Visual arts education is under siege as plans to merge Sydney colleges spark accusations economic rationalism is triumphing over creative endeavour. By Joyce Morgan.

Grim picture for visual artists and Sydney art colleges

Protesters outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales campaign against merger plans for Sydney art colleges.
Protesters outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales campaign against merger plans for Sydney art colleges.

As the champagne corks popped at this year’s Archibald Prize announcement, for once the howls of protest were not about the portraits on the walls.

Instead, the cries came from outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where art students gathered to protest against plans to close their college as part of a dramatic shake-up of art schools in Sydney that could cut the number from three to just one.

For more than a year, the heads of the three art schools have been involved in talks about the possibility of “closer co-operation”. But the announcement that Sydney College of the Arts, part of the University of Sydney, would merge with the University of NSW Art and Design school from next year has been greeted with dismay in the visual arts community, which warns the result will be a cookie-cutter approach to art training.

And as placards were waved on the gallery’s steps, at the National Art School – Sydney’s third and oldest art school – staff and students were learning that its director, Michael Snelling, had resigned. 

This comes just weeks after he warned of a possible forced merger. Snelling will move to Hong Kong where his wife Suhanya Raffel, currently deputy director of the Art Gallery of NSW, has been appointed head of M+ museum. His departure leaves the National Art School without a leader at a crucial time. 

So when a roundtable was held in Sydney on Tuesday to discuss the future of art education, the 30 participants – who included staff, students and alumni from the three art schools, as well as representatives from commercial galleries and contemporary art spaces – gathered in a mood of considerable uncertainty.

The mergers are on the cards as opportunities for the training of aspiring artists in NSW have already shrunk. The University of Newcastle recently scrapped its bachelor of fine arts program while the University of Western Sydney closed its highly regarded art school nearly a decade ago.

Sydney University and UNSW have said their aim in merging their art schools is to create a “centre of excellence”. But it’s a claim rejected by critics, who believe the motive is cost cutting, and argue that the three existing schools already are centres of excellence. Each counts among their alumni some of Australia’s most prominent artists. Ben Quilty and Marc Newson (Sydney College of the Arts); Adam Cullen and Del Kathryn Barton (UNSW Art and Design); Margaret Olley, Martin Sharp and Susan Norrie (National Art School).

“The rhetoric of having a centre for excellence is just a furphy. It’s not viable and it’s not true,” says Tamara Winikoff, executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, which organised Tuesday’s meeting. “The idea of trying to push together three such disparate approaches to art education will be a serious disadvantage to potential students.”

Sydney’s three art schools have different strengths and structures. Sydney College of the Arts emphasises critical theory and is strong on filmmaking, while UNSW Art and Design focuses on research and design. The National Art School, the oldest institution, has a traditional studio-based system, and is strong on painting and drawing. Unlike the two university-based art schools, the National Art School is state-funded, although it has funding only until the end of next year. 

The two universities have signed a head of agreement under which  Sydney University will close its arts campus at Callan Park, where the college has occupied buildings in the colonial-era mental asylum since 1996 and has extensive specialist facilities and studios. From next year, the students will be transferred to UNSW Art and Design in inner-city Paddington, where insiders say space is already stretched.

Sydney University rejects as “nonsense” criticism that it has deliberately made its arts college financially unviable. A spokeswoman says the university has invested considerable resources maintaining its viability, but the market for its courses had “deteriorated significantly” over the past five years. The merger proposal – which is not yet a done deal – is expected to come before the Sydney University senate, its governing body, when it meets on August 15.

In attempting to divest itself of its art school, Sydney University risks damaging its reputation, Winikoff argues. “It is a matter of where they are putting their priorities. We still have a right to expect of a university that it has an intellectual purpose not a hip-pocket purpose.”

She believes the merger will affect not only the number and quality of artists but the broader community and its ability to respond to technological change.

A recent report on Australia’s future workforce predicted that up to 40 per cent of Australia’s jobs will be redundant within the next 10 to 15 years. But the report, by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, indicated that the jobs of the future would require creativity, design and analysis. These are skills in which art school graduates excel.

Indeed, tertiary institutions appear to have recognised this internationally. In Europe and North America, several university business schools have teamed up with art and design schools to develop programming aimed at fostering creative thinking. 

Meanwhile, the National Art School, housed within the old Darlinghurst Gaol, is in limbo. Talks have been under way for more than a year with UNSW Art and Design and the NSW government, Snelling says.

“It’s proving to be a lot more difficult than anybody might have considered,” he says. “The university, government and us are at a point where we each see and understand the strengths of the different models and we also see it’s difficult to reconcile them.”

The National Art School cannot readily fit a university system, Snelling argues. It has high face-to-face contact and does not undertake research. Yet university funding is geared to student numbers and ranking to research.

“We’re a [square] peg in a round hole. It’s very difficult for art schools, conservatoriums and any of the creative arts to feature strongly in the overall university ranking system,” he says.

And the funding model is a conundrum for universities, he adds. “The only way they can get money is by packing in more students. To pack in more students means teaching courses that are not face-to-face intensive. So you want to put 500 students into a lecture theatre, you don’t want to teach a violin player how to play one-to-one – and similarly with art.”

He questions how well served the creative arts have been in the wake of the Dawkins-era reforms of tertiary education of the late 1980s, during which a number of art schools merged with universities. He wants to see the National Art School transferred from the state to federal sphere, similar to the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).

It is a model supported by the Friends of the National Art School, whose spokeswoman, Bernadette Mansfield, says this would be cheaper than a merger and would create a truly independent art school. 

Also adding to uncertainty at the National Art School is the fate of the historic sandstone site. Control of the Darlinghurst Gaol was transferred last month from the NSW Department of Education to Property NSW, sparking fears the site could be sold. 

The NSW government’s property arm has overseen the sale of several historic Sydney buildings. And the NSW government has demonstrated it is not averse to shifting a major cultural institution. It plans to relocate the Powerhouse Museum to suburban Parramatta and sell its current inner-city site. A spokesman for Property NSW said no decision has been made to sell the jail and negotiations were under way with the National Art School to continue its occupancy.

Ben Quilty, a graduate of both Sydney College of the Arts and the University of Western Sydney art school, says the mergers will force students to move interstate – particularly to Melbourne, which has three major art schools – or overseas.

The crisis faced by the art schools is the result of an economic rationalist approach to education, he says.

“There’s no money left to fund those courses that speak to our souls and not to financial markets.”

Quilty warns that the Sydney art schools are the canaries in the mine, and fears other creative arts institutions – conservatoriums and performing arts and film schools – will face similar uncertainty. He blames government. 

“It’s a pattern; it’s the slow closure of humanities subjects … It is actually not the universities’ fault. They are being put under further pressure to survive with less and less government funding. Therefore the courses cut are the ones that don’t reap the financial benefits to the university. We do that at our peril. It’s a very dire position for the health and heart of our community.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2016 as "A grim picture".

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Joyce Morgan is a Sydney-based arts journalist. She is writing a biography of artist Martin Sharp.

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