It has been the training ground for some of Australia’s best-known artists but now the National Art School is on a knife edge as its interim administrator fights to secure its future. By Joyce Morgan.

National Art School head Michael Lynch calls for support

The interim head of the National Art School, Michael Lynch.
The interim head of the National Art School, Michael Lynch.

The gallows once stood near the imposing gates of Sydney’s old Darlinghurst Gaol where hapless inmates were executed by the colonial regime.

For most of the past 100 years, it has had a more celebrated existence as home to the National Art School. But now its students and staff are dangling.

The school is at an impasse, over funding and the future of the site once dubbed “Starvinghurst” by former inmate and poet Henry Lawson. It is a deadlock the school’s interim head, Michael Lynch, is eager to break before his six-month stint ends in February. 

Australia’s most experienced – and straight-talking – arts administrator agreed to step in midyear amid unprecedented turmoil over the fate of Sydney’s three art schools, the training grounds for many of Australia’s next generation of artists. 

After 14 years overseas, Lynch returned to Sydney last year where he has been alarmed at what he sees as the disconnect between the nation’s penchant for self-congratulation and the neglect of its artists, particularly its visual artists.

“We keep on saying how great we are and how competitive we are and what an international drawcard we are,” he says. “But if we don’t support artists and arts organisations in a real way, that becomes a self-delusional message we are peddling.”

The former head of the Sydney Opera House, London’s Southbank Centre and Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District Authority – one of the world’s biggest cultural infrastructure projects – was appointed after the National Art School’s director, Michael Snelling, resigned in July. Snelling went to join his wife, Suhanya Raffel, who left a position at the Art Gallery of New South Wales to take up an appointment as director of M+ art museum in Hong Kong.

At that time, talks were under way to attempt to resolve the uncertainty that has beset the National Art School for many years – and has its roots in its hard-fought separation from TAFE and establishment in 2009 as an independent education provider, funded by the NSW government to the tune of $6 million a year.

And that makes it an anomaly. Sydney’s two other art schools are part of universities, and are federally funded. Those two university-based schools were poised to merge when Lynch’s appointment was announced in July. The University of Sydney wanted to offload its Sydney College of the Arts to the University of NSW’s Art and Design. 

Then suddenly – the day after Lynch’s appointment – Sydney University pulled out of the marriage. It nonetheless remains determined to shift its art school from its long-term home in a former asylum in historic Callan Park to the main university campus. Exactly where will be revealed next month. 

While Sydney University’s move does not directly affect the National Art School, it has added to the climate of unease and raised questions about the university’s long-term commitment to training visual artists.

The National Art School has long wanted to be set up along the model of a federally funded National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) or Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Lynch argues this is the best way to ensure its independence and maintain its unique studio-based method of teaching, rather than merging with a university as was mooted earlier this year with discussions with UNSW Art and Design. 

“The crux is, if we go into a university, the feds have to fund it anyway. But it works against the independence, the method of teaching,” Lynch says. “What we’re saying is inject [the funding] in the way you do NIDA or the film school, as an independent institution, then we are capable of continuing rather than compromising within an increasingly commodified university model.”

Having watched with dismay as the federal government stripped $105 million from the Australia Council last year – a move that impacted heavily on the visual arts sector – Lynch believes adopting such a model would help restore confidence.

“The new government in particular should be finding ways to reinstate some sense of faith and confidence in the artists of Australia, and by looking at funding mechanisms and support mechanisms … the amounts of money we are talking about are relatively insignificant.”

Indeed, the $6 million sought is the same amount the federal government spent to make the propaganda film Journey to deter would-be asylum seekers from getting on boats.

Lynch recently met with federal arts minister Mitch Fifield to press the case. But Lynch acknowledges federal funding discussions “are proving to be slower than one would like … we haven’t got any sense of headway yet”.

Instead, the federal government has put the ball firmly back in the state’s court. A spokesman for Fifield told The Saturday Paper the National Art School is the responsibility of the NSW government, including any change in its status, funding or relationships with the other institutions.

The National Art School has had a hand-to-mouth existence since it became independent in 2009. At that time, the plan was for operational funding from the NSW government to end in 2013. But the state agreed to provide funds for two years until the end of 2015. This was extended again, but the funding runs out at the end of 2017. With the academic year about to end, there is no clarity on what happens next.

“The school has found itself too much besieged for too long…” Lynch says. “We continually find ourselves having to argue the reason for our existence.”

Added to this is unease over the site itself. The NSW government is currently divesting itself of prime inner-city heritage sites, most recently leasing the 19th-century sandstone Lands and Education buildings near Circular Quay to a Singaporean property developer who plans to turn the adjoining buildings into a luxury hotel. Plans are also under way to relocate the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta and to sell off the brutalist harbourside Sirius building, which has housed low-income tenants. The transfer of old Darlinghurst Gaol midyear from the NSW Department of Education to Property NSW has sparked fears it could be next. 

Lynch nonetheless remains confident this will not happen. “The art school is not greyhound racing,” he says, alluding to the state’s failed attempt to close that industry. “Neither the site itself nor the school is something you can unilaterally shut down and say it’s going somewhere else or we are going to sell it off … Much as some people might like to sell off the Darlinghurst Gaol site and turn it into apartments, every indication I’ve had from the government is they recognise that would be taking many steps too far.”

A spokesman for the Department of Premier and Cabinet said there were no plans in place for its sale. Property NSW is currently negotiating a licence agreement with the school so it can continue to occupy the site while the future of arts education in NSW is being finalised. But the spokesman would not indicate when this might be decided or whether funding would be extended beyond 2017.

Meanwhile, Lynch is looking at other ways to secure a long-term future for the school whose alumni include prominent artists such as Max Dupain, Susan Norrie, Fiona Hall and Martin Sharp. But the lack of clarity and government inertia has compounded the school’s difficulties as it not only attempts to recruit a new head but looks for other sources of funding.

“I’ve spent the last three months canvassing the respective philanthropic and corporate communities about supporting the school,” Lynch says. “But the overwhelming message is, ‘Oh yeah, Michael, we’d be really happy to help you and support you, but we really want to know what the future of it is.’ ” 

The school has begun to look overseas as a possible source of full fee-paying students. Until now, the school has had few overseas enrolments.

“We’ve just gone to China for the first time. We’ve started to look at bringing students in. I think that’s a potential area,” Lynch says. “Students want to come here … and we need to put ourselves in a competitive frame. We’re trying to focus more attention on being an international draw, like the rest of the Sydney universities, but using the uniqueness of the studio model to provide different experiences for people.”

Despite the uncertainty, the school has received a record number of enrolment applications for next year. Lynch recently met the leaders of Australia’s art galleries and was gratified that they viewed the school as important to the future of their institutions. But such recognition has not been forthcoming from government. 

“There is not a lot of concern being shown for the future of artists, the education of artists,” Lynch says. “And if you ain’t got artists, you ain’t going to have an arts industry, a creative industry or great cultural institutions.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 26, 2016 as "Left hanging".

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