Issue Number: 116
Exorbitant fees, slashed teaching hours and lack of facilities: these are the complaints coming from today’s art students – and artists, says cultural historian Robert Hewison
If you were driving west out of London on the A40 earlier this summer, your eye may have been caught by an electronic billboard proclaiming: ‘THERE IS NO PLAN’. It was an impressive advertisement for the first degree shows to be held at the new building for Central St Martins in Kings Cross. The caption for their show, ‘There Is No Plan’ appeared in large letters on the far wall of the spacious atrium that runs from end to end of their splendid new home.
Bob and Roberta Smith, 'All schools should be art schools', 2012. ©Bob and Roberta Smith.
Around 1,350 students graduated from Central St Martins this year. The painting students had created their usual warren of plywood cubicles, graphic design looked like a craft fair, and fashion like a department store. There was no unifying theme or style, but I did pick up something that I have been aware of for some time: a profound anxiety about the direction in which British art schools are heading. One graduate, George Bray, had even made a video installation about it: The Only Way is Art School (2012) comprises a row of five television monitors relaying interviews with fellow students talking about the ‘corporate’ atmosphere, the cost and not enough contact with teaching staff.
The students were not wholly negative, unlike some at London Metropolitan University this year, who declined to take part in their final show in protest at the lack of support they had received. But the comments echo others I’ve heard about lack of facilities, insufficient teaching, overcrowding, and foundation year courses that assumed a 20 per cent drop-out rate. I checked this out with Chris Orr RA, whose teaching career included ten years at the Royal College of Art as Professor of Printmaking. He confirmed a ‘massive disgruntlement’ among students and graduates embarking on teaching careers. Something is rotten in British art schools.
It is just as well that the RA Schools are outside the government funded system. They offer a free, three-year postgraduate course in painting and sculpture. The Keeper of the Schools, Eileen Cooper RA, told me, ‘Our applicants nowadays are much more academic, they have been exposed to plenty of art theory and art criticism, but they haven’t had the sort of support or contact from their tutors that they need. At the Academy Schools they can see a tutor or a visiting artist every day. They need the good studio spaces, and technical resources that we offer. They have plenty of computer skills, but we value the handmade over the digital.’
But elsewhere opportunities to develop traditional hand skills, such as welding, casting and even printmaking, are in decline as economies are made and facilities cut back. The artist Bob and Roberta Smith, who has made works addressing the Education Secretary Michael Gove, believes that there are ‘people who want to dismantle the whole system’. He says the rot set in when, in 2009, Peter Mandelson placed higher education in the hands of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In 2010 the Browne Review recommended concentrating state funding on science and medicine and raising fees for the humanities, which Smith argues ‘privatised arts education’.
‘I didn’t realise how expensive art school was,’ comments one of the Central St Martins students in Bray’s video. We can expect even greater disgruntlement from this September, when fees in England rise to £9,000 a year, to be covered, as another in the video says, ‘by the magical student loan that is never going to be paid off’.
Art schools have been absorbed by universities, or have amalgamated in self-defence, as in the case of the six colleges that have formed London’s University of the Arts, of which Central St Martins is part. There is immense pressure to make as much money as possible from overseas students. Chris Orr detects another cause of decline, the virtual abandonment of part-time teaching by working artists. ‘Because teaching has become so much more professionalised, students are losing touch with the real experience of being an artist. Artists find it harder to support their work through a teaching job, and students no longer have an atelier-style experience. Finance has already started to affect the decisions we are making and staff/student ratios have deteriorated. It’s a Govine world.’
What is clear to me is that although politicians set so much store by the creative industries, they have no idea how creativity works. Creativity cannot be predicated, it needs the open space that art schools used to provide. It needs encounters between the qualified and the unqualified, the visual and the literate, those with cultural capital and those with a native genius. Eileen Cooper believes that art schools are still ‘a vibrant, optimistic community’, but warns, ‘in five years time the system will be a shrivelled bit of fruit.’ On the last day at the Central St Martins degree show a wag had changed their wall-slogan to: ‘Here Is No Plan’. Someone had better come up with one soon.
• Bob and Roberta Smith: The Art Party USA comes to the UK Hales Gallery, London, 9 Oct–17 Nov