The plight of art schools in Australia in recent decades is hardly breaking news. Shrinking budgets, staff cuts, amalgamations and reduced course offerings have plagued most of them.
Some workshop disciplines including printmaking, studio glass, ceramics and precious metalwork are no longer viable in certain art schools. Others are staffed through makeshift arrangements, with casuals and sessional staff carrying the brunt of teaching and administration.
Four years ago, Tamara Winikoff, then the Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, sounded the alarm, speaking to a number of key players in Australian art schools and observing some alarming trends.
These included job insecurity with the loss of the tenure system, fewer contract staff, the increasingly crowded marketplace for lucrative international students, and the authority of the word over the image – in other words, the pressure on artists working in academia to publish to gain university brownie points.
While Australia has a number of surviving independent art schools, most notably Sydney’s National Art School, 39 art schools now operate within universities. The largest of these is RMIT with 6537 undergraduate and postgraduate students. The smallest is Charles Darwin University with 161 students.
Traditionally, art schools focused on the disciplines of painting, sculpture and the graphic arts. Later, mediums associated with the crafts, such as ceramics, wood, glass, textiles, leather and precious metals, (sometimes called jewellery), were added into the mix.
More recently, photography, film and digital technologies as well as art theory were introduced. Design courses, which in the past had their own niche in the commercial sector, have also been incorporated into art schools.
The worrying trends noted by Winikoff four years ago have now accelerated with university funding cuts, the federal government’s attacks on arts and the humanities with the proposed student fee hikes and a general reassessment of the positioning of art schools within tertiary institutions. In some instances, the very existence of art schools as an independent entity is under threat.
A venerable ancestry
Art schools in Australia have a venerable ancestry and appeared relatively early in colonial life. The National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, for example, was founded in 1867 with the idea that it was a place where one could establish artistic standards and acquire the necessary skills through which to attain them.
The National Gallery Schools attracted some of Australia’s most distinguished artists as students, including Rose MacPherson (Margaret Preston), George Bell, Hugh Ramsey, Max Meldrum and Joy Hester, who were taught by the likes of Frederick McCubbin and Bernard Hall. The Gallery School merged with the Victorian College of the Arts in 1972, and in 2006 it became an affiliated college of the University of Melbourne.
Many art schools in 19th century Australia were founded around individual artists who gave art classes and these schools vanished as quickly as they were established. The Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney is an exception: founded in 1890, it continues to the present day. The Victorian Artists’ Society in Melbourne, founded in 1870, also continues to operate. Today, it still offers art tuition, although arguably it is not primarily an art school.
In the 20th century, private art schools, especially those established by Max Meldrum, George Bell and Desiderius Orban, had a greater longevity and impact than most of the other private ventures. There were a few well-established art schools in the capital cities of most Australian states and territories by the 1960s. However, as a rule, by this time, art education had become principally a state-funded activity.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the art school scene started to change quite markedly in Australia. A number of new institutions were established, many within Colleges of Advanced Education or TAFE colleges. Some offered radical and progressive alternatives to those available in traditional existing art schools.
Sydney College of the Arts, for example, was conceived in 1974 as an independent College of Advanced Education. In contrast to other Sydney art schools, its faculty, which included Tracey Moffatt, Mike Parr and Imants Tillers, adopted a more postmodernist perspective.
Then Education Minister John Dawkins’s controversial reforms to tertiary education, which began in 1988, had a huge impact on art schools in Australia in the drive to establish a unified national system. The distinction between Colleges of Advanced Education and universities was abolished. Colleges were either transformed into universities or merged with them. Most art schools lacked the scale to stand alone and were forced into unions with universities, where they lost any semblance of autonomy.
A rare exception was the National Art School in Sydney. Traditionally known as East Sydney Tech, the school traces its origins to the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts in 1843. Over many years, it has staved off attempts to be taken over or amalgamated. It remains an independent art school with ongoing funding guaranteed by the New South Wales government as a State Significant Organisation.
The West Australian artist and teacher, Paul Uhlmann, reflecting on the transition from an independent art school system to one subsumed within universities, has noted many art schools “struggle to be understood, struggle for identity and autonomy” within the framework and hierarchy of a university. “The particular languages of making through painting or graphic means are not readily understood as being valid modes of knowledge production in their own right.”
In 2018, Su Baker, a long-term chair of the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools, observed that
in the last decade we have seen art schools morph into the institutional shape of their host university and in some cases the radical destruction of many of these once active institutions.
The loss of identity within the broader university context has affected art schools on many levels. Similar strictures now apply to an art school as to the broader university community, with the requirement for many staff to have PhD qualifications, teach similar class sizes and have similar accountability and evaluation procedures for staff and students.
Operating within a university, rather than a College of Advanced Education or a TAFE, has enabled art school staff to be promoted to more senior academic ranks – with the accompanying shift in administrative responsibilities. But universities, facing economic realities, have had to make tough decisions about cutting resources.
Often, it seemed the art school suffered first when these decisions were made. For instance, workshops that traditionally required four or five members of staff were forced to make do with one or two.
One of the most public controversies was Sydney University’s 2016 decision to scrap jewellery, ceramics and glassmaking programs at the Sydney College of the Arts. Arguing they were “resource intensive mediums”, the university cut 25 of the 43 full-time equivalent positions at the school.
Ten years ago, printmaking workshops in many art schools had several teachers and technical assistants. Today, many are lucky to have more than one. Printmaking courses in etching, lithography and relief printmaking are no longer regularly available at most Australian art schools, although computer courses in design, digital printmaking and 3D printmaking are taught in some art schools.
At the Australian Print Triennial held in Mildura late in 2018, the sense of crisis in the institutional teaching of printmaking was palpable even though few were prepared to put down their observations in writing for fear of institutional retributions.
On the general sense of crisis that the arts are presently experiencing in Australia, Professor Deborah Stevenson, from Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society recently noted:
Significant cuts to arts funding; the closure of art schools; the continuing marginalisation of women in the arts; underfunding of multicultural arts; and new challenges facing Indigenous arts practice – all these issues need to be faced.
An existential threat
When Education Minister Dan Tehan announced his Job-ready Graduates Package in June 2020, proposing a massive hike in student fees for humanities and arts students, it was a major blow for the universities in general and for art schools in particular.
Most Australian universities were already in a financially weakened state following the impact of COVID-19 on their revenue streams. The Job-ready package, yet to pass parliament, will force many universities to make difficult decisions in the process of balancing the books.
Art schools, through the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools, quickly pointed out “the high value of humanities and arts subjects to our sector and to society”. It said:
Those proposed changes may have devastating consequences yet to be determined not only for the individual, but for the nation.
The Art Association of Australia and New Zealand, representing art historians, art theorists and art teachers working in Australasian universities and art schools, is now actively lobbying the crossbench senators to oppose the Job-ready legislation.
One suspects that within some university budgets, the viability of their art schools will come into question. Are art schools viewed as an integral part of the fabric of the university or as a desirable luxury that cannot be seen as being on the same level of importance as schools of law or political science or business management? Sometimes, in university priorities, it is a question of the last in being the first one out.
There is also disquiet within some of the art schools themselves. Have art schools become too academic, too theory-based and insufficiently hands-on and technique orientated?
Do graduates from arts schools emerge with an adequate skills toolkit as well as a broader appreciation of the art making process – a creative mindset? Is there an argument for smaller workshop-based units rather than an academy-like structure of an art school? Flexible units may be more responsive to the changing nature of the arts themselves.
While the structure, teaching strategies and broader philosophies of art schools are a matter of future discussion, their current plight is an urgent matter for the present.
Art schools in Australia are facing an existential threat. Decades of inadequate funding have left many of them in a perilous state. And the present political and intellectual hostility to the creative arts from some federal and state governments is threatening their very existence. Some art schools have thrived within their tertiary host institutions, but many have not.
Chronic under-funding plus demands from competing masters in some instances has not created a fertile atmosphere to foster new talents. Although many art schools advertise their worth through lengthy lists of illustrious alumni, frequently there is much accumulated dust on these lists.
Are the schools still in a position to offer similar excellence in their education offerings as when their famous alumni were students?
If art schools are becoming a threatened species, then it becomes a collective responsibility for all of us to fight for their preservation and restoration. Art is not a luxury, but a necessity for a country like Australia.
Taaniko and Vienna Nordstrom, two women who run a prison social initiative in New Zealand, have been painted by artist Tania Wursig as her entry into the prestigious Australian art prize.
The Archibald prize is awarded every year to the best painting of a living person who is distinguished in the art, letters, science, or politics.
It began almost 100 years ago in 1921 and these days artists from all over Australia, but also New Zealand and Pacific islands, can enter it and compete for the $100,000 prize money.
Artist Tania Wursig has been a portrait painter for the last 30 years and in 2011 began an artist’s residency in French Polynesia.
“The first year I went I absolutely fell in love with the culture, the people, the massive beauty of the place and I though I need to work out how to keep doing this,” she said.
Last year while back in Sydney she was introduced to sisters in law Taaniko and Vienna Nordstrom, two Maori women who were looking for an art space to work in.
The Nordstrom’s run a photography business called Soldiers Road Portraits in New Zealand.
They dress their customers in traditional Maori, Pasifika, Native American and First Nations outfits to then take vintage inspired portraits.
For Taaniko Nordstrom their work is all about helping indigenous people reclaim their identity.
“We use elements of our culture of our identity in a way that empowers all sorts of people,” she said.
Soldiers Road Portraits started in 2013 and after a few successful years the sisters-in-law decided to give back to their community and started a prison social initiative.
Maori people are over-represented in New Zealand’s criminal justice system and despite making up just 14 per cent of the country’s national population they represent 50 per cent of its prison population.
“Using out photography and using images of us looking like our ancestors for people that really needed the reminder of the mana which in English would be of the essence that each of us has even those that have made mistakes,” said Taaniko.
Prisoners are asked to write a letter to their ancestors and then have their photo taken in traditional outfits, and the photos then displayed in a temporary gallery in the prison.
Three pictures are taken of the prisoners with one to hang in the prisoners cell and one to be sent back to their family in the hopes the perception of the men inside prison can change.
“One of the feedback we got was from a man who had been released and when he got home his kids were sleeping but his portrait was hanging in their room and he just sat on the floor and cried,” Ms Nordstrom said.
It was this powerful impact that made Tania Wursig decide the two women would make for great subjects for painting.
“As a painter they are incredible subjects Vienna has the maternal energy and Taaniko has this feisty warrior element but they’re background story is so rich,” she said.
It’s now a waiting game until the Archibald prize’s finalists are announced, in mid September, but Ms Wursig said regardless of whether her painting places or not it’s the message she hopes people will love.
It’s an important piece not just because of who they are but because of what it represents in terms of not just women taking their power back, indigenous cultures I really feel like we are on this cusp where people are beginning to take notice and learn,” she said.
“I hope it does send that message.”
When Andrew Stephens wrote in our Summer issue (#321) of the new vision that Karen Quinlan has brought as Director of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Canberra, neither he nor our readers could have predicted the crisis into which the world would be plunged by the time our next issue hit the shelves in March. Anticipating a year in which ‘her reinvigorated program for this young and popular institution’ would see the gallery reopen in style after its four-month closure for renovations in 2019, Quinlan noted the blockbuster show ‘Love Stories: Works from the National Portrait Gallery, London’ as a defining highlight for 2020. As the only Australian venue for this touring selection of key works from the English institution – one of several ambassadorial ventures planned during its own three-year closure for renovations – the NPG justifiably regarded this as a major coup. A media release published in December and subsequently removed from the NPG’s website promised an exhibition including ‘portraits of some of the world’s best-known couples from the sixteenth century … to the present’, celebrating what Quinlan termed ‘the multifaceted and often complex nature of love’.
Eight months after the publication of this optimistic vision for the future, however, we find ourselves faced with a more cynical and constricted arts ecology, in which those seemingly unassailable fixtures of the contemporary curatorial landscape – the blockbuster show and touring exhibition – must adapt or risk extinction. In this brave new world, the fate of ‘Love Stories’ is perhaps a sign of things to come: crossing international borders has become an extraordinarily difficult and costly process, so the much anticipated loans from London have been superseded by a more modest display of local faces from the NPG’s collection. The December media release reveals that this display was initially planned as a companion to the main show, addressing the universal themes of ‘passion, friendship, family, community and connection’, but Quinlan likely didn’t envisage an entirely online experience.
Visitors to the section of the NPG website that hosts this ‘amorous online adventure’ will find little trace, at first, of the themes noted above. After a brief introduction, we are invited to select one of five randomly selected ‘love stories’ with evocative and sometimes tongue-in-cheek titles like ‘When the stars align’ or ‘Right-hound man’. Each of these is linked to a page with an image and a short caption, followed by another list of five stories. The captions are refreshing, departing from the standard curatorial description to focus on the humanity of each work and the various forms of love revealed. Some audiovisual content, however, perhaps including recorded interviews with the curators, artists, subjects or gallery visitors, might have provided a more enriching experience.
Greater attention to the guiding themes of the exhibition would also have been appreciated – these only surface when the visitor receives a personalised ‘love score’ generated by their choice of ten love stories and based on the coding of each story into one of five categories: ‘Devotion’, ‘It’s Complicated’, ‘Lust’, ‘Nearest & Dearest’ and ‘Passion’. Lacking curatorial framing, however, these categories seem little more than vestigial traces of the themes promised last year, while an invitation to share your ‘love score’ on Facebook or Twitter recalls the usual conclusion of clickbait quizzes popularised by websites like BuzzFeed.
The compulsive attraction (and frequent absurdity) of these quizzes is one of many facets of our online lives exposed to a more critical evaluation in another exhibition also conceived before the outbreak of the pandemic and subsequently adapted for web-based display: ‘Conflict in My Outlook_We Met Online’, hosted by UQ Art Museum, Brisbane. While an emphasis on the familiar, reassuring and sentimental in ‘Australian Love Stories’ draws attention to the new forms of connection and community that the internet has made possible, curator Anna Briers frames ‘Conflict in My Outlook’ as a shift away ‘from the utopian impulse of early internet culture to its current dystopian realities’. In the exhibition essay and media release, she asks us to consider the extent to which ‘algorithm-driven communications have exacerbated social division, stoking the fires of nationalism, fundamentalism and the rise of the alt-right’, and to bear in mind the need to guard against ‘fake news, post-truth politics and echo chambers of disinformation’.
Nevertheless, despite their different curatorial aims, the platforms through which we are invited to explore ‘Australian Love Stories’ and ‘Conflict in My Outlook’ are similar in design. Visitors to the ‘Conflict in My Outlook’ website are again faced with a brief introduction and a choice of links to artist pages that present an image, a caption or statement and a short biographic summary. There is once again a lack of audiovisual supporting material, yet the works – with the exception of watercolourist Kenneth Macqueen’s cloudscapes, rather tenuously included as a nod to Cloud data storage – more than make up for this in the overwhelming volume and theoretical density of their content. These are mainly video, digital or web-based projects that reward repeated, sustained viewing and are perhaps better suited for online than onsite display, inviting visitors/viewers/users to engage at their own pace, from the comfort of their homes.
The works cover a broad range of themes, from Xanthe Dobbie’s interactive parody of a clickbait quiz and Kate Geck’s ‘digital spa’ that promises ‘to combat social media anxiety and network fatigue’ through ‘meditative experiences and psychic cleansings’, while ironically using the same technology that causes this fatigue; to Natalie Bookchin’s unsettling but all-too-believable composite narrative compiled using excerpts from alt-right video blogs, and Daniel McKewen’s semi-fictional tale of intrigue and conspiracy told through Gumtree listings, SMS and Facebook messages, archived emails, videos and touched-up images.
Turning our attention from the uncertainty of our current real-world circumstances to the no less anxiety-inducing digital platforms through which are lives are increasingly mediated, the provocative and highly erudite works that Briers has selected expose our reliance on these platforms as a Faustian bargain, with implications yet to be revealed. In return for the promise of online intimacy, community and almost limitless opportunities to indulge our most private fantasies or to create avatars of our ideal selves, we have consented to an amplifying of the voices of paranoia, prejudice and hatred. More insidiously, as Briers notes in her essay, we have also consented to the collection and monetisation of personal data, inaugurating the age of the algorithm, targeted advertisement and unsolicited mailing list. Perhaps this, in the end, will be the future of the exhibition: a clickbait narrative, tailored to our preferences, and readymade to share on social media.
Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager
Shukria Shukria Oruzgani, a Year 11 student from Melbourne, has taken out one of Australia’s leading youth art prizes.
Oruzgani, who arrived in Australia two years ago from Pakistan as a refugee, won the AMES Australia art prize that had the theme ‘One Planet’ this year.
Her winning entry to the competition will be turned into a large mural and displayed at the Multicultural Hub in Melbourne’s CBD.
Shukria’s family, who fled their home in Afghanistan a decade ago, lived in Quetta, in Western Pakistan for years after fleeing their homeland. They were persecuted because they were part of the Hazara ethnic minority community. Further targeted attacks on Hazaras inside Pakistan eventually forced the family to flee to Australia.
“I’m very honoured to have won the competition. I’m passionate about art and I love painting,” said Shukria after winning the prize.
“But, I’m also interested in maths and science and maybe medicine,” she said.
The One Planet art competition was held by AMES Australia’s youth services division, with entrants given the chance to win prizes including laptops and tablets, designed to help young people in their studies.
Cath Scarth, CEO of AMES Australia, said there were many different interpretations of the theme ‘one planet’, with many talented young artists entering the competition.
“The judges were all very impressed with the thought and work that went into all of the entries and applaud all of the entrants on their work,” she said.
The youth services at AMES Australia works with young people from refugee, migrant and Indigenous backgrounds, helping them to reach their potential. They provide specialist support services, education programs, knowledge sharing, career counselling, advocacy and social initiatives.