasgow.

Born in the Midlands, Macbeth specialises in textiles and fashion. She trained at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, and in 1999 took a teaching job at the University of Huddersfield. She stayed in Yorkshire for 13 years and then, three years into the financial crisis and with a young child at home, joined Manchester School of Art as its head of art, later becoming Dean and being given the job of overseeing the creation of the city’s new School of Digital Arts (SODA). “I tend to make moves at uncomfortable times,” she quips. So it seems.

The move to Glasgow is consistent, then, though the word “move” is used advisedly: when we talk in what is Macbeth’s first Scottish interview, she is still in lockdown in Yorkshire and hasn’t even been able to find herself a domicile in her new home city, far less prowl the corridors of her new domain and do what she seems to like best, have a blether. “I’m really interested in understanding what makes the student body tick, and the staff, and you can only really do that by getting out and meeting lots of people, which is what I intend to do, to understand some of the bigger challenges that there are,” she says.

Challenges are not in short supply. Top of Macbeth’s to-do list is Covid-19, of course, specifically ensuring GSA’s ability to deliver courses while safeguarding the health of staff and students. There’s also the matter of student satisfaction – for two years running GSA ranked bottom in Scotland in the National Student Survey (NSS) – and of course the big question: what to do with, and about, the Mack.

That first fire, on May 23, 2014, began in a basement and destroyed the famous library, though most of the rest of the building and much of the contents were saved. The programme of restoration was just months away from completion when, on June 15, 2018 – two years ago on Monday – a second, more devastating fire all but destroyed the building. By now the ash has settled. Everything else is still up in the air.

For the record, here’s the official line on the building’s present state and its potential future shape: the investigation into the cause of the fire, which had just restarted, is on pause due to the closure of all building sites. That same ruling stopped the work of the demolition firm and the fire and rescue service, who were both working to stabilise the site. Meanwhile GSA has appointed Fiona Stewart, a chartered surveyor with experience of heritage projects, to the post of Strategic Director of Estates with particular responsibility for the Mack. In the medium term, the intention remains to return the building to its former state, as was the plan in 2014, with the proviso that that be achieved through the creation of a viable and rigorous business case.

That idea doesn’t please everyone. “Those who want to see art should bypass London and go straight to Glasgow. Glasgow’s take on art is unique”. So said German architect and critic Hermann Muthesius in 1902 and nothing symbolises that uniqueness more than the Mackintosh Building and the legacy of its architect. It recalls a time when Glasgow felt confident enough to take on the world and, more than that, to actually set the pace in terms of art and design.

Unsurprisingly there are many in the architectural community who feel that same radical spirit would be best served by commissioning an entirely new building rather than producing a slavish reproduction. Writing for BBC Arts online after the 2015 announcement that the Mackintosh Building library would be completely restored, architect and GSA graduate Alan Dunlop called it “an opportunity lost”, one which “makes a mockery of the architectural competition for new ideas … I have no doubt too that Mackintosh would reject this approach. He was driven by a life-long search for new forms in architecture and technology and was never a copyist.”

To use the jargon, there are a great many “stakeholders” who need to be involved in the decision about the Mack’s future, but Macbeth’s would be one of the more powerful voices in that conversation. Alan Dunlop’s is a widely held view – is it one she at least has some sympathy with?

“Yes, obviously I do. But I think we have to do the right thing and I think it’s quite complex and nuanced. The commitment to date is to rebuild. I have seen art schools – and Dresden is one, obviously it was bombed during the second world war – which have been rebuilt in such a way as to show the joins, and it’s absolutely stunningly done. So there are ways of doing things. Since getting this job lots of colleagues and friends have said similar things and expressed similar sentiments. But when you become the director, and essentially one of the custodians of this building, it has to be looked at in the round.” At the end of the day, she says, the important thing is that “we have a very vibrant art school that goes back into that space, when it eventually happens.”

This may turn out to be a blessing or a curse, but Macbeth has never actually set foot in the Mack. It could make her job harder in the sense that she has no first-hand experience, but at the same time it allows her to be clear-headed and unemotional about what should replace it.

“He’s one of our own” is a chant beloved of football fans watching a homegrown talent playing in the colours of his boyhood team. That same sense of pride is felt about Mackintosh and his work by many Scots – even those who rarely set foot inside a gallery and whose preferred setting on a Saturday afternoon really is the football stadium. Macbeth gets it, though. She gets that in the context of Glasgow, it’s that which makes the art school feel so special. “I’m aware of narratives of whole lines of families having gone to GSA or lived near GSA,” she says, “and the passion and pride around the Mackintosh Building”.

More broadly, how does she view her position in terms of Scottish public life? As the new head of an important institution, she has a ready platform if she wants to use it. Would she welcome the chance to become involved in wider discussions in Glasgow about, say, regeneration, cultural activity, development or infrastructure?

“Yes, because otherwise we can’t really play the part that we need to play in the city. I don’t think art schools should be closed doors. They need to be looking outwards and part of the DNA of a city and in all sorts of conversations. Certainly that’s how Manchester School of Art was viewed in Manchester and that is my absolute aim, that I will be out and about as soon I’m able to move … It’s a role I’m interested in taking and it’s a role I’ve occupied in Manchester in terms of big city conversations.” If you’re a member of the group of people who, as she puts it, “make Glasgow work”, expect a knock on the door. Or, more likely, an invitation to a Zoom call.

Another pressing concern is the issue of student satisfaction. GSA came bottom in that category in both the 2017 and 2018 NSS rankings. Macbeth points out that the NSS is only one of four main “metrics” by which GSA judges success – the others are retention rates, student success and graduate success, and the school scores well in each of them – and on top of that there’s the school’s ranking in the QS guide to the world’s best universities GSA has placed eighth in the world for the last two years running, no surprise to anyone who has scanned the Turner Prize shortlists over the last 20 years. However student satisfaction does need to be addressed, she admits, and ultimately it comes down to a question of trust, a word she uses a lot.

“You need to get behind what it is that’s causing these disjuncts because nobody tries to make student experience poor,” she says. “There’s just a mismatch of expectation. And it’s about building trust, getting to know students, getting your staff to understand the message that’s coming across.

“You need to put in the right measures, robust measures – listen, talk, be frank, have some painful discussions and then move it on. But you also have to set expectations around what you expect from the staff and also what the students can expect, and wherever possible stick to those.”

In September, the students will return to GSA, to an institution hoping the worst is behind it but which, like the city which hosts it and admires it, looks very changed. Change, though, is not always bad. Some good may come out of the pandemic and from GSA’s hellish half decade, a fact which is not lost on the always forward-facing Macbeth.

“It’s really important to keep our core values – we’re one of the major art schools in the world and obviously our estate and our physical spaces are important to us,” she says. “But I always believe, and I think most creative people do, that whenever there’s a major issue there are always opportunities. I certainly saw that in Manchester when I arrived after the last recession and people decided to be optimistic rather than pessimistic … If you can keep that creative passion and that criticality going in a positive way, that’s where you as creative practitioners can do interesting, extraordinary or at least valuable things.”

Optimism, positivity, creativity and a yen for the extraordinary: she has come to the right city.

When her appointment was announced, one prominent Scottish art critic noted that Penny Macbeth had better don a flak jacket. That’s probably true. But, whether so attired or not, she doesn’t seem like a woman who’s scared to put her head above the parapet. What she says and does next will be the interesting bit.

Highs and lows: a quarter of a century in the life of Glasgow School of Art

1996: Douglas Gordon, a graduate of the school's ground-breaking Environmental Art course, becomes the first Scot and the first GSA graduate to win the £20,000 Turner Prize.

1997: Another GSA Environmental Art graduate, Ayrshire-born Christine Borland, is nominated in the famous all-female Turner Prize shortlist alongside Angela Bulloch, Cornelia Parker and eventual winner Gillian Wearing.

1999: Seona Reid becomes GSA Director, staying in post until 2013.

2000: Roddie Buchanan wins the inaugural £65,000 Beck’s Futures art prize, founded by London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts.

2002: A study (disputed by GSA) shows that only seven per cent of students come from working class backgrounds, lower than both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. “Who would have suspected that Glasgow School of Art was posher than St Andrews when it comes to its student intake?” asked The Guardian newspaper. Toby Paterson wins the Beck’s Futures art prize.

2003: Rosalind Nashashibi wins the Beck’s Futures art prize.

2005: Simon Starling wins the Turner Prize. Fellow alumni Jim Lambie is shortlisted.

2009: Richard Wright wins the Turner Prize.

2011: GSA opens a campus in Singapore. Martin Boyce wins the Turner Prize.

2014 April 9: Robbie Coltrane, a GSA graduate, opens the £30 million Reid Building, built opposite the Mackintosh Building.

May 23: The Mackintosh Building is damaged after a fire breaks out in the basement. Most of the building and much of the contents are saved, but the famous library is all but destroyed.

December: Duncan Campbell wins the Turner Prize

2015: March: Director Professor Tom Inns announces that the library will be re-built as it was.

2016: Work begins on the re-build.

October: Students protest about the running of the school and issue a statement: “The school seems to value its GSA ‘brand’ more than the education of its students and is now acting like a financial services institution.”

2018: June 15: A second fire breaks out in the Mackintosh Building, shortly before it was due to re-open, this one more devastating.

July: For the second year in a row, GSA ranks lowest in Scotland for student satisfaction in the National Student Survey.

November: Professor Tom Inns leaves his post abruptly amid rumours of a rift with the GSA board.

December: Charlotte Prodger wins the Turner Prize

2020 May: Penny Macbeth takes over as Director from interim director Professor Irene McAra-McWilliam.

June: The QS university rankings are released, placing GSA eighth in the world for art and design for the second year running.