Capital investment

July 9, 1999

Is an art degree from London weightier than one from the provinces? Kate Worsley reports.

It is ten years since the Damien Hirst-led Goldsmiths posse launched the Brit art boom, focusing international attention on the London art school scene. This month sees the final-degree shows of the next generation of young artists spilling off the art college conveyor belt. Buyers have been gathering at the big London shows - but do the capital's art schools really produce better artists than their provincial counterparts?

Although the external examining system ensures that the number of firsts are distributed evenly across the country, many young artists are convinced that London colleges mark harder and that students get an easier ride in the provinces. "A 2:2 from Goldsmiths is simply worth more than a first from a regional school," says artist Andrew Sloane, a former student at Central St Martin's School of Art in London. Keith Patrick, editor of the journal Contemporary Visual Arts, agrees: "If there were an evenness in the degree system, you would find that most people coming out of non-London colleges would get the lower grades."

Nowadays, culture moves so fast that for work not to date instantly, artists must have their fingers on the pulse. They need to go to the shows, preferably the private views, and travel to international forums such as Venice and Basel. Such events are easier to attend from London than from Devon.

"London students are more advanced and always have been," says Central St Martin's fine art tutor Mike Thorpe. "Of course provincial students can have the same access to magazines and TV, but not to the buzz at ground level that London students see in major galleries and smaller one-off shows."

For the same reasons, more art tutors prefer to work in London, especially those who are practising artists themselves. "The better staff tend to gravitate to London," observes Patrick, "and as a consequence the quality of teaching is better."

Better teachers, better students. How can the provinces compete? Name one top artist who has emerged over the past decade who did not come out of a London art school. Tracey Emin may have done her art foundation course in Margate but it was her painting MA at London's Royal College of Art that set her on the path to fame.

But the provincial colleges do have some advantages. The traditional visiting tutor system, in which a practising artist drops in for a day to provide workshop and tutorial advice, remains stronger there. And the popularity of London colleges among foreign students (who pay up to Pounds 15,000 a year) is putting a strain on teaching provision in the capital. Language problems in tutorial groups are on the increase, despite the provision of language labs in some art schools.


* Central St Martin's School of Art,part of the London Institute The 1999 fine art degree show at Central St Martin's scores on presentation straight away.

The Charing Cross Road site is adorned by two stocky bouncers in white T-shirts. Inside, a CD-Rom of exhibitors' work is being given away, and catalogues are on sale for Pounds 3. The student units look more like department store concession stands. Laminated A4 cards on the wall in each section list names and prices; the morning after the private view, lots of pieces have red stickers.

Among the art is a pair of stuffed rabbits lined with pink silk to make a pair of slippers. There's a towering latex Virgin Mary, and a dress with a vibrating penis attached, also in subtle pinks. On the upper floors, audible torture is going on in a toilet cubicle.

There is also a number of works based on domestic objects such as hammers and Hoovers, catalogued, customised or animated in mysterious ways.

A Cornelia Parker-style work of shelving and household goods comes with a list of rules - "To never purposefully make ironic work"; "To not make art as therapy". The list concludes: "To not start new work without first making a list of rules relating to that work". (This artist got a first.)

* Norwich School of Art

At this year's fine art visual studies degree show at Norwich School of Art, there is a slapdashness that would not get past the door at St Martin's.

Three young girls sun themselves on the step. And although this year's calendars of work flap in the breeze, there is no contact list or site plan.

Inside, Jeff Koon rules. Lots of kitsch references - Astroturf, ribbon curtains, mannequins, pink girls' bedrooms and close-up shots of toys in the grass.

The cathedral city has insinuated itself into works such as the engraving you step on in the corridor (like a brass in a church) and the balls of turf in the foyer ("It's real grass!" announces one excited child to her mother).

There are lots of mission statements, just in case examiners don't get the point of the pieces: "My work takes the format of a process-based project," says one. Another states: "Throughout my degree (BA Hons) it has become apparent that I am interested in one main subject matter, myself."

It looks as though Norwich expects the world and her mum to turn up, while St Martin's is preparing for the big time.

Kate Worsley

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