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