Alternative art schools: a threat to universities?
Angry at soaring fees and disillusioned with established courses, artists are simply doing things for themselves
The Guardian, Monday 21 October 2013 19.59 BST
A former library in Hackney may seem an unlikely venue for London’s most talked-about new art school. The 1970s Rose Lipman building lacks the architectural wow factor of Central Saint Martins King’s Cross campus, but demand for places on the postgraduate Open School East in De Beauvoir town is high. The year-long programme boasts visiting lecturers, including the curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate Modern, Catherine Wood, and artists such as Pablo Bronstein and Ed Atkins. And, at a time when art MAs in the capital cost up to £9,000 a year, the students pay no tuition fees.
The project, which opened in September, is the latest alternative art school to be established in the UK. Open School East co-founder Sam Thorne, an associate editor of Frieze magazine, says their recent proliferation has been driven by the rise in fees and a growing disillusionment with university art education. Some, such as the Islington Mill Art Academy in Salford and the School of the Damned in east London, were set up by art students and recent graduates who could not afford rising course fees and were dissatisfied with the structure, ethos and curricula of traditional art degrees.
In return for a year’s free tuition and studio space, the 13 associate artists at Open School East will give one day a month of their time to community activities in the borough. “Their personal practice might become a community project or they might give lessons, such as dance or furniture design, to local people,” says curator Anna Colin, another co-founder. Many of the school’s lectures and workshops will run in the afternoon and evening to encourage local residents to join in.
This socially engaged model is common to many of the alternative schools. Grizedale Arts in Coniston in the Lake District is developing “a quasi-art school” in which artists make something useful for the local community. Deputy director Alistair Hudson says: “Art schools talk about the brand, the individual, the genius. If you’re young and want to be famous, the London art schools remain the best pathway. But chances are you won’t make it. A lot of students are trained in how to be a ‘professional artist’. They’re quite good at talking, but limited in terms of their skill set and how they can function outside of the London art bubble.”
Islington Mill Art Academy in Salford was set up in 2007 by a group of local art foundation students who decided a traditional BA would not prepare them for life beyond education. Co-founder Maurice Carlin recalls that resident artists had expressed disillusionment with their degree courses. “They spent three years developing their practice but struggled to turn it into something in the ‘real world’. They were not engaged with working artists on a day-to-day basis.”
The founders of DIY art school in Manchester say their initiative is “a survival tactic”. Set up last year by Manchester Metropolitan University graduates, the school provides a support network for recent graduates. Co-founder Katy Morrison says: “I would adore to do an MA but I can’t afford it. This about trying to create a professional pathway for ourselves.”
As these alternative courses take off, how will the established providers respond? Simon Ofield-Kerr, vice-chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts in Kent, believes the trend poses a challenge at a time when there is a “real danger of postgraduate study being devastated”. “Over the next two years, we’ll all be looking at the future of postgraduate education and how this phenomenon will affect the balance of provision,” he says. And the issue will become more pressing after the first cohort of undergraduates to pay tuition fees of £9,000 per year graduates in 2015. “It’s not something that can be ignored or defended against,” says Ofield-Kerr.
Susan Collins, director of London’s Slade School of Fine Art, adds that recent cost-cutting measures in some art departments, such as scrapping dedicated studio space, have reduced the attractiveness of university study. “Presenting hot-desking as an idea for art education is not the way forward,” she says. “I can completely understand why some artists want to pursue other models of learning.”
It is not just art students who are developing alternative schools. Major art institutions, including the Tate and the Hayward and Serpentine galleries, have experimented with the school model in their education programmes. Open School East is backed by around £110,000 from the Barbican and Create London. The Silent University, an alternative school for refugees and asylum seekers, set up by Turkish artist Ahmet Ögüt during his residency at the Tate Modern last year, now runs courses in several European countries.
Emily Pringle, Tate’s head of learning practice and research policy, says “it would not be a great leap” for the museum to provide something akin to an art school programme. “It is really troubling to us who’s in a position to be studying art,” she says. “There’s a question whether big cultural organisations like Tate or the Barbican could themselves provide a space where [emerging artists] could come together in the way that Open School East works.”
The artist Ryan Gander has drawn up plans for a postgraduate art academy that would give preferential consideration to poorer applicants. He says the school, called Fairfield International, would level the playing field between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the “trustafarian rich kids” whom he fears increasingly dominate the major art schools. Based in a former Victorian school in Saxmundham in Suffolk, where Gander lives, it will offer free studio space and accommodation for 12 students a year and offer tuition from renowned artists.
“You get money to live on and an apartment. It’s like a finishing school that will give the advantages richer students have. This is the moment [in British art] of the most struggle – everything seems on a downward slope. Art will become a very upper- and upper-middle-class pursuit. This is about making things a little more even.”
Artist Matthew Darbyshire, a former tutor at the Slade who now advises Open School East, believes the alternative schools will have a positive influence on art education. “Hopefully they’ll lead by example and up the standards. The problem is [university departments] continue to get worse as they lose sight of what an art school needs to be.”