As night fell on 14 December 2015, the lights at the art school came on. If you had happened to walk by, you’d have seen the silhouettes of more than 100 students appear, some waving, some with hands on hips, framed by the brightly lit grid of windows. This was more than just an art project – it was a visual protest. The students pressed against the glass wanted to make their presence felt; they were occupying the £50 million building in London’s Aldgate district in an attempt to halt London Metropolitan University’s plans to sell it off to property developers.
If these plans go ahead, the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design will be relocated to Holloway, several miles away, joining the main campus of its parent institution. The sale will provide much-needed funds for the university. But campaigners are concerned that it will also mean less studio space, fewer courses and less creative autonomy for the Cass, pointing out that – among other benefits – the architecture of the school’s current home encourages students from different disciplines to share ideas and collaborate.
Concerns were also aired when Central Saint Martins – another famous London art school, which is now part of the University of Arts London (UAL) – announced that it was relocating to a state-of-the-art, converted granary depot in King’s Cross, which opened in 2011. For a while after the students had left its historic Lethaby building in Holborn, mournful slogans – “RIP” – were still daubed on the walls and windows. Although the Lethaby had many problems, including severe leaks, some were sad to see it go, fearing that they might lose the unique kind of education once offered within it.
A third London art school, the Royal Academy Schools, is planning to restore and modernise its 19th-century building on the Royal Academy of Arts site in Mayfair, to mark its 250th anniversary in 2019. These plans coincide with a larger redevelopment project at the RA, but they are also about creating workspaces suitable for the 21st century.
Change is in the air, prompting questions about what art schools are for, what they will look like in the future – and what they were like in the past. Looking beyond the campaigns and heated commentary surrounding the relocations of the Cass and Central Saint Martins – not to mention the earlier move of UAL's Chelsea School of Art in 2005, and the restoration of the Glasgow School of Art after a fire in 2014 – to a recent plethora of talks and books on the history of art schools, nostalgia for what has gone is the keynote. So what is it, exactly, that we have lost, or stand to lose? Should we feel positive about leaving any of it behind? And what do we stand to gain in its place?
The foundations of the UK’s art schools as we now know them were laid in the 1960s, when many small, local colleges merged to create tertiary-level art schools and polytechnics. Here, students were treated more like independent artists rather than pupils learning a craft. They could study for a diploma in art and design, an innovative qualification developed by painter William Coldstream, the head of the national advisory council on art education. Marking a shift away from purely practical studies, the DipAD included an art history element, and encouraged more experimentation across different media. Coldstream also introduced a crucial “let-out clause” that allowed students who showed exceptional artistic promise, yet who did not have the required educational qualifications, to be admitted into art schools. Hence, these institutions became a haven for a small number of lucky school-leavers who hadn’t fitted comfortably within the conventional academic system.
These new art schools were shaped by the cultural climate of the time, which in many ways couldn’t be more different to our own. In his most recent Spending Review, chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that Arts Council England would receive a small increase in funding (in cash terms), yet its budget had already been slashed by 36 per cent between 2010 and 2015. On top of this, austerity cuts to councils mean that local arts funding often loses out when pitted against other essential services. In contrast, the 1960s saw unprecedented growth in investment in arts and humanities.
The pioneering Labour arts minister Jennie Lee set the tone in 1965, when she produced the only government White Paper on the arts there has ever been (51 years on, minister for culture Ed Vaizey is about to produce the second). Buoyed by the post-war spirit of optimism and altruism, Lee declared: “[in] any civilised community the arts and associated amenities…must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be regarded as something remote from everyday life.”
The idea that the 1960s, 1970s and, to a lesser extent, 1980s represent a golden age for art schools is seductive. For instance, today, course sizes are much larger than they used to be – meaning that one-to-one tuition and large studio spaces are virtually things of the past. Yet these things were only possible in the first place because just 5 per cent of young people went on to higher education in the 1960s, compared with 45 per cent today. And although grants, in theory, enabled young people from working-class backgrounds to go to art school, the demographic of these institutions was even then, in reality, predominantly middle and upper class.
The flip side of those days of unlimited freedom of expression was a lack of guidance and support. The “anything-goes” teaching style did not suit everyone, leaving some adrift. Last, but certainly not least, arts faculties were held much less accountable for their actions than they are in 2016 and – going by first-hand accounts – were by no means free from institutional sexism, male chauvinism and casual misogyny.
Things have changed a lot in the past 50 years socially and politically, and art schools have adapted accordingly. A significant shift came in 1992, when John Major’s Conservative government passed the Further and Higher Education Act, allowing polytechnics and other higher education institutions to become universities. This prompted some independent colleges to merge themselves into larger universities, such as UAL. Others became part of existing universities; only a few remain independent. This means that they have been grappling with the same issues that universities in general have had to face – such as annual tuition fees of up to £9,000.
The fear of leaving with huge debt and uncertain career prospects makes the decision about whether to go to art school high-risk. But if you want to work in the creative industries, the competitive job market means that graduating – ideally from “a good place” – is more important than ever. Aspiring young artists – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – face greater obstacles before they get to art school, as well as when they leave. In schools, there’s a risk that time spent studying higher-priority subjects, such as English, maths and science, could squeeze out art. Sixth-form colleges are feeling the strain of local government cuts, and arts courses have often been the first to suffer. According to the artist known as Bob and Roberta Smith, a tutor at the Cass, “We are really heading back now, not to the 1960s but to the 1930s, when art schools were only for the elite.”
For those young people who do get to go, art school is no guarantee of an artistic career. Ironically, even though there is more money than ever to be made as a successful artist, it is also much harder for recent graduates to survive – thanks to soaring rents and the shrinking of benefits support and funding. It has always been difficult to make a living by selling art, meaning that such a career choice has always been more risky for the underprivileged than the privileged. But the days of eking out an existence on the dole in cheap rented accommodation are gone; it is now practically impossible to survive as an up-and-coming artist in London without the financial support of a wealthy family.
Many art schools, however, are doing their best to prepare students for the tough world beyond their walls – including Central Saint Martins. Here, students are encouraged to develop practices that will be sustainable after they graduate. As Alex Schady, leader of its fine art programme, explains: “It is not appropriate to prepare them by giving them the most enormous studio […] and endless one-to-one tutorials, because what they are facing when they leave here – especially if they are staying in London – is having a peripatetic studio, if a studio at all, and having to develop elastic practices that can work alongside having to have a job, and showing work erratically.”
The new campus plays an important role in shaping these “elastic” practices, with its impressive, large-scale, temporary exhibition spaces, available to students on a rotating basis, and its open, communal areas. As Mick Finch, course leader of the BA in fine art, enthuses: “The thing we love about this place is that it’s open, it’s public, we actually meet people from other courses. It’s a fabulous collaborative environment, a really lovely place to work.”
While it is undoubtedly true that art students need to be as well-equipped as possible for the tricky contemporary art world, having the time, space and financial freedom to develop as an artist has its own inherent value. Seventeen very fortunate artists are given that chance each year at the RA Schools, embarking on the country’s only three-year, entirely fee-free postgraduate programme. The institution, founded in 1769, is the longest established art school in the UK. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, it had a reputation for being conservative, valuing traditional skills such as life drawing. But in 1998 the programme was transformed into a contemporary course, similar to the best offered elsewhere at the time. Today, the emphasis is still on creating forward-looking work – just as it is at most art schools across the UK. But it is now one of the few places where students can develop their ideas in an environment similar, in some key respects, to that associated with the “golden age” of art schools.
In addition to removing the fear of debt, and providing a generous amount of personalised tuition, one unique thing that the RA Schools programme offers is time. Most art schools offer one-year master’s courses and, as Eliza Bonham Carter, curator and head of the institution explains, “the best thing that happens on a one-year MA is that your brain is totally blown apart by new thinking and new ideas. But you don’t have time then to really act on those, whereas a three-year programme allows you to do that, embedding those ideas into your practice.”
But the RA Schools’ private and charitable funding mean that it is cushioned from the financial pressures that other art schools have to contend with. And while it is a sanctuary for those lucky enough to attend (as well as being a prestigious addition to their CVs), the obvious downside to the model is that so few students can benefit.
The RA Schools is not the only place that offers an alternative to the mainstream. In response to high fees, commercialisation and rigid assessment criteria, independent, guerrilla-style art schools are starting to pop up. One notable example is Open School East. Based in a former library and community centre in De Beauvoir Town, East London, the school offers a free, experimental, collaborative study programme for emerging artists, as well as events and activities open to the local community. Funding comes from trusts, foundations, individuals and art galleries, as well as Arts Council England.
“Associates” at the school come together for two days a week to meet mentors and work together on projects. The emphasis is on supported, self-led development, rather than tuition as such. As with the RA Schools, the programme is non-accredited, and some seminars, workshops and presentations are open to the public.
John Lawrence was an associate at Open School East in 2015 and found the experience liberating. “It was great to work in a truly collaborative fashion, and to have real agency in providing cultural activity at the highest level to local audiences and the London community,” he says. “A DIY ethos requires a lot of energy from all involved, but it also allows for the possibility to engage and react to things on the fly.”
While initiatives like this are exciting, it is unlikely that they can or will usurp mainstream art schools – nor is this something we should hope for. As Lawrence admits: “Ideally, alternative art school models wouldn’t need to exist. Really, they are papering over the cracks that some mainstream education models overlook and providing free education at a time when £9,000 in tuition fees simply isn’t a viable option for many.”
Anna Coatman is assistant editor of RA magazine, produced by the Royal Academy, in whose spring edition a longer version of this article first appeared.