What relationship does the art school have to its local community, school or art scene? Does location impact on who does or does not attend art school or shape what its graduates go on to do? What role does online or distance learning have on widening participation in art education, and how important is the physical learning/studio space?
These questions and more were addressed at Green & Golden, a symposium organised by Q-Art and hosted at Swansea College of Art’s new ALEX design building. Throughout the day, 18 speakers from across the UK were invited to talk about and discuss the impact of location on art education and the art school, attempting to open a dialogue around these themes.
Dylan Thomas described Swansea as “… an ugly, lovely town … crawling, sprawling … by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. This sea-town was my world.” Flattened by Nazi bombs in the second world war, modern Swansea now has a flourishing arts ecology with strong connections to its art school.
Elysium Artspace is run by Swansea College of Art graduates, while partnerships between the Mission Gallery and the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery have provided positive results to further the cultural production of the city. Bay Studios, where the TV series Da Vinci’s Demons is filmed, has so far provided work placements for students and graduates and provides a fruitful partnership with the university for work-based learning.
Jenny Vobe gave presentations from the Arts in Action residency programme, and Sophie Hadaway from Raising the Bar, two Swansea initiatives of arts in the community. Arts in Action puts art students into school in the local community, often targeting lower income Communities First areas of Wales.
By doing this, it widens access to the arts and helps children develop skills. But as funding begins to change, a focus on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will begin, potentially threatening support for such initiatives. This possibility echoed a wider concern of most of the day’s speakers, as the importance art school education is diminished in favour of more ‘academic’ subjects.
Bella Kerr, a tutor on the Swansea College of Art Foundation course, also shared this concern. She stressed the importance of a foundation in Art and Design – a year where students are permitted freedom to experiment and indulge their creativity.
The symposium’s afternoon sessions presented UK-wide perspectives. John Beck and Matthew Cornford’s project and book, The Art School and The Culture Shed, looks for the UK’s lost art schools and what sits on their former site now, contrasting this with ‘culture sheds’ – contemporary cultural buildings as regeneration projects. Highlighting the case of The Public in West Bromwich – a building completed in 2008 at a cost of £72m and closed in 2013 – Cornford suggested that an art school would be a better alternative for regeneration.
For Michelle Letowska at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland, location goes hand in hand with extreme weather conditions. This and the rural setting informs the students’ environmental practice and impacts on the structure and wider cultural context of the course. In contrast, Kieren Reed from the Slade asked what the local context might be for central London? While the capital is often seen as the place where success is located, there are disadvantages too, such as a higher cost of living.
Christian Lloyd from the Open College of the Arts (OCA) offered a perspective on distance and online learning when a physical space isn’t immediately available for a student’s practice. The open access course offers a flexible degree that reduces barriers to the arts; the physical space isn’t important as students form their own space and create relationships with other students through regular event meetings at galleries and art spaces across the UK
Location will always play a part in the success of an art school and the students it attracts, but one of the biggest pedagogical challenges is how to build a thriving art scene. Steven Felmingham from Plymouth College of Art asked: “How do you make a place more sticky?” One of the main questions for tutors was how to keep students in the city and not on the train to London. A question that defies a straightforward answer, collaboration and nurturing a lively local art scene were some of the suggestions that were put forward.
Kerr asked: “Is a place made, defined or described culturally and in other ways by those who stay and those who leave?” This is the main question to be answered in terms of location; a good base of motivated students staying in a town or city will create a lively and flourishing art scene.
Art school education is facing a series of challenges – funding is being cut and the government’s focus on more academic subjects places it in further danger. But the different nature of art education needs to be recognised and championed.
The late Swansea College of Art tutor Osi Rhys Osmond captured this difference when he described a foundation education in art: “This is only about you and your relationship to the discipline, so you have to find your own path through it, which means you construct the knowledge; knowledge is made with us, with each other, in a way that doesn’t happen in any other course.”
Green & Golden: A Symposium exploring the Impact of Location on Art Education and the Art School, took place on 27 June 2015 at ALEX Design Exchange, University of Wales, Swansea. q-art.org.uk