Are art schools an endangered species?
The plight of art schools in Australia in recent decades is hardly breaking news. Shrinking budgets, staff cuts, closures, amalgamations and reduced course offerings have plagued many art schools. Some workshop disciplines are no longer viable and others are staffed through makeshift arrangements with casuals and sessional staff carrying the brunt of the teaching and administration of courses.
Four year ago, Tamara Winikoff sounded the alarm in her article 'What's happening to Australia's art schools?' Writing as the Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), she spoke to a number of the key players in Australian art schools and observed some alarming trends.
She noted, "The general tendency was for directors to gloss over the problems of diminishing staff numbers and their having to shoulder a greater administrative load, insecurity with the loss of the tenure system, less contract staff, the increasing crowded marketplace for the lucrative international students, and the authority of the word over image i.e. the pressure to publish in order to gain university brownie points." She concluded, "It's clear to me that a proper study is needed to make dispassionate comparisons between past and present and across the sector with a view to identify optimal conditions that are appropriate to diverse contexts."
As far as I am aware, no such study has been undertaken, although presently, Paul Fletcher, the Minister for Communication (the Arts have been dropped from the ministry's name) has ordered an Inquiry into Australia's Creative and Cultural Industries and Institutions with submissions invited until October 22, 2020.
Art schools in Australia have a venerable ancestry and appeared relatively early in the life of colonial Australia. The National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, for example, was founded in 1867 with the idea that it was the place where one could establish artistic standards and acquire the necessary skills through which to attain these standards. Many art schools in 19th century Australia were founded around individual artists who gave classes and these art schools vanished as quickly as they were established. The Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney is an exception, founded in 1890, it continues to the present day. The Victorian Artists' Society in Melbourne is another exception, founded in 1870, it also continues to operate and as part of its activities offers art tuition, although arguably it is not primarily an art school.
There were a few well-established art schools in the capital cities of most Australian states and territories by the 1960s. In the 20th century, private art schools, especially those established by Max Meldrum, George Bell and Desiderius Orban, had a greater longevity and had a greater impact than most of the other private ventures. However, as a rule, art education had become principally a state-funded activity.
In the 1970s and 1980s the art school scene started to change quite markedly in Australia with a number of new institutions being established. Many were created within the context of Colleges of Advanced Education or TAFE colleges and some offered radical and progressive alternatives to those available in traditional existing art schools. Sydney College of the Arts, for example was conceived in 1974 as an independent College of Advanced Education and in contrast to other Sydney art schools adopted a more postmodernist perspective in its teaching.
Minister John Dawkins' controversial reforms to tertiary education that commenced in 1988 had a huge impact on art schools in Australia in the drive to establish a unified national system. Most of the art schools lacked the scale to stand alone and lost any semblance of autonomy as they were forced into unions with universities. A rare exception is the National Art School in Sydney, traditionally known as East Sydney Tech and tracing its origins back to the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1843. It staved over many years attempts to be taken over or amalgamated and remains an independent art school with ongoing funding guaranteed by the NSW government as a State Significant Organisation.
The West Australian artist and teacher, Paul Uhlmann, reflecting on the transition from an independent art school system to one subsumed within a university, observed, "Many art schools struggle to be understood, struggle for identity and autonomy within the framework and hierarchy of a university; for example, the particular languages of making through painting or graphic means are not readily understood as being valid modes of knowledge production in their own right."
Presently there are about 39 art schools throughout Australia operating within universities. The largest of these is RMIT with 6537 undergraduate and postgraduate students and the smallest, Charles Darwin university with a total of 161 students. Su Baker, a long-term Chair of the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools, observed in 2018, "In the last decade we have seen art schools morph into the institutional shape of their host university and in some cases the radical destruction of many of these once active institutions."
The loss of identity within the broader university context has affected art schools on many levels. Similar strictures are now applied to an art school as to the broader university community with requirements for many of the staff to hold PhD qualifications, to teach similar class sizes as across the university and to have similar accountability and evaluation procedures for staff and students. Operating within a university, rather than a College of Advanced Education or a TAFE, did enable a member of staff to be promoted to the more senior academic ranks with the accompanying shift in administrative responsibilities. This also added considerably to the staff budget of the institution.
The economic realities within the universities now applied to art schools and the central university administration was forced into tough decisions whether to cut resources to their affiliated art school or to one of their more traditional discipline areas. Frequently it was the art school that suffered first and workshops that traditionally required four or five members of staff were forced to make do with one or two, Ten years ago, printmaking workshops in art schools had a number of teachers plus technical assistants, today they are lucky to have more than one full-time member of staff. Similar observations can be made about many ceramic workshops.
When the Minister for Education in Scott Morrison's federal government, Dan Tehan, announced his proposed Job-ready graduates package in June 2020 with a proposed massive hike in student fees for humanities and arts students, this was a major blow for universities in general and art schools in particular. Most Australian universities were already in a financially weakened state following the impact of COVID-19 on their existing revenue stream. The Job-ready package has been introduced to parliament and now has been referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee with a report due September 25, 2020. If passed, it will force many universities to make difficult decisions in the process of balancing the books.
Art schools, through the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools, immediately responded to this package by diplomatically stating: "Humanities course funding will certainly be impacted by the proposed changes, with a much higher student contribution (and increase in the overall funding to universities). While the creative arts may not experience such a negative impact, we acknowledge the high value of humanities and arts subjects to our sector and to society. Those proposed changes may have devastating consequences yet to be determined not only for the individual, but for the nation."
In a hard-hitting media release, Professor Joy Damousi, President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, wrote, "Evidence shows that the skills and knowledge from the humanities and social sciences training - including critical thinking, communication skills and understanding the impact of change on humanity - are highly valued by employers and in the workforce."
One suspects that within some university budgets the viability of their art schools will come into question. Are art schools viewed as an integral part of the fabric of the university or as a desirable luxury that cannot be viewed as being on the same level of importance as schools of law or political science or business management?
There is also disquiet within some of the art schools themselves. Have art schools within universities become too academic, too theory-based and insufficiently hands-on and technique orientated? Do graduates from art schools emerge with an adequate skills toolkit as well as a broader appreciation of the art making process - a creative mindset? Could more flexible atelier workshops, rather than art schools, be more responsive to the changing nature of the arts themselves?
While the future of art schools in terms of structure, teaching strategies and broader philosophies of art should be on the agenda for future discussion, the current plight of art schools is an urgent matter for the present.
Art schools in Australia are facing an existential threat. Decades of inadequate funding have left many of them in a perilous state and the present political and intellectual hostility to the creative arts from the present federal government and some state governments is threatening their very existence. Some art schools have thrived within their tertiary host institutions, however, many have not.
If art schools are becoming an endangered species, then it becomes a collective responsibility for all of us to fight for their preservation and restoration. Art is not a luxury, but a necessity of life.
An earlier version of this art blog was published in The Conversation.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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