Rebuild the System: An Alternative Art School Model


You might have heard recently about what’s going down in Sydney’s three major art schools. One has pretty much abandoned traditional art education like painting and sculpture for an offbeat hybrid art/technology thing that costs heaps to produce but has beautiful ’research output’ value. Another art school is doing its best to rally the alumni in an attempt to ward off land developers while trying to secure ongoing funding to keep their doors open. And the third art school? That’s a beauty: the university that runs it apparently just wants out of art education altogether and, despite some weak promises to move it to main campus, the general consensus is that it’s doomed – student occupation of the admin building notwithstanding.

In New South Wales, we live in a neo-liberal dream-land where nothing is impossible.

Century-old trees go down for the convenience of punters heading to the track and iconic architecture is destined for demolition while a gigantic freeway is carved through inner-west real estate. Whole industries are made defunct at the stroke of a pen, while the streets of former bohemian enclaves are made safe by banning people from using them while they’re drunk after 1 am. The problems of Sydney’s art schools are just a part of a managerial mindset in the state that has infected every level of society, from state governments and university boards down to local councils and community groups.

Though, of course, universities and their art schools are funded not by the state, but by the federal government. There is a regime in place that manages how funds are apportioned to the universities and then the unis decide who gets what in their various faculties and departments. And herein lies the problem: art schools do not produce many of what are called ’traditional research outputs’ – the kinds of research that academics typically produce [books, journal articles, etc.] that gets measured to decide how productive a university is and which in turn [mostly] goes towards how they get their future funding: more research, more money. If an art school attached to a university doesn’t produce enough of those traditional outputs, and instead produces ’non-traditional research outputs’ [old media exhibitions, new media work, etc.], either the art school has to convince the university that there’s equivalence between outputs, or it’s discounted.

Many would ask: why shouldn’t non-trad research be as valuable as traditional outputs? After all, they’re art schools, right? Or maybe you’d ask: why are art schools attached to universities anyway? Well, those are both good questions but, simply put, this is the situation we’re in. In NSW, the battles over art education are all about financing: art education in the TAFE sector was gutted because, according to the government razor gang, not enough people who graduated from those courses went on to be gainfully employed in the creative industries. The National Art School, which is funded by the NSW state government, has never had a secure funding stream and survives on the largesse of whoever is in government. Sydney College of the Arts is under the hammer because the University of Sydney seems to regard it as a drain on their system and, presumably, doesn’t rate its research outputs. It’s a depressing situation and one that feels inevitable given the attitude of the stuffed suits running NSW.

But as Don Draper used to say, if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation. The marriage of universities and art schools has been fun for a while but I suggest a radical rethink along the lines of the 19th-century School of Arts movement that sprang up in the UK and then arrived in Australia in the 1830s. Forward-thinking working men and women built those gorgeous art school buildings that dot the suburbs and country towns around Australia to be bastions of continued learning, many of them with ocean views and kitchens equipped with an urn and a caterer’s size tin of Nescafé.

Rather than giant art schools, let’s have hundreds of web-connected mini-schools that cater for perhaps 150 students each, and are staffed and taught by people living in the local area, teaching both hands-on skills and big picture concepts and art history.

Students could sign up for a certificate and then move on to a degree, or go to another mini-school with a different philosophical alignment. Take three, five or 10 years and do a PhD. There’s no rush. Funding? We’d apportion a percentage of the federal budget to the schools, based on the percentage contribution of the creative industries to GDP.

Yeah – the practicality of this idea is questionable, but let’s not worry about details for now. Either we fix the broken system or we reinvent it from the ground up. For those of you living outside NSW – places with university art schools and TAFE art courses that happily sit together in the existing system – I wish you well. It can’t possibly happen to you.

Opinion Words by Andrew Frost