Choose your own immersion: Art schools as a site of creative becoming

Shane Haseman, Triadic Dance of the Secondaries, 2019 performance at Buxton Contemporary, University of Melbourne, as part of Bauhaus Now! Dancers: Susannah Keebler, Angela Valdez, Caroline Louise Ellis, Paul Simon Jackson Flautist: Aawa White. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Eugene Hyland
Shane Haseman, Triadic Dance of the Secondaries, 2019 performance at Buxton Contemporary, University of Melbourne, as part of Bauhaus Now! Dancers: Susannah Keebler, Angela Valdez, Caroline Louise Ellis, Paul Simon Jackson Flautist: Aawa White. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Eugene Hyland

The Bauhaus, as the best-known model of immersive studio-based teaching and learning across art, craft and design that inspired the “Modern” post-WW2 art school, opened in Weimar in 1919. What can it teach us a hundred years later, when the model is in retreat? The Bauhaus lasted fourteen years, having relocated three times under three directors, each one amending doctrines and agendas. Ideological bloodletting and stylistic jostling—Expressionism, de Stijl, Functionalism, New Objectivity—along with petty internal politics were part of the Bauhaus fabric, just as they remain constant in all art teaching institutions. The forced closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, during the rise of National Socialism in Germany, puts current anxieties surrounding the pressures on the global tertiary sector and its impact on the traditional late modern art school into context. So does the very idea of the artist’s studio as a site of learning and becoming: a golden age privileging our collective desires for more time at the creative coal face, galvanised by romantic recollections of a period when the immersive studio was a central tenet for realising one’s identity as an artist.

Nostalgia is a powerful force, but it is rarely very productive. As a rising tide of PhD-trained artist-academics jostle for the shrinking availability of teaching and lecturing positions, the radical democracy of Gough Whitlam’s 1970s reforms to universities seem like a fading dream. Also appealing retrospectively are the academic art schools of the late 1980s and 1990s—the postcolonial decade—when studio-based teaching regimes and lively critique were augmented by critical thinking through art history and theory. Paradoxically, this was when art schools were still College of Advanced Education (CAEs) or recently amalgamated with the university, courtesy of Bob Hawke’s Labor government and minister John Dawkins, whose eponymous “Education Revolution” continues its long march.

Strongly criticised by many as neoliberal ideology, these changes were implemented to fund increased participation in higher education by those classes previously locked out of it, but there have been more subtle ramifications. In 1989 after fifteen years of free public education, university fees were introduced through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, deferrable as a HECS debt. In recent years, TAFE institutions (which have played such a crucial role in accessible, industry focused and vocational training) have joined the higher-degree education service sector in charging full fee for service, now offering three-year Bachelor Degrees in most states with costs comparable to universities and HECS and FEE-help payment systems in place. In short, there is ever more competition across the higher-education sector and a thinning of the domestic (Australian/NZ) FTE (full-time or equivalent student) taking up commonwealth-supported places (CSPs) for tuition in their “school” of choice.

Opponents proved right on point that the 1990s reforms were the thin edge of the wedge, both for consumers (students) and service-providers (universities). Student fees have increased far in excess of inflation rates, jumping 25% in 2005 alone under the Howard government, so clearly passing on costs to students and tightening funding models and accountability has been bi-partisan. With an eye on the big picture, it is realistic to expect the Australian university sector will get tougher, not softer, and every carrot will come with a bigger stick. But there was (and is) as much at stake ideologically as financially in Dawkins’s measures, and three decades on there are many challenges within the sector.

So, who are the challengers? Within the teaching academy, artists as academics have become increasingly submerged in bureaucracy. The age of avant-garde agitators jostles with that of the attention-seeking provocateur (as relational, socially engaged or corporate makeover expert)—performative activism—in part to define this return to the academy and its pedagogical role, but the truth(s) or justifications are always more complex and the pressures on the artist–academic can be relentless. Added to these broader artworld objectives, the aspirational in‑house critic/provocateur sits between a rock and a hard place.

Working within the cultural industries, most art school lecturers can scarcely afford to be self-reflexive, much less self-sacrificing. Teaching academics now fall into two broad categories: the tenured, relatively secure “insider,” the full-time academic or the “marginal” sessional academic. Neither is well-placed to comprehensively critique the system, although most hold private views counter to the prevailing economic rationalism and Futurist Manifesto at the top. It is rarely spoken, but academics—practitioners in studio, industry or scholarship—are among the best-paid professionals in the arts sector. Their meaningful practices, known drily as research outputs, are partly driven by the establishment that feeds them, even as the contradiction rubs academics up the wrong way.

No one likes (to be) a hypocrite. These conditions create a fragile web of relations between staff and students; and yet, in an age of economic anxiety and perceived loss of freedom (speech, thought, capital), the uncertainties of art or “blue-sky creativity” are more valuable, and vulnerable, than ever. And, perhaps surprisingly, there is a cohesive collegiality possible if we collectively commit to maintaining that patch of blue: if we can dance, we can model the rhetoric of “graduate outcomes” and practice agility, optimism and risk-taking from a rigorously researched position. Divided we fail.

Nostalgia may have little currency, but history does. And this thing we keep wanting to call “art” is always there—its purposes variously manifold and transcendental, sensory and free. It is worth remembering (with irony if it helps) that the Bauhaus was formed by a corporate merger between a nineteenth-century art school and the Weimar Academy of Fine art, and its manifesto championed art aligned to industry. But it also failed due to the internal contradictions of alignment with the State. We might recognise here an early remit to the “Creative Industries.” The Creative Industries are widely credited to Tony Blair’s UK government, although Paul Keating launched the Creative Nation in Australia in 1994, recognising the economic contribution of the creative and cultural sectors, and the economic exploitation more specifically of creative innovation, capital and intellectual property.

The creative industries are not cricket, but the long-standing (mostly friendly) tensions between Australia and the UK have brought both sides together in the local university sector in our increasingly globalised workforce. Whether creative industries are native born or migrant is redundant, as integrating student’s learning to a (work) life after the academy has only become more explicit: a generation ago it was embraced as artists’ professional practice. Pedagogical fashions come and go, but in taking a historical view of change over the past quarter century, it is impossible to draw a single conclusion: there are many variables, and many choices for many different students. And students are changing too—not only in demographic and variable intent, but in the ways they engage, the ways they read (texts, memes, signs) and by extension, the ways they think. The friction and edge of this intergenerational and technology-driven divide brings its own rewards. Whatever your position, the agency and style of the twenty-first century art student is a big story.

The Go8 universities, half of them in Sydney and Melbourne, have maintained their music, fine art and art history, and (relatively new) curatorial and performance studies, alongside media, film and design, but they have not remained static. Nor has change been initially welcomed, or easily surrendered. A recent example is Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), established in 1974 as a faculty of The University of Sydney, 1990–2017. Following a volatile restructure, SCA is currently building bridges, relocating to architecturally designed premises at Sydney University’s inner-city campus. While losses have been real and legion (good people, rigorously developed programs, the poetic-historic Callan Park site overlooking the Paramatta River), the SCA may be a phoenix yet. With the Power Institute’s archive and the ready coinage of sandstone scholarship and global excellence, it is full of the promise enriched by interdisciplinary collaboration across art, media and humanities and an expansive range of studio specialisations to be fully operational in 2020.

The new home for Sydney College of the Arts, occupying the site of the Old Teachers’ College, University of Sydney main campus. Concept graphic courtesy University of Sydney and ARM Architects
The new home for Sydney College of the Arts, occupying the site of the Old Teachers’ College, University of Sydney main campus. Concept graphic courtesy University of Sydney and ARM Architects
Sydney College of the Arts, Kirkbride. Courtesy the University of Sydney
Sydney College of the Arts, Kirkbride. Courtesy the University of Sydney

Only history will tell, but the evidence in Melbourne’s premier academy is worth noting, evoking as it does the old (friendly) rivalry between the two cities and the latter’s triumphant claim on cultural status. Ten years on from the 2009 merger of the Victorian College of Arts (VCA) with the University of Melbourne, the VCA is arguably the country’s most appealing university-based art school. With its roots in the nineteenth-century National Gallery [of Victoria] School and growth in disciplines in the 1970s—music, drama, dance, and (from 1992) film—the current VCA in the Southbank cultural precinct profits from the amenity of leading public art institutions, including the NGV and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). The city’s history of generous private philanthropy, recently visible in the new Buxton Contemporary adjacent to the VCA, is a natural alliance between art, culture and industry. But not everyone can live in Melbourne or score a CSP at the VCA, nor does everyone want to.

Opening of The Stables, Victorian College of the Arts, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne. Photo: Drew Echberg
Opening of The Stables, Victorian College of the Arts, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne. Photo: Drew Echberg

There are multiple and complex reasons why the student might choose to study outside these largely class-determined (inherited) centres of cultural capital and implicit excellence. For the past three years the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) report, administered by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), has revealed that the Adelaide Central School of Art (ACSA) had hit the sweet spot when it comes to student satisfaction. Whatever faith the national visual arts education sector invests in student surveys such as QILT, the Adelaide success story is born out anecdotally.

Taking the example of the Adelaide Central School of Art, initiated in 1981 by painters Rod Taylor and Heather Nicholson, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of individuals (artists, teachers) to influence and positively infect their cohort. As with all academies and artists’ milieus, just a handful of which become movements or schools, inspiring leadership by exceptional and often charismatic practitioners (proof of concept, not necessarily “profs”), play a major role in generating student and staff gratification and the outward appeal of their institution: word of mouth across the Australian art world—as both communities and economies—speak louder than marketing rhetoric splashed across public transport.

The Adelaide Central School of Art is a good case in point. The school recently appointed director Penny Griggs, after a decade of expansion under Ingrid Kellenbach’s leadership in which she managed a series of evolutions and accreditations to offer Bachelor degrees in line with the national tertiary sector. Dedicated teaching by an entirely part-time workforce has obviously impacted positively on the student experience. Chic amenities, being part of a creative city or interconnected hub, and fair cost-of-living also play a key part in the student experience; as does the sense of security and history—ACSA holds a fifty-year lease on its the heritage listed premises, formerly a psychiatric hospital recently refurbished and rebadged under the Weatherill Government as the Glenside Cultural Precinct, in which Artlink and Screen SA are co‑tenants. A city which benefits from its regional status, Adelaide has the critical mass and cultural and teaching institutions to support emerging artists, as well as relative access to the remote desert regions of Indigenous Australia.

Adelaide Central School of Art, Glenside Cultural Precinct Photo: James Field
Adelaide Central School of Art, Glenside Cultural Precinct. Photo: James Field

The curriculum is similar to most conventional art school models, so it is worth outlining here. In first year, there is emphasis on skills and techniques across studios with solid contact teaching hours. By the time students are midway through the three-year program, they have developed an understanding of the wider art ecosystem, and have the option to take up professional internships, a term implicit with the interdependency and fragile sustainability of artworld parts. To this end, the student is integrated into the system via the contemporary practice unit to develop an appreciation of their own context within the local (and ideally, national and global) cultural habitus. A fourth-year honours style supervisor model allows students to expand beyond their original discipline and to further embed themselves within the local arts sector. Like most of their national counterparts, proactive students gain the skills necessary to establish their own artist-run initiatives, manage group studios, curate exhibitions and write about their peers.

As an independent, not-for-profit and fully accredited art school, ACSA’s closest genetic sister is Sydney’s National Art School (NAS), and collaborations between both institutions through projects like The Drawing Exchange indicate the agency of independent art schools. Established on its current site in 1922 in the national trust’s Darlinghurst Gaol NAS has lost some autonomy since being absorbed by the University of New South Wales in 1975. More recently, NAS has slipped through the “Big University” net to emerge in 2009 as a fully independent art school delivering Bachelor and Masters Degrees through hands-on teaching across distinct studios, the product of which can be seen regularly in its well-appointed gallery.

National Art School, Sydney. Photo: Christopher Phillips
National Art School, Sydney. Photo: Christopher Phillips
, Roy Ananda, in Rayner Hoff Project Space, National Art School for The Drawing Exchange. Photo: Steven Cavanagh
Roy Ananda in the Rayner Hoff Project Space, National Art School for The Drawing Exchange, 2018. Photo: Steven Cavanagh

In Western Sydney, TAFE has played some part in recuperating art education in the vacuum left when the University of Western Sydney cut their fine art program in 2008, “an act of cultural vandalism impacting a population the size of Perth,” in the words of one witness. The delivery of art courses at TAFE’s Western Sydney Institute in collaboration with Federation University in Ballarat was a short-term experiment, but as one long-term lecturer notes there are genuine opportunities with cross-institutional partnerships and more and more flexibility, through systems such as (now standard) online delivery.

Importantly, TAFE in Western Sydney has been a successful training ground for students who later make their way to SCA or UNSW Art & Design (previously COFA). Likewise, in Newcastle, the optimum graduate outcomes often occurred when generous articulation agreements between the Hunter Street TAFE (Newcastle Art School) and The University of Newcastle created a natural scaffold, in which students transitioned from long brush (or pixel) hours to more academic learning. Aspirations among the regional, first-in-family, working-class and Indigenous populations seek a balance between social and commercial outputs while supporting a psychological desire to prove value through a university degree.

My own (nostalgic) experience as student, freelance “creative” and full-time academic has followed the narrative typical of regional universities post-Dawkins. I was among those attracted to study in Darwin in the mid-1990s by the rising tide of Indigenous art and an ethos of multicultural exchange. Artists on the new Asia-Pacific Triennial circuit were regular staying to teach or exhibit, and such initiatives as the Aboriginal Print Symposium (established in 1993) at the Northern Territory University (now CDU), attracted countrywide Indigenous artists-in-residence at its Northern Editions print workshop until 2015. I was one of a handful of graduates who migrated to work in Indigenous art centres in remote communities from this time.

In hindsight, this was a career more aligned with the creative industries than the academy, compelled by the motivation away from the centre(s): the metropolitan core of Sydney and Melbourne or Parsons in New York. They were sanguine times, but after a decade of investment many fine art departments in universities have since plateaued. The Creative Industries model, with its ambiguous promise of greater employment outcomes has genuine appeal in regional areas with Brisbane’s QUT leading the field, but the harder catch is the international student who is not so easily attracted to the provinces.

Key to the push by government to graduate employment as a measure of success, academia is moving closer to industry in the soft-alliances of collaboration, partnerships and internships (work integrated learning, the ubiquitous WiL). This strategy goes by a suite of names, and sponsorship of discipline majors is one canny tack. High-profile examples include Tropfest aligned with Western Sydney University and the Adelaide Festival with the University of SA, while Dark MOFO and the University of Tasmania’s School of Creative Arts and Media (UTAS) share an alliance.

The first Australian University to offer a studio-based PhD program in Fine Arts, UTAS like many of its mainland counterparts has redesigned programs in recent years, delivering interdisciplinary, praxis‑based learning. Art history and more speculative or theoretical content is rarely first choice for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and if not compulsory in the curriculum, art history and critical theories flounder under the death-sentence of low enrolments, but attempts to introduce lite art‑history and discourse into studio-teaching are rarely effective. New, emerging and future technologies to some extent fill the space vacated by humanities‑style content, but the speed of change puts the administration of pedagogy under the pump: who can remember when the iPod was the new black?

David Walsh is neither artist nor teacher, but as MONA’s privately wealthy director and founder his flamboyant style equivocates with the global trend towards an elite status for the well-endowed artist as celebrity, and his influence cannot be underestimated. Bringing a contemporary art revolution to the island (and some job opportunities), the associated MONA FOMA and Dark MOFO festivals have been a playground for art students. UTAS Lecturer John Vella cites the success of Panopticon, a live art collaboration between UTAS students and the festival in which students can participate in learning without constraints: no assessment, no rubric, no purpose beyond being part of an idea. It may not be Wrapped Coast—Christo and Jean‑Claude’s 1969 installation—which enlisted an army of art students, but such experiential, experimental practices are increasingly rare within public institutions, particularly beyond the urban cosmopolitan capitals.

Exchange between institutions and independent educators across metropolitan, regional and international domains is one of the more dynamic ways of thinking the future of art education. As an example of this, Project Anywhere was imagined on the side of the M1 on the central coast of NSW as a blind, peer‑reviewed platform for out-there creative projects supporting access across economic and cultural divides through long-term, slowly formed collaborations. It is now affiliated with The University of Melbourne/VCA and Parsons in New York, and while yet to support an atelier-project in remote Australia, there are movements in that direction. 

Lilly Amos, Josephine Christensen, Holly Gregg, Bryce Schreuder Cell V: Flowers of the World’s Gardens, Panopticon III: The Garden of Earthly Delights, Dark MOFO 2019
Lilly Amos, Josephine Christensen, Holly Gregg, Bryce Schreuder Cell V: Flowers of the World’s Gardens, Panopticon III: The Garden of Earthly Delights, Dark MOFO 2019
Delhi Listening Group. Listeners At Work, 2013–present, as part of Project Anywhere
Delhi Listening Group, Listeners At Work, 2013–present, as part of Project Anywhere

The Rogue Academy based in Geelong further offers “a dialogical platform for social engagement that links conceptual forms of art with broader world issues.” With fifteen years behind it, the Transart Institute for Creative Research (artist‑run since 2004) offers PhD and Masters degrees accredited by Western Sydney University and Plymouth University (UK). Their fashionable research themes are comprehensive, from post‑nationalism and nostalgia to interstices and liminal space, but it’s the “experimental pedagogies’” in which doctoral intensives and residencies hosted across the globe’s creative hot‑spots engender new potential.

Artists have always had to agitate and to pick their battles. Whatever treasures float in the system of university art schools, artists (academics, students, thinkers) will have to define and draw the silver linings themselves. Compliance, homogeneity, practical accountability and bureaucratic intrusions into the teaching academy may compromise as much as they drive strategies for agitation and friction, but going to art school or working in one is voluntary.

Una Rey is an occasional critic, painter and curator. She lectures and collaborates in The School of Creative Industries at The University of Newcastle.

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