The ongoing debate over the future prospects for those entering higher education in England applies to the visual arts as much as any other field. For students aiming to earn their living as visual artists, the course content of most fine-art qualifications can lead to a somewhat bleak post-graduation landscape. The fragility of the economy and recent cuts to private and public subsidies for the arts have exacerbated the situation, making it all the more urgent that such graduates are well prepared for life beyond education.
With tutor time pared to a minimum, staff mired in administration and an emphasis on research, theory and analysis at the expense of skills, it is scarcely surprising that many fine-art graduates are unable to support themselves through their own creative practice. Similarly, the apprenticeship aspects of artistic education are being lost, with few outlets for artist-tutors to transfer their skills to students and practical professional development hardly featuring in many courses. Paradoxically, students in public institutions will soon be asked to pay significantly higher tuition fees for courses that have less and less tuition.
Models such as that developed at the Art Academy require a level of freedom from bureaucracy currently unsustainable in the highly regulated accredited sector. Nonetheless, it is increasingly evident that fine-art students benefit more from focusing on practical skills and professional preparation than on the acquisition of letters after their names, particularly if their goal is self-employment in the arts.
Our model is labour-intensive and requires subsidy if fees are to be kept at accessible levels, but this need not necessarily take the form of cash handouts. Creative strategies and business models can be developed that avoid the need for cash subsidy: for example, developing other income streams alongside core courses, and attracting like-minded individuals or organisations able to offer practical support.
This is not a call to turn back the clock to any previous style of art education, nor to impose any particular style or approach. Students for whom art is a vocation simply deserve a better choice of learning models, and justifiably will be seeking better value for money in an era of high fees. The independent sector and its far-sighted supporters are well placed to offer that alternative.
Mark Tattersall, Chief executive, The Art Academy