Avant-garde is alive in our creative workshops

March 23, 2007

Art schools have long nurtured innovation. Their models have a great deal to offer universities, argues Anne Bamford.

It was a lesson once enjoyed by John Lennon, Damien Hirst, Eric Clapton, the Spice Girls, David Bowie, Quentin Blake - and also Foreign Office minister Kim Howells, designer Jimmy Choo and businessman James Dyson. Now it's time for the whole of higher education to learn. The lesson in question consists of those salient aspects inherent to an art school education that builds innovative minds and creative capacities.

For it was the art school that created it all, from The Beatles to Brit Art, as well as having a spillover effect on the rest of society. They constituted - and arguably still do - the incubator of British inventiveness.

Fast forward a few decades, and the world is different. Some lament the "death" of the art school as we knew it. More and more schools are merging and becoming parts of universities. And, so the critics would have it, the baby of creativity may have been thrown out with the metaphorical bathwater in moves supposedly driven by innovation. Well, the art school has certainly changed, but it has not become any less important or vibrant.

Indeed, it is the university that needs the art school - not the other way round. The creative industries are one of the growing success stories of the British economy. For academe to maintain its edge, it needs the creativity of the art school.

In a world where visual literacy plays an increasing role, in business as well as in leisure, education in the arts is assuming the same role that an education in civil engineering did in the Victorian age. Today's great innovators are web designers and electronic artists, not bridge builders or inventors, and between them they contribute more than £13 billion a year to the UK economy.

Yet the contribution of the arts need not end there. The art school is at the leading edge in terms of research and educational pedagogy. Their amalgamation into larger universities does not signal their demise.

Instead, it makes it possible for them to help radically reform the university sector to make it more in tune with the sort of innovative learning we need for the future.

Universities are starting to recognise the value of active partnership in learning; art schools have always seen the need for strong links between creative professionals and teaching students, providing them with the encouragement to engage in live projects as a way to stimulate authentic learning. Universities are struggling to develop policies related to consultancy, outside work and personal professional development; art schools have never had such difficulties.

Art school models of learning involve active partnership and the direct inclusion of a range of cultural and artistic organisations in the planning and delivery of education programmes. The most effective of these have built sustainable, long-term and reciprocal associations with cultural agencies and industries. In these active partnerships, the atelier shares the responsibility for planning, implementing and evaluating programmes.

Quality arts programmes flourish in situations where there is scope for organisational flexibility. The permeability of the art school studio as a place of experimentation, the hub of reflection and open to the world - while still being personal and private - has not been easily replicated within the hallowed walls of many universities.

Projects in the art school have always used flexible research-oriented approaches to encourage a climate where the academy, practitioners and students engage in learning conversations and test their ideas.

Inquiry-based approaches allow spontaneous situations to be incorporated to create interesting and meaningful learning opportunities. This learning in the art school (unlike the situation in many lecture halls) is about purposeful engagement in active creation and performance and engenders a particular kind of learning and achievement embedded within active practice.

Academics in the arts practise well into old age, remaining open to new techniques, ideas and approaches. Picasso famously asked for a brush to be taped to his hand when he could no longer grip it. For artists, continuing professional development and exploration reinvigorate their teaching. Yet how many university professors still actively re-engage with their profession? For artists, working within education and in partnership with students is a stimulating and inspirational undertaking that enhances their professional status.

Above all, the art school encouraged, allowed and pushed people to take risks and permitted them to make mistakes. "Letting go" of control and being confident to make mistakes is an important part of learning.

Uncertainty surrounds the future, and if universities fail to build programmes that push the boundaries making the unknown, the challenging and the infinite core to learning, the likelihood is that what is learnt will quickly become obsolete.

Anne Bamford is director of The Engine Room at Wimbledon College of Art, University of the Arts London. She is author of The Wow Factor , published by Waxmann, £16.90.

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