Fancy Starting an Art School?

If you could design your own visual art education what would it look like? Does Art Education start with a notion of pedagogy or does it start with a gathering? How much of it needs an institution to operate? If you were given the opportunity to ‘do it yourself’ would you?

I was always told that you need to go to London to become a successful artist and although there are any number of people whose careers disprove the notion, ‘follow the money’ is the kind of capitalist mantra that fits the age, determining both the prospect and the measure of success. I recently took early retirement (I should nail my colours to the mast as a dyed in the wool middle class white man of a certain age) in part because the pressure for financial efficiency that has been a feature of the response to the banking meltdown, has reached the point where the student experience is no longer part of the discussion. In the current educational climate, the measure will be how successfully the qualification is commodified.

Sarah Amsler, writing for ‘the Norwich Radical’ explains that “For more than forty years, academics and students themselves have been documenting the university’s transformation from one type of institution into another; charting its journey in the UK, for example, from being a largely elite self-governing body of learning and research in the 1960s to becoming a largely elite corporation undemocratically managed to maximise competitive knowledge production by the turn of the twenty-first century (the 1963 Robbins Report, 1997 Dearing Report and 2010 Browne Review give some indication of these changes).”1

I’d been thinking about art education and how these financial constraints become a controlling factor limiting your making and your thinking, when the effect of it was articulated for me by Rachel Horne. She told me about speaking to art students at Doncaster College alongside an artist from elsewhere who said that “after you leave College no one is paid to care about your work”. What changes most immediately when you leave your traditional education is that you leave the wider peer group and inevitably isolate yourself amongst likeminded souls, your best friends, who think everything you do is great and who have, for their own sake, a vested interest in bigging you up. You lose the critical appreciation of a group where people are prepared to say you are wrong, that the idea you had is not apparent in the work you made. Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer Prize winning art critic, has a robust approach to art world success. He suggests that you should only make art if you absolutely have to, that you will be poor, and you need to accept this, and that you should… “Work late, stay up late with your peers, and support each other. You’re only as strong as the weakest among you.”2 Higher Education in Fine Art is based on an exchange of experiences to develop new knowledge, the student-centred/learning-oriented conception of teaching defined by Kember (1997)3, specifically concentrating on conceptual change/intellectual development by engineering situations where learning is shared. In fine art education this is teaching through the critique (‘crit’) which addresses both the conceptual underpinning of the ‘proposals’ and the ‘solutions’ presented at deadline as illuminating the concept. Saltz again has a robust way of defining this, “Your number one job as an artist is to embed thought in material. That means your idiot idea has to be there in your idiot art.”4 It is these ‘crits’ that you miss when you leave your degree programme and it used to be a mantra that if you were serious, i.e. you wanted to get work as a lecturer to sustain your practice, you did an MA. These days an MA is going to cost you nine grand and you can’t add it to the 27 grand you already borrowed and of course neither of these amounts include any of your other expenses.

Having had a career trying to manage arts education in FE and HE I have found that the financially driven curriculum makes it difficult to extend teaching into a wider cultural debate. Every year begins with an efficiency drive leading to decisions about which resources should be cut, or limited, and how much of the students’ learning should happen without guidance. What gets lost with the constraints on time are the discussions that develop holistic responses and peer support and resilience and the build-up of cultural capital that leads to aspiration and progress.

There are lots of discussions going on regionally, nationally and internationally about this commodification and how it directly impacts learning. AltMFA, Ragged University, TOMA, Open School East, The syllabus, Islington Mill; the list goes on.5 As Sarah Amsler tells us “These debates are vital, not least because there are millions of people across the UK whose quality of life and possibilities for political engagement are being significantly impacted by the prospect of massive long-term debt (or the decision not to incur it), and by the dominance of commodified and transactional forms of learning in universities.”6

The driving force behind most of these initiatives is the expense incurred in achieving the qualifications and the desire to have more control over how that money is spent. This is not the only driver, Islington Mill, for example, was founded by Foundation course students who didn’t feel a degree was the right route for them. All the initiatives out there offer curricula that are determined by the participants and lead to no accreditation. Some of them charge fees, around £900 per annum that is used to secure visiting lecturers and workshops, others are free and rely on the goodwill of practitioners or engage in a skill/labour share to secure specialist input.

I’d like to spend a part of my retirement exploring a different model of art education. One where each student contributes to the curriculum with their knowledge and experience, where skills are shared amongst the group, where a safe space is declared that facilitates challenge and helps develop a resilient narrative. If you’d like to explore the possibility of running a similar scheme in Doncaster I’d be happy to facilitate discussions to help to get it off the ground


1. accessed 12/05/18
2. accessed May 4 2018
Saltz is deliberately challenging and has a twitter feed that is well worth following
3. David Kember (1997) A Reconceptualization of the Research into University Academics’ Conceptions of Teaching. Learning and Instruction. Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 255-275,
4. accessed May 4 2018
5. There is an excellent list at [ART&CRITIQUE] is an alternative education network dedicated to critical engagement with contemporary art practice and theory
6. accessed 12/05/18

Some thoughts on art education

The International Society for Education Through Art (InSEA) has just published their 2018 Manifesto

Obviously it lists a set of beliefs, e.g. ‘Education through art inspires knowledge, appreciation and creation of culture’ or ‘Visual art education develops an understanding of creative practice through knowledge, understanding and production of art in contexts’ and some that are couched as instructions ‘All learners, regardless of age, nationality or background, should have entitlement and access to visual art education’ and ‘Educational programmes and curriculum models should prepare citizens with confident flexible intelligences, and creative verbal and non-verbal communication skills’ for example. All are apparently laudable, if open to interpretation, and may be true for some, most or all people but equally they may not. How do you define citizen, or for that matter culture?

In one statement the manifesto defines the nature of visual art education, saying that ‘Visual art education should be systematic and be provided over a number of years, as it is a developmental process. Learners should engage with ‘making’ alongside learning about art’. This statement raises questions for me. Is art a developmental process? Should it be systematic? What’s the system? And what about ‘making’? isn’t ‘making’ learning about art rather than, as is implied, a separate activity?

'Critical Studies?' 2018 WIP - Oil on Paper 120x90

‘Critical Studies?’ 2018 WIP – Oil on Paper 120×90 – underpainting

Further the manifesto suggests that ‘Visual art education opens possibilities and opportunities for learners to discover themselves, their creativity, values, ethics, societies and cultures.’ Isn’t that what education does, if we’re doing it right? The danger is that we identify visual arts as the place where learners develop all the skills linked to creative thinking and by doing so exclude creativity in other subjects. A good read on this is the recent article on the RSA website by Julian Astle which contrasts Sir Ken Robinson’s well known view on schools and creativity with that of Tim Leunig who, when working as Chief Scientific Advisor for the DfE, argued that “True creativity is based on knowledge which in turn is based on literacy”. I don’t think schools necessarily kill creativity, I think Ken Robinson’s argument is that the way we are educated stifles creativity. Tim Leung’s argument seems to be too specific to carry any weight and highlights that experiment means different things to scientists and artists. What schools do increasingly, and along with society as a whole, is hammer the individuality out of children, and only the strongest survive.

The manifesto is listed under ADVOCACY on the InSEA website, and in the UK at the moment, or at least in England, the arts lobby is beginning to gel around objections to successive governments’ marginalisation of creative subjects. In a capitalist society everything has to translate to a financial return, there is therefore no intrinsic value to an activity there is only value in trade, and ‘art’ activities are generally high risk in financial terms. Society (or if you like ‘culture’) therefore struggles to ascribe value to these activities, it is not easy to see where the ability to visually critique the actions of your local council, or paint a forget me not, is going to help you pay for the NHS. What has happened over the course of my career in education is that Visual art, and the arts in general, have become more and more the leisure activities of the well off.

So what? Does art education start with a notion of pedagogy or just with a gathering?

Art ought to be subversive, so the political situation is almost ideal now, and people almost invariably have an urge to transgress. Art should disrupt the status quo to highlight society and culture to itself as art is a mirror. The beauty of art education is that art is about failure. Through learning about art you develop resilience and we could all do with a bit more of that.

I would like to see an approach that isn’t certificated or examined except by portfolio or individual creation. It should be for everyone and take place in a forum where experience is shared, where you bring your knowledge and share it with a peer group who bring theirs. Where you identify what you want to learn and find people who have the skills or knowledge to share. Where you are challenged and can respond to that challenge without rancour.

More catching up

I’ve been making work around the area where I live for a while, in particular two new paintings in the last couple of months. So I thought it was worth gathering them together here.

Towards Tickhill Road from the bus stop.

Towards Tickhill Road from the bus stop.

This one is the reverse view of an earlier painting from a position down the road to the left of the above image.

Two trees Balby from Clayfields

Two trees Balby from Clayfields

I’ve also been working on a series of bus stop paintings, one painting straight to the surface without any drawing and the next drawn out to scale.

Wordsworth Avenue from the bus stop, 7:00 am

Wordsworth Avenue from the bus stop, 7:00 am

First Bus Stop painting. Wordsworth Avenue from Sandford Road at 7:12 am.

First Bus Stop painting. Wordsworth Avenue from Sandford Road at 7:12 am.

Finally a painting from my front window looking towards Byron Avenue.

View from the living room towards Byron Avenue.

View from the living room towards Byron Avenue.

These are beginning to build to a nice set of images, I’m thinking of painting pictures from all the bus stops leading into Doncaster.

Why I retired early

This will probably get read by three people, provided I count myself, so I’m posting it so I don’t forget. I’ll start with my experience of working in education through a few episodes. 

Phil Gibson using an adze,  some of you are asking what’s special about that? Others what’s an adze? In my experience the latter outweighs the former by a significant factor. When I started teaching at Leeds in nineteen ninety something Phil was my first line manager and he was effectively forced out of FE through incorporation, he was expensive and had an attitude to craft that eschewed targets. After he left he worked for a while on historic renovations, Phil was a designer furniture maker who had built his own house, and the job stopped when he used an adze to match new sections of beams to the sound parts of existing beams. All the other trades came to see an adze being used. 

Some years later I ran my own course at Leeds. The idea was to run a design foundation course, like a traditional FAD but with a focus on the practical over the conceptual. The other USP was that entry was post A Level but no previous art experience was required. What I felt, and still feel, is that education is a space where we teach people how to learn and let them loose on particular knowledge. Teaching in this scenario is about the environment you promote rather than the knowledge you dispense. The course started with 18 students, went to 48 then to 112 in three years, then settled back to 60 and I left to do an MA. A year later it closed. In the years I ran it we were inspected by Ofsted and slammed as our inspector had no idea what we were trying to do or why and no amount of explanation would enlighten him.

In the last few years as a manager I’ve juggled the pursuit of financial efficiency with retaining a skilled body of staff against a backdrop of government cuts, an agenda to ‘vocationalise’ arts and culture out of education into training and a pernicious limiting of people’s ability to extend themselves. My attitude of putting students first has led to my being criticised for overspending in every one of four years worth of quarterly performance reviews, through my spending too much on staff. I do not see myself as any kind of martyr regarding this, it’s simply fact. At the same time our Ofsted metrics were amongst the best in the country, more than 90% of our students achieved and progressed from a strongly working class area. I should add that the department became cheaper, but not more financially efficient, each year.

What led to my despair was the constant refrain of austerity, the refusal to view this a choice we make, the insensitivity to reality that measures hairdressing against catering against sculpture against business studies. I lost sleep worrying about whether to sacrifice the students experience by streamlining the staffing. So which skills I can lose as no longer fit for purpose, which resources I should dispose of, or whether I should scrap particular courses thus limiting the students opportunities. Eventually it wears you down, but this relentless pressure to reduce the cost of everything has been going on for all of my career.  What exacerbated it for me was the fact that for the last five years or so the opportunities available at school in Creative subjects have been cut back to such a degree that fewer of students each year have been choosing to follow these subjects in what used to be post compulsory education. 

In education at any level these days students are money, fewer students equals less money equals greater need for efficiency equals fewer choices to offer them, and repeat.

Alongside all of this has been the joy of learning alongside people who want to learn. Gradually they have become less prepared for the experience, less able to understand the act of learning, particularly how practical work translates into intellectual stimulus and progress and the sheer amount of physical and mental work required for that to happen. Increasingly students have an education that requires them to respond, so they await instructions and can carry them out diligently but cannot, in the main, make decisions for themselves – all but the best have had that knocked out of them (or have never had it developed into them). So it takes longer and longer to break down barriers to learning that are ingrained and for students to contribute effectively to their own and their peers learning. It meant that I had some staff whose horizons were limited to a narrow specialism rather than to a broad understanding – the idea that any art tutor could not teach drawing would have been anathema when I started – and who lacked the personal resource to develop when one of the, admittedly few, development opportunities arose.

So that’s why I took early retirement, which I can’t really afford, to find a way to reengage with the joy of working with people towards a common goal and to find ways to address the way the systems we run are denying opportunities for people to have the life that I have.

Oh, and also because I could!

Catching Up

Having just retired, partly through frustration at the lack of studio time afforded by full time employment (but more of that later). I have been catching up with the things I’ve been doing/not doing with my evenings and weekends. As a first post for a while here are some images I made around Easter. Ash Wednesday Variations.

Valentines Day 2 - Ash Wednesday variations - 2018

Valentines Day 2 – Ash Wednesday variations – 2018

This was the first begun and you can see where I got the eyes wrong and had to cover them with paper tape and redraw.

Valentines Day 1 - Ash Wednesday variations - 2018

Valentines Day 1 – Ash Wednesday variations – 2018

This one was next.

Valentines Day Blue - Ash Wednesday variations - 2018

Valentines Day Blue – Ash Wednesday variations – 2018

Then this one. All made from a self portrait photograph by my wife. I was listening to a recording of TS Eliot reading ‘Ash Wednesday’ and it was Ash Wednesday (?).

I have been playing around with using text in conjunction with these images.

this is not that place

this is not that place


Summer Drawings & Paintings

A series of drawings and paintings based on walks taken while on holiday in the peak district, where we stayed in Hathersage, and in Seahouses on the Northumberland Coast.

Near 'that' rock on the way up to Stanage Edge

Near ‘that’ rock on the way up to Stanage Edge

The drawings and paintings were created in my studio in Doncaster after the holiday, based on photographs and memories, I didn’t make any sketches on site on these trips and ended up wishing I had.  The hardest part of the process is finding the colour of the elements in the scenes given the inaccuracy of photography and the difficulties of seeing digital photographs in varying lights and at various angles.

The Farne Islands from Seahouses

The Farne Islands from Seahouses

The Seahouses images were very difficult in that regard and I remain unconvinced, the images from walks around Hathersage were/are equally difficult, they’re all still on the boards and I’m not sure they’re finished.

From Burbage Rocks 3

From Burbage Rocks 3

There are more images, six seascapes at various sizes and three 1000mm square paintings as well a large, 1500x1200mm, drawing and three A1 drawings in the Gallery





Rediscovered 1982 Final Show

Unemployment in the United Kingdom increases by 129,918 to 3,070,621, a post-war record number. Thatcher! (The year Mark Thatcher got lost in the desert).
February 19 – The DeLorean Motor Company Car Factory in Belfast is put into receivership.
February 28 – Adobe Systems was founded
April 2 – The Falklands War begins: Argentina invades and occupies the Falkland Islands
June 6 The 1982 Lebanon War begins: Forces under Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon invade southern Lebanon in their “Operation Peace for the Galilee,” eventually reaching as far north as the capital Beirut.
June 14 – Falklands War: Argentine forces in the capital, Stanley, conditionally surrender to British
June 19 – The body of “God’s Banker”, Roberto Calvi, chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, is found hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London. The first emoticon posted 🙂 The first computer virus, infecting Apple II computers by floppy disk. Italy win the World Cup in Spain, Aston Villa win the European Cup, E.T. is released.

All of this happened in 1982, when I had my Final Show in the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University throughout June.

there are more images in the gallery under the tab.

A child plucking a rose

Maquettes for ‘a child plucking a rose’

The maquettes serve as sketches, experiments towards resolving ideas for a transcription of Caspar Netscher’s 1669 painting in the Wallace Collection. The key points of the work are the child, her hands, the rose and the colour of the dress. In particular because these reflect the content of Netscher’s young woman playing a guitar, widely regarded as a companion piece – the dresses are the same style, and the same colour in essence (the catalogue descriptions of the colour are different).

Of the issues to resolve the most prominent is the translation from 2d to 3d, the invention of the reverse face and the 360 degree view. The maquettes sketch out various options for this without presuming to provide a specific solution. If they provide anything that is taken into the final piece it is a series of gestures when building that scale up into a solution. If a maquette were a pure scale model it would be given to someone else to build. They might better be described as practice for the process of building.

As the series grows the problem becomes the juxtaposition of the dress, representing the child, and the rose. How to place the rose in a position to be picked. The pieces use clay, acrylic sheet, paper, cardboard, wood fence panels, wire, acetate and drawn elements to solve these problems.

Transcription continued

Continuing to work on the transcription of Caspar Netscher’s ‘a child plucking a rose’.

There is a third macquette underway and I have ordered 7.5 kg of air drying clay to develop more. The scope of the transcription grows, as all work inevitably does, as it progresses. I was reminded of James Joyce’s ‘on a flower given to my daughter’ from Pomes Penyeach.

Frail the white rose and frail are
Her hands that gave
Whose soul is sere and paler
Than time’s wan wave.

Rosefrail and fair — yet frailest
A wonder wild
In gentle eyes thou veilest,
My blueveined child.

Obviously the connection with ‘Rosefrail’ but also, and for my own reference, the Imaginary Daughters project. Of which more later.



A project with the Wallace Collection and Barnsley Museums, in particular Cannon Hall where there is a collection of Dutch paintings. This macquette is for a sculptural transcription of Caspar Netscher’s 1669 oil on oak panel ‘a child plucking a rose’. Very early stages of this project. There will be an exhibition of students work at Cannon Hall during 2018 paralleling a loan collection from the Wallace.

Sent from my iPad