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Creative schools: the artists taking art education into their own hands

10 September 2014

Back to school. Off to university. The beginning of September sees a return to order after the summer holidays, but have we got everything in the right order when it comes to education and the arts? Or perhaps a rather straitened emphasis on ‘good’ order – systems, percentages and hierarchies – is the main problem. On 21 August this year, to coincide with the announcement of GCSE results and the attending flutter of public interest around issues of UK education, art organisations across the country staged screenings of Bob and Roberta Smith’s film Art Party. The film documents, and fictionally embroiders, the artist’s Art Party Conference, which he called in Scarborough last year as a stand against Michael Gove’s plans to focus on a set of ‘core’ subjects which notably disregarded the creative arts.

Bob and Roberta Smith continues to agitate for changes within the nation’s schools system. Several other artists and arts professionals, spotting the same or similar failures in the UK’s official education programmes at both schools and universities, have taken matters into their own hands. If the government’s curriculum changes, funding cuts and fees are barring the way to education for many aspiring artists, independent initiatives might offer alternative routes into the creative industry. Who’s leading the way?

Fairfield International: Ryan Gander

‘The idea of an artist running an art school is not a new one. In fact every great movement and trajectory in the history of contemporary art has come in one form or another through artists meddling in the idea of education’, argues Gander. He attributes his own project to open an art school in his Suffolk hometown to his wife: ‘I’m not sure if it’s because she’s always known my obsession with starting an art school, or whether it’s because starting one in the town in which we live would ensure I had fewer obligations to travel, but slowly and deviously the plan was put into my head.’ He laid out his vision for the school – which will provide studio space and accommodation for students and hand over the reins of much of the programme directly to them – earlier this year, in a letter published for the first time on Apollo’s blog.

The House of Fairy Tales: Deborah Curtis and Gavin Turk

Gavin Turk and Deborah Curtis are behind the children’s charity The House of Fairy Tales, whose various imaginative and often elaborate projects (the latest of which is The Breaker’s Yard at Sutton House, London), seek to encourage learning through creativity and play.

‘In the modern world we need flexible thinkers who are prepared to question the rules as well as follow them; who can articulate good citizenship, as well as be predictable ‘prosumers’. We need a community-minded society that can enjoy the simple pleasures of making, doing and sharing, as well as plugging into pre-packaged entertainment. To achieve this we believe children, teenagers and adult learners would benefit from a more creative, fluid and adaptable education system that could fit and inspire all intelligences, interests and abilities as well as teach a wider range of skills with more playful and fun methodologies and styles. In short want to help enable all schools to be art, design and theatre schools as well as academic institutes of learning.

For 17 years we have been researching and developing ideas of learning and education within these philosophies. The House of Fairy Tales is about to launch a new imaginative and interactive website and publish its first ‘Thinking Kits’ to enable all schools to practice these methodologies within the classroom. The content on the website and in the ‘Thinking Kits will be developed in partnership with organisations, galleries, museums and institutions throughout the UK and beyond.’

Open School East, London

The independent Open School East challenges the traditional university model, creating a network of individuals and a much freer – and cheaper – space to learn, experiment, and critique and be critiqued. Basia Lewandowska Cummings, one of the programme coordinators, told us more:

‘Open School East was founded in 2013 by Anna Colin, Sarah McCrory, Laurence Taylor and Sam Thorne, in response to spiralling tuition fees and student debt, and a climate of increasing bureaucracy in arts education. It was instituted as a space for artistic learning that is experimental, versatile and highly collaborative. Embedded within its locality, responsive and engaging an ever-widening and diverse group of local and other participants, OSE combines a unique, free public arts calendar with an extensive year-long study programme for 12 associate artists, who also have access to studio space and communal facilities.

Throughout the pilot year, OSE has been exploring how artistic engagement can intersect with varied publics: it has been encouraging the associate artists to take responsibility for their own learning – they programme two-thirds of the teaching calendar themselves, collaborating with a variety of arts professionals, artists and curators. OSE is a changeable, flexible programme, outward-facing and committed to fostering intellectual and cultural exchanges. The school will be reopening in January 2015 (and is currently accepting applications), with a new cohort of associates, and a new, ambitious Open Programme of workshops, lectures, screenings and art-making labs.’

The School of the Damned, London

Also based in London, and working on similar – if angrier – principles to Open School East, is School of the Damned. The student-led programme is another example of how young artists, priced out of higher education or increasingly dissatisfied with what it offers, have taken matters into their own hands. Liam Wright-Higgins explains the thinking behind the programme:

‘The School of the Damned was first conceived of during an angry conversation between friends. We were pretty pissed off at post-graduate fees and what we saw as an art world that has stopped even pretending it isn’t a swanky circle jerk on a sticky bed of bad money.

We wanted to found a post-graduate school on radical principles that could provide a lean critical environment for talking about our art and developing our ideas. We wanted good tutors, we wanted it to be free (or at least very cheap), and we wanted it all to fit around working shit jobs to pay extortionate rent.

Having secured a space thanks to the generous support of the Horse Hospital, we devised a year-long programme of monthly sessions. Tutors and guest speakers are reimbursed through our labour exchange programme, a day’s worth of banging on about Rancière, and trying not to look bored, for a day’s worth of carpentry, web programming, gardening, whatever.

The School’s now in its second year, and the idea is that each new group of students is responsible for administrating and improving upon the school in whatever ways they deem necessary. This year looks bloody good, kind of makes me want to go again.’

Related Articles

Creative schools: artists taking art education into their own hands

Art Party: Bob and Roberta Smith’s defence of art in schools (Maggie Gray)

40 Under 40: The Artists (for more information on Ryan Gander)

40 Under 40: The Thinkers (for more information on Sarah McCrory)

From London to St Ives: Interview with Sam Thorne (Jon Sanders)

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