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2010 arts education


visual arts education: between research & the market

peter anderson: buckley & conomos, rethinking the contemporary art school

Peter Anderson is an independent writer, curator and research consultant with a focus on visual art, craft and cultural policy. He has been actively involved in writing and visual arts practice since the late 1970s.

END (Ice Cold Drinks) detail of installation, Andrew Varano END (Ice Cold Drinks) detail of installation, Andrew Varano
see image note*
BEING AN ARTIST DOES NOT REQUIRE ANY PARTICULAR QUALIFICATION. UNLIKE ACCOUNTING, LAW, MEDICINE OR ARCHITECTURE, WHICH REQUIRE SPECIFIC TRAINING, QUALIFICATIONS AND ACCREDITATION, TO BECOME AN ARTIST YOU JUST HAVE TO ESTABLISH A PRACTICE. BUT AS A RESULT OF THIS, ONE OF THE DIFFICULTIES ARTISTS FACE—PARTICULARLY EMERGING ARTISTS—IS THAT THEIR STATUS AS PROFESSIONALS IS OFTEN SOMEWHAT UNCLEAR. OVER THE LAST DECADE IN AUSTRALIA, THE NUANCES OF OPERATING AS A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST—RATHER THAN AN AMATEUR, OR HOBBYIST—HAVE BEEN THE SUBJECT OF QUITE A BIT OF DISCUSSION, NOT LEAST IN RELATION TO THE WAY THE AUSTRALIAN TAX OFFICE AND SOCIAL SECURITY AGENCIES DEAL WITH PRACTITIONERS IN THE SECTOR.

artstart: qualifications required

While the Labor Government’s ArtStart policy was originally oriented towards dealing with some of these issues, in its final form it has become little more than another funding program managed by the Australia Council aimed at providing start-up support for artists. In fact, far from seeking to resolve the issue of how an emerging artist might establish their professional status, the program has fallen back on a very simple test—the key eligibility criteria is that the applicant is a recent graduate from an appropriate educational institution. While this might seem to focus the grant program on emerging artists, the removal of the initially proposed age limit sees ArtStart grants being awarded not only to young undergraduates, but also to older artists who have recently completed PhDs, some of whom may well have been exhibiting for a couple of decades. While I may be wrong, I think this makes ArtStart the only Australia Council grant program that requires an artist to hold formal qualifications. It’s an interesting move, particularly in the light of debates in and around the contemporary art school.

rethinking art school history

In this context two of the key threads of debate revolve around the way the creative activities of artist academics are valued as research within the university context, and the gradual shift towards the PhD as the terminal degree in the visual arts. Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: The Artist, The PhD, and the Academy, edited by Brad Buckley and John Conomos, is one of a number of recent collections of essays to enter into the debate around this territory. While it is a book that is very clearly international in approach—it’s published by the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and includes contributions which focus on the Art School in North America and Europe, as well as Australia—the tone set by the editors seems very much derived from their Australian context (both are senior artist academics at Sydney College of the Arts).

Certainly, their introduction to the collection is framed by the complex changes to the Australian higher education sector over the past two decades, and the awkward place of Australian art schools within that context. It’s a pity that Buckley and Conomos don’t begin their account of the Australian art college system a little earlier than they do as this would have allowed a more nuanced picture of just where ‘art colleges’ were located—from those that stood alone and those that were already within universities to those attached to Colleges of Advanced Education, Institutes of Technology and even the TAFE system. Instead, by starting their account with the Dawkins reforms of 1990, they suggest that many of the problems of today’s Australian art colleges are the result of the ‘shotgun weddings’ that saw many colleges forced into amalgamations with the existing research universities. As they note, “until then, colleges which granted degrees did not have a research culture as such,” with the art work that was produced by teaching staff being referred to as “professional practice.”

In the wake of the shift of the art colleges into the university system, artist academics found it increasingly necessary to recast their ‘professional practice’ in terms of the research paradigms operating within the new context. It was often a very difficult fit, with the issue made all the more challenging by the imposition of more limited frameworks for what ‘counts’ as research across the sector as a whole, as well as the linking of funding to research outcomes. Significantly, the development of research based higher degrees within the field—particularly the PhD—has also produced some tensions with existing paradigms. But what Buckley and Conomos don’t deal with clearly is what we might see as the ‘two speed economy’ of contemporary art, that tension between art as ‘academic research’ and art as it operates out there in the art world. Perhaps they don’t see a difference between the two.

a qualification too far?

For Buckley and Conomos, the university system is not only subject to criticism because of the inflexibility of its traditional paradigms and values, but also because of the way it has shifted away from these towards an “increasing emphasis on training rather than education (the latter as represented by critical debate, discussion, difference and nuance).” In other words, the university system is both too traditional and inflexible, and at the same time has become too instrumental, too focused on vocational outcomes, rather than open critical inquiry. But if the amalgamations forced by the Dawkins reforms had not happened we might well still have a split system, with the art colleges most often aligned (as they once were) with the ‘training’ side. In light of this, it is a pity that no mention at all is made of the direction art education has taken within the TAFE system, where certificates and diplomas continue to be cast explicitly in vocational terms. There is of course an interesting tension for artists who teach in both systems. In TAFE a teacher now needs a certificate IV in training and assessment, while to teach in a university, the key qualification is the PhD.

If these remarks give the impression that Rethinking the Contemporary Arts School has an overall argument, it needs to be made clear that this is not the case. It is, rather, a set of diverse pieces gathered around a very broad thematic. And the approach is very varied, from Edward Colless’ virtuoso piece on the ‘trick’ of teaching, to chapters that focus on case studies around the approach of particular institutions, such as those by Mikkel Bogh (the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts) or Juli Carson and Bruce Yonemoto (the Studio Art Department of the University of California, Irvine). Other contributors include Bill Seaman, Gary Pearson, Sara Diamond, Su Baker and Lauren Ewing.

art school as intersection

One strong thread through the book is the impact of ‘new media’ and the internet on how art is developing, and how contemporary art students think and work. This, and other factors, have impacted on the shape of the visual arts as a discipline specific activity. As Su Baker puts it: “contemporary art may no longer be a discipline in itself but rather a place where disciplines intersect and interact.” Amongst the contributors to this book there is a general consensus that art education needs to become more interdisciplinary, perhaps even more undisciplined. As Lauren Ewing argues, “art students should be able to browse the curriculum and take courses they qualify for anywhere in the curriculum.” But significantly, what her examples demonstrate is that the art school of the future may need to be part of a larger institution, a node within an academic network, rather than a stand alone institution.

Where does this leave the ‘traditional discipline’ skills and knowledge that once provided the backbone of an art education? Might they be in danger of slipping away, along with the particular things art students might learn from them? Putting what he describes as an “unfashionable position,” Gary Pearson, for example, argues “that art history and production skills training, both increasingly marginalised in today’s curricula, remain important pedagogical fields, but they do require continual revision and upgrading in content and mode of delivery.”

looking for professional practice

But perhaps there are also new areas to be consolidated and developed. While a lot is said in this collection about the educational value of student interaction with practising artists, there is little comment on the concrete demand for what is these days usually termed the ‘professional practice’ course. Often seen as something of a side issue, and relatively neglected, it is the perceived lack of attention to this area that seems to underpin the focus of the ArtStart grant program. In light of this it seemed ironic that as I read this book, Sydney College of the Arts was advertising a newly created position of Lecturer in “Visual Art Practice.” The appointee’s responsibilities are to be focused on developing curriculum at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, “to provide student artists with the relevant and necessary professional and entrepreneurial skills to achieve their personal career goals and an understanding of the elements of contemporary art curatorship.”

While it might be possible to think of this as just another slip down the slope of vocational training, my reading of the essays in Rethinking the Contemporary Art School suggests otherwise. For in the increasingly ‘undisciplined’ context of visual art education, it is within the context of ‘professional practice’ that the institutionally embedded nature of contemporary art is brought into sharp focus, with an essential intersection of both ‘research’ and the market.


Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: The Artist, the PhD and the Academy, edited by Brad Buckley and John Conomos, The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. ISBN: 978-0-919616-49-3

*Image note: Andrew Varano is a graduate of Curtin University. This work won him the inaugural Dr Harold Schenberg Art Prize ($20,000) presented at the opening of HATCHED National Graduate Show, PICA, Perth April 16.

The judges said of their choice: “This work stood out as being distinctive and innovative with conceptual rigour and a refined use of visual, aural and kinetic languages.” PICA Press Release.

Peter Anderson is an independent writer, curator and research consultant with a focus on visual art, craft and cultural policy. He has been actively involved in writing and visual arts practice since the late 1970s.

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 48

© Peter Anderson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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