The horrific news about the loss of Glasgow School of Art’s library in a fire last month is slowly becoming worse. The School itself has praised firefighters for containing the blaze, pointing out that most of remaining building emerged with only minor damage. But that is small comfort compared to the loss of “Scotland’s Sistine Chapel.” And details have emerged over the last couple of weeks that make the incident all the more tragic and–depending on your point of view–scandalous.
Glasgowarchitecture reports that sprinklers were “weeks” away from being installed in the building, but had been delayed due to lack of funding. That has struck many as odd, since the School topped out its new Steven Holl-designed £55m wing on May 8. The anonymous architecture columnist for Private Eye (subscription needed) has gone so far as to accuse the School’s management of “complacent negligence” for waiting so long to address the very acute fire risk in the studio building while directing their attention to the new building. The Eye further notes that the fire has allegedly been traced to a student installation that used flammable, expanding foam in the presence of a hot projector lamp–a similar source to the deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island in February, 2003. “Those in charge,” the column goes on, “failed to look after” the school and the activities within.
That’s a harsh judgment, but possibly a fair one–with the additional loss of a trove of paintings and furniture stored in an attic above the library, the loss to Scotland’s design culture is profound and ought to be investigated fully. But the real issue here is the fact that the School had little difficulty in raising the money for the new building even as it “struggled to attract” the finance it needed to maintain its admittedly high-maintenance home base, according to Glasgowarchitecture. Now, having suffered a very public disaster, donations and government support are flowing freely even as the debate over how to restore or rebuild the library kicks off (you can donate to the cause here). The real debate to have, though, is why institutions are left chasing money for new projects when what’s desperately needed is funding to maintain what’s already there. This isn’t unique to the School of Art–it’s rampant in an age where “charitable” donations come with giant naming rights attached. Donors to the School’s new building probably wouldn’t have given to a sprinkler fund–there’s little opportunity for a donor plaque of sufficient scale there. To pry loose cultural capital requires not just an honorable mission, but a publicly identified thing that can be named.
If donors aren’t willing to give to the core mission–maintaining, say, a national treasure against fire and daily use–I’m not sure their name belongs in 6″ letters anywhere near the institution as a whole. Maybe the School of Art will be a catalyst for an important change in institutional giving. This would be the single most productive thing to happen to preservation: finding ways to leverage reasonable maintenance, repair, and services upgrades out of donor’s generosity. As it stands, the loss of Mackintosh’ masterpiece should be a humbling reminder that it takes money not just to build, but to maintain.