“When I first heard that the majority of artists went to art school, it was quite a surprise to me,” recalls Maurice Carlin. “But then you think; OK, that’s what happens.”

Back in the summer of 2007, Carlin was one of four Stockport College art foundation students who, frustrated by the prescribed environment offered by their course, lured a group of fellow class members up to the abandoned fifth floor of Islington Mill artist studios in Salford.

An informal, week-long summer school was held, during which time was spent exploring their new, ungoverned surroundings, making intervention-based works and simply talking – both among themselves and with the ‘real’ (practicing) artists they met.

Afterwards, most continued along their previous path, completing foundation and going on to university. “They really enjoyed the experience of being in this other environment, but largely I don’t think many of them truly considered it as a real alternative to what they wanted to do,” recalls Carlin. A few, however, stayed on, resurrecting the school later that same year as the Islington Mill Art Academy (AA).

The AA is one of the earlier examples among the latest wave of pedagogical experiments and ‘schools’ established over the last decade as alternatives to mainstream art education. But rather than a critique of this model, Carlin – who parted ways with formal education after completing his foundation and is a practicing artist as well as a director at Islington Mill – describes the reason for its creation as solely “an attempt to discover the factors involved in learning how to become an artist, and to see if we could create those for ourselves”.

Evolving investigation

The school began as – and still is – an evolving investigation into what an education in art could be. Far from experimentation for the sake of it, a lot of traditional art school tropes have been drawn upon over the course of its eight-year history; from organised talks and research trips, through to workshops, residencies, study blocks, critiques, open discussion and reading groups.

Other less formal aspects, such as regular film nights, sociable ‘potluck dinners’ and impromptu moments of peer-to-peer support, play an equally important role. Yet occasionally people have expressed surprise at not finding the school ‘more radical’ in its approach. “This is a wider problem that you have within the art world, an aesthetic of radicality that’s just for the sake of it,” says Carlin. “We’ve always been trying to find what is the most useful structure that would help people.”

So what factors are conducive to learning to become an artist? Joint accountability and shared responsibility towards education emerge as being particularly important. Artist and writer Lauren Velvick, who has attended the AA since 2010, compares it to her experience of the huge class sizes at local redbrick, The University of Manchester. “Though the AA didn’t have tutors as such, I got a much stronger sense of mentorship, just because we were dealing with each other far more directly.”

Similarly, asked whether the school’s non-hierarchical structure ever poses a challenge, self-employed artist Claire Hignett, who has been part of the AA for just over two years, says she found it quite the opposite. “It depends on you making a commitment to people you respect. If you say you’re going to do something you’ve made a commitment, not just to yourself but to them.”

Self-organising ethos

Elaborating on the school’s self-organising ethos, Carlin adds that “if you want to be an artist, you have to be able to self-direct. I do feel that the educational experience you get as part of the AA is very close to the life that an artist has”.

He recalls realising while on foundation the extent to which students were being pushed through the education system by tutors under pressure from management to satisfy various outputs. At the same time, he was meeting and speaking to artists at the Mill who had been to university to study art and came out the other end thinking, as he puts it, “what the fuck was that?” 

Such experiences raise an important point. While doing a degree in Dentistry may well make you a qualified dentist, the relationship between doing a degree in art and becoming an artist is far less straightforward. “There’s a whole load of other learning, understanding and figuring out that has to be done after that,” Carlin believes, “which many were struggling to do.”

Straying from the standardised template of education is scary; it forces you to address and take responsibility for the shape and continuation of your own education. Yet this self-directing approach is also far closer to the constantly inquisitive, curious state that being an artist entails.

Reflecting this reality, AA members do not graduate as such, or leave abruptly. Instead, the process is far more organic. “Usually, the person’s other work and projects slowly eclipse their time and need for the AA structure,” Carlin explains. “Yet often they remain involved through staying on the internal mailing list [the AA’s core, organising mechanism] to remain up-to-date with what’s going on, and continue to attend the occasional event.”

In contrast to formal higher education, structured around courses with a set time span, this format tailors to the needs of the individual, while simultaneously reinforcing the idea of learning as an integrated and ongoing part of life.

Permanent studio space

Turning to the future, Carlin mentions AA’s plan to set up a permanent studio space at the Mill – a kind of village of garden sheds, affording each member their own studio space as well as joint-access to a larger, shared space. With so many other ‘alternative models’ having come and gone in recent years, it is encouraging to hear confidence in the school’s expanding future.

Carlin highlights the autonomy and stability offered by the school’s physical setting within the Mill as a key reason for its comparative longevity. It’s a rare and much needed advantage for a group that has never received any public funding and has always remained free to attend. The Mill is also a very social space, says Carlin. “Artists, curators and other interesting people are constantly passing through, and I always make sure I direct them over to the AA.”

He adds that, ultimately, “it’s still here because it’s useful to people, and there’s a need for it. The personality of the school shifts and is characterised by the particular set of individuals that are there at any time; the kinds of things that they’re interested in and the energy they have.”

Velvick makes a similar point, linking the school’s resilience to its openness to failure. “If things were quiet for a while because people were busy with other things, that was fine – it wasn’t seen as the end,” she says. “It would just keep going and wait for new people to get involved and take it forward. It self-perpetuates in that way.”

Eight years in, it seems the AA has successfully met its initial brief – creating the conditions for a rich and ongoing education. Though this alternative approach does not invalidate universities, it does raise questions around why so many people continue to pay to do a degree in art, rather than opting for the DIY approach.

Awareness and availability of alternatives, and the growing normalisation of debt, may be part of the answer. So too is the increasing commodification of education. Paying to be taught seems to carry with it the inherent suggestion that the quality of the experience will be greater.

Perhaps the most important thing is to be clear about what you want from the process. Hignett admits she would still consider doing an art degree, but only as an “indulgence”. If what you want is to become an artist, perhaps it’s better to begin as the AA did – by helping yourself.

This article has been commissioned as part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North West (CVAN NW) critical writing development programme, funded by Arts Council England — see more here #writecritical 

More on a-n.co.uk:

Alternative art education: The Syllabus – rethinking educational strategies for artists

Rachel Maclean: “There are certain things without which an artist can’t sustain themselves”