Art school in Australia: amid the cuts and closures, what could the future look like?

For anyone who has been watching the recent assault on tertiary art education in Australia, Campbelltown Arts Centre’s offering for Sydney festival, Space YZ, offers not just a time capsule celebrating an art school of the past, but a thought for the industry’s future.

It’s a huge show – curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham – featuring the work of more than 100 artists who graduated from the art school at Western Sydney University between 1986 and 2009; as such, it also offers a historical overview of Australian contemporary art, charting trends, themes and forms from the mid 80s to the recent past.

The school was an important addition to Sydney’s limited tertiary art education options at the time, and became a focal point for a generation of artists who would go on to become influential creatives, including Cunningham, now curator at Sydney’s Carriageworks, and Brook Andrew, artist and curator of the 2020 Biennale of Sydney, as well as a litany of important artists including Liam Benson, Justene Williams, Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, Kusum Normoyle and Tony Schwensen – all of whom who feature in this show.

Installation view at Space YZ, from left to right: White Word I (1993) by Brook Andrew; Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads (1996) by Sherna Teperson; The Littlest Australian, Prinztronic, Dessies (1998) by Michael Lindeman.Photograph: Lucy Parakhina

The obvious point of sadness for Space YZ is the fact that the art school that produced all this no longer exists. It closed its doors after the last students departed in 2009.

Back in the early 2000s the University of Western Sydney, as it was then known, came to the conclusion that due to declining student enrolments the art school was no longer viable.

In 2021 this is a painfully familiar story. Universities across Australia are struggling as their financial lifelines of international students have been reduced to a fraction of their pre-Covid levels, while the federal government excluded all but a few private unis from jobseeker. To add insult to injury, the Morrison government decided to force students into “job ready” Stem courses by doubling the cost of entry into some arts degrees.

With an estimated $4.8bn lost from Australian universities in 2020, and as much as $16bn forecast in shortfall over the next three years, universities are reducing staffamalgamating schools and departments, and reducing course offerings. And many are cutting their art schools first.

From a brutal neoliberal perspective this all makes sense: only the most profitable will survive. Art schools are seen as too expensive a luxury to justify the paltry metrics of their graduates, who are destined to spend at least the first 10 years of their careers just trying to break even. For the managerial thinkers of government, if you’re not in a high-paying job in 18 months in a law- or Stem-related career, it’s not worth bothering with. Universities have, to their credit, resisted cuts for as long as they could, but with massive shortfalls and a cruelly indifferent federal government, the axe had to fall.

But for those who care about culture in a broader sense, you have to wonder where it’s going: have university art schools ever been truly viable? And is there an alternative for art education in Australia?

From their beginnings in Australia as either private studio classes run by professional artists, or courses conducted through museums and galleries, visual art schools started to take on a more familiar contemporary form once their role had been expanded into technical colleges. The introduction of visual arts as an area for serious academic study in universities broadened in Australia the late 1940s and the lines between practical, skills-based art education and theoretical study became increasingly merged.

In 1988 a sweeping range of reforms were introduced which saw amalgamation of independent creative arts courses offered by colleges of advanced education with universities. And that is more or less where we are today.

The marriage, however, was always troubled, and the main cause of the friction was reconciling artistic creativity with traditional academic research. If a university is going to hand out degrees for artists, how is creative academic achievement measured? With all the closures, amalgamations and layoffs, that question will probably never be fully or satisfactorily answered. But maybe it was just a bad idea from the start.

So what’s the alternative? Interestingly, the exhibition at Campbelltown Arts Centre provides some clues.

The first is about size. During the era of amalgamations of art schools and universities, the trend was towards ever-increasing campuses spread across multiple sites, with all the attendant costs of running large organisations. It’s great while the money lasts but quickly seems like a crumbling empire when things go bad. In the face of all the recent cuts and calamity, smaller is better.

And Space YZ shows what even a modest regional gallery on the outer fringe of a major city can do, staging an important, smartly curated historical overview that speaks to both a national crisis and a specific local context.

The other clue is about nurturing a legacy: something that most large institutions only occasionally attempt, and even more rarely successfully achieve.

Art schools have a variety of educational functions but they also have a broad cultural reach, influencing the communities that surround them. They don’t even have to be that large – this exhibition is named for a gallery that was just a corridor connecting two buildings – to create a sense of place. As Space YZ demonstrates, the long influence of generations of artists also created a legacy that’s felt even after the school has been closed for more than a decade.

I’ve long thought that the answer to the future of art schools is about separating them from universities and downsizing operations to something more manageable and sustainable, ideally connected to their surroundings, but clued into new technologies and the needs of diverse communities. But how would that work?

Maybe that old model of artist-run schools is still the most viable of all, catering for small, specialised interests and disciplines, and providing both the craft skills and the historical and theoretical knowledge that’s vital for a well-rounded art education. As a colleague once suggested to me, all the old schools of arts and mechanics institute buildings dotted around the country could be ideal spaces for bespoke art schools of perhaps 100 students each. The logistics of how all that could happen are an issue – but maybe Space YZ offers one more clue.

Michael Dagostino, the director of Campbelltown Arts Centre, said the answer is right there in front of us: regional galleries already take on many of the formal roles of art schools, offering studio-based education, lectures and talks, and all the stuff we associate with art schools – short of actually handing out degrees.

For Dagostino’s gallery, Space YZ isn’t just a memorial to an important period in western Sydney’s cultural history: it’s also the suggestion of a possible future for an entire mode of education, and a way to nurture legacy and history. Instead of starting from scratch, regional galleries could form the basis and the venue for a brand new future for arts education. They’re local, they’re spread across the country, and the connection to community is profound.

Published by The Guardian Australia February 8, 2021

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