On 23 May, as firefighters battled to get the blaze under control, onlookers watched in horror to see how much of Glasgow School of Art’s listed Charles Rennie Mackintosh building – and its precious contents – would be saved. The fire was eventually brought under control and thanks to the skill of the fire service, more than 90 per cent of the structure remained viable and 70 per cent of its contents had been saved. While many students lost some or all of their work, it was with great relief that no one was hurt and the school’s archives were declared safe.
However, after the firefighters left, the enormity of the task facing the school became apparent. A fund was set up to raise £20m to restore the building and both the Scottish and UK Governments rallied round offering financial help of £5m each. First Minister Alex Salmond said the Scottish Government’s funding was in addition to any longer-term funding requirements for building recovery and restoration.
He said: “The Mackintosh Building of the Glasgow School of Art is truly unique and [the] fire was a devastating blow for students and staff as well as the wider arts and architecture community worldwide. The very severe damage to the building’s iconic library, in particular, is a cultural loss of significant magnitude. The ‘Mack’ is an extraordinary building. It is an architectural gem and the artistic heart of Glasgow. It can and will be restored, and everything which can be done must be done to deliver this.”
Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said it was only right that “a beautiful building of international importance” received government funds to aid its recovery. He added: “The Glasgow School of Art is one of Glasgow’s great institutions. The response to the fire from people across the world has been phenomenal. I am delighted to be able to announce that the UK Government will be providing £5 million to the Mackintosh Appeal to help the GSA recover and then continue to thrive. It is a beautiful building of international importance, so it is right that the UK Government should make a contribution to its restoration.”
When UK Culture Secretary Sajid Javid visited the School of Art, he said: “The resilience shown by the staff and students since the terrible fire is a real inspiration. I’m pleased the Government has been able to help secure the future of the Glasgow School of Art and I look forward to returning to see the Mackintosh building when it has been restored to its former glory.”
Despite this blow to an important part of Scotland’s artistic and cultural life, 2013/14 was an important year for other reasons. As the eyes of the world were on Glasgow this summer, a nationwide programme of cultural events and projects, inspired by the Commonwealth Games, has been ongoing for the past year. There were two strands to the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme – itself a collaboration between the Games’ Organising Committee, Creative Scotland and Glasgow Life. Culture 2014, a Scotland-wide cultural countdown to the Games, kicked off in 2013 and extends beyond the closing ceremony. The other is Festival 2014, the massive Games-time celebration in Glasgow running alongside the sporting action, transforming the city until 3 August with an invigorating mix of entertainment, culture and enjoyment filling the streets, spaces and stages of Glasgow.
Councillor Archie Graham, deputy leader of Glasgow City Council and executive member for the Commonwealth Games, said: “Glasgow is Scotland’s cultural powerhouse and we want to show the world that we know how to put on a party. During Games time, the city will be transformed, with outstanding performances and events which everyone can enjoy – and I have no doubt that every Glaswegian will play their part in the Games, not only by enjoying the very best in sport and culture, but by offering an invitation for everyone to come and enjoy our legendary hospitality.
“An important point is it is not just a sporting event, even though sport is at the heart of it. We also have the Queen’s Baton Rely and we have the cultural festival which is enormous. Even if people aren’t interested in sport, they’re going to be able to enjoy the Games. We’re describing it as one big party, to which everyone is invited.”
Young people have also been in the spotlight. In May, the Scottish Government announced that a group of 14 to 21-year-old volunteers would be recruited this summer to give young people a say on the arts opportunities offered across Scotland. The 15-strong group will advise on the implementation of ‘Time to Shine’, Scotland’s first arts strategy for young people and the opportunities which are offered as part of it.
Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop praised the progress already being made on the strategy, which is designed to help people from 0-25 become more involved in the arts. She also stressed how vital access to the arts is for children and young people of all backgrounds all over Scotland.
Speaking about the strategy, Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary Patricia Ferguson said: “Although it has been quite a long time in gestation, I very much welcome ‘Time to Shine’. I believe that the strategy is good, but I wonder whether it goes far enough and whether it adequately reflects the ambition and dynamism that Scotland’s young people so often demonstrate and which the young contributors to the consultation clearly exhibited.
“The strategy document makes the point that gender, race or circumstances should not prevent young people from having opportunities. Unfortunately, gender, race and the many other issues that beset our country prevent too many of our young people from having their fair share of what is available to their peers. Scottish Labour firmly believes in the concept of art for art’s sake, but we also recognise that exposure to and immersion in the arts can help to ensure good mental and physical health, break down barriers between groups of young people and help our schools and colleges to be the exciting and dynamic places that we all want them to be.
“Some young people’s involvement in the arts will provide a lifelong opportunity for enjoyment and challenge. For those with a talent or a skill, it might also provide a career. We should consider how we can encourage artists and performers to mentor young people who have an interest in the arts in order to allow them to achieve their full potential.”
Creative Scotland, the organisation which supports the arts, screen and creative industries, launched its annual plan for 2014/15 in June. The organisation’s chief executive, Janet Archer, said this is an “exciting and important year”. She added: “In 2014/15 we will be conducting reviews of both the literature and the visual arts sector and developing new strategies for arts, film and the creative industries. We will also be producing a strategy for our international work, conducting an equalities review and developing a framework for artistic assessment.
“This year also sees Scotland’s largest ever cultural programme taking place across Scotland in celebration of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and we will also see the youth arts hubs come to life as part of the youth arts strategy. Our budgets for 2014/15 are designed to ensure as much of our funding as possible is used to fund people and organisations across the sectors we support in Scotland.”
As the referendum creeps ever closer, questions were raised about the status of the BBC in an independent Scotland. In April, former BBC Trust member, Jeremy Peat, told MSPs at the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee that access to BBC services in an independent Scotland “would require a great deal of negotiation”. He suggested that digital services could be cut off and viewers could be required to pay for other services. However, the Scottish Government insisted viewers across Scotland would still be able to watch all the BBC’s output post independence, just as they do now.
In June, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Scottish families risked losing television shows such as EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing if the country votes Yes in September, or face paying higher costs to watch them.
Regardless of the outcome in September, it looks like Scotland’s cultural life will remain an important part of life. Fiona Hyslop said in a recent speech: “Whatever your views on independence, we all want to see the arts and culture thrive in Scotland, and now is the time to think about how that can happen. I feel hugely optimistic about the future for culture in Scotland. The nation is abuzz with energy, ideas and discussion. Some of that discussion has been, and will continue to be, heated and challenging at times, but that only goes to show the passion that we share and how much we have invested in the future.”