An article in Times Higher Education has helped to inspire a mosaic artwork now on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
In an article last December about the protests that greeted Falmouth University’s plans to close courses in contemporary crafts, theatre and digital media, THE cited the response of senior deputy vice-chancellor Geoff Smith.
In a memo to staff that was later posted on Facebook, he had described contemporary crafts as Falmouth’s “most costly and space-intensive” subject, adding that “we cannot maintain the course’s heavy space utilisation and intensely process-led curriculum without significant cross-subsidy from other subject areas – something we are not prepared to do”.
It was precisely this sentence that piqued the attention of artists Matthew Raw and Thom Swann.
The former was the V&A’s graduate ceramics resident for 2014, the latter one of its graduate residents. Both had recently completed their university training and were concerned that, in their view, things had got worse for arts education over the past decade.
The article intrigued them, explained Mr Swann, “because it highlighted so well what is going on. We are very concerned about management-speak.”
Their main worry, added Mr Raw, “is that students are paying more and getting less. Where do all the thousands of pounds go, if they are given less space, less tutoring time and less technical help? I was given free materials and tools at a discounted price. Now students have to pay for such things, over and above the cost of tuition fees, in most places. It limits the ambition and scale and experimentation of your output.”
When he created his own Manifold studio under a railway arch, Mr Raw said, he recalled his training at the University of Brighton and the Royal College of Art and deliberately avoided packing in as many people as possible in the way that Professor Smith seemed to be calling for.
Resident artists at the V&A are allowed access to places that are not open to the public. In one storeroom, Mr Swann and Mr Raw found an empty 3m frame made in the 1860s for one of the “Valhalla” mosaics celebrating some of the great names of art and design. They decided to create their own mosaic to put inside it. The result is Heavy Space Utilisation, which first went on show as part of the London Design Festival.
Mr Raw said he was delighted that the work could be seen in the V&A, because “all the masterpieces there could only have been created through skill and investment and space. It would not be the same to show it in a white cube gallery. If we want to create new masterpieces, we can’t go around shutting down all the courses and tightening our belts everywhere.”