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Ryan Gander’s plans for an art school in Suffolk

10 September 2014

Earlier this year, the artist Ryan Gander wrote a letter outlining his plans to set up an art school in his hometown of Saxmundham in Suffolk. We publish it for the first time here, with the artist’s permission. To follow the progress of the school, visit the Fairfield International website. 

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

I am intrigued by the notion of the art school, and its potential for change. I am no expert, but having attended many, in the capacity of both student and tutor as well as participating and working on the development of new educational models, it’s fair to say I know a bit about them.

The idea of an artist running an art school is not a new idea. 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, whether it be Black Mountain College, the Bauhaus or more current examples like Olafur Eliasson’s Institute for Spatial Experiments (a title that oozes pseudo-intellectuality, and over-complicates and mystifies what seems to be basically an MA in architectural art).

Alongside the countless artist-led educational initiatives, there are countless groupings of artists who have produced educational manifestoes, or manifestoes that outline and optimise direction or objectives for practice; the Futurists, Fischli and Weiss, Art and Language – the list is endless. My favourite manifesto for practicing artists is entitled ‘I Am For An Art’ and is written by Claes Oldenburg. This appears in Art and Theory by Harrison and Wood and takes the form of several pages of singular sentences each starting with ‘I am for an art…’. The most memorable to me is: ‘I am for an art that is a conversation between the blind man’s stick and the pavement’. When I think about this now it illustrates a lot of my interest in art education, as does another quote by Oldenburg, which is ‘The best art school can simply be a warm room’.

I am also of the opinion that you learn more from those who are naturally around you than those who are placed around you ‘to teach’ and that no matter how extensive an individual’s opportunities, privileges or education these fade in comparison to ingenuity and energy for self-initiated activities. I think David Hockney sums it all up with the words ‘Inspiration – she never visits the lazy’.

I continuously agree to visit art schools around the world (being embarrassingly flattered that someone somewhere thinks that I could help in some way) when this is an activity that I really must stop, due to workload and restrictions on my time. At these schools, I meet students from every imaginable background and with every possible type of life predicament.

The most excruciating are probably the trustafarian rich kids whose security is mapped out and who enroll in an art school with the objective of meeting cultured individuals and having a sort of hobby for life. And of course there is more frequently than not the art student who makes a wax mould of her body; is making work about their brother that died in a car accident; is playing with 16mm film because they like the vintage, melancholic, nostalgic feel to the medium; the street artist; the mature student who is still obsessed with an imagined construction in their heads of beauty and craft; the art student who makes videos of her spreading black cherries on her breasts (an obsession with sexuality is the killer) and of course, the foreign student who singes the edges of photographs and stains them with tea making them look unauthentically old.

More often than not, and quite naturally, almost all the students are phoney. You can see it as soon as you talk to them without actually even seeing their work, because the mark of an interesting artist isn’t in their content, it’s in their persona. The persona forms interesting subject matter and manipulations. Once in a blue moon you come across an individual whose work astonishes you, usually signified by a slight jealous feeling in the pit of your stomach, knowing that somewhere within you, you wish that you had pursued the same line of enquiry. It’s a good emotion, a good jealousy, and to know that someone who has been practicing 10 years less than you, has got to a place that you’d like to be, is like a slap round the face that leaves you eager to get back to the studio.

These students are often – although this sounds like a romantic stereotype – from unprivileged backgrounds; northern town dwellers, broken families, working class terraces, uneducated, uncultured families. I don’t know why this is but I’m sure it has less to do with understanding visual language and the history of contemporary art and more to do with the fact that out of these situations come strong characters who are self-reliant, resourceful and entrepreneurial.

Recently my wife brought to my attention a…Victorian school in the small town in which we live in Suffolk. It turned out that the school, which is structurally sound but would need some modernisation, is on the market. 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 an art school 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. It wouldn’t really be an art school, it would be a residency programme for the type of student that I described above.

My idea for the school, for which I haven’t yet decided a name, is that it would house four to six artists with studio accommodation in which they could also live. The building would house a communal dining room and kitchen, a gallery open to the public three days a week, a dedicated arts library open to the public by appointment, a clean and dry workshop for digital media, and a mess shop for construction of sculpture, as well as an auditorium/lecture theatre/cinema. The building would also need offices and housing for up to three staff; a programme director and managers, as well as two humble guest quarters for visiting participants and advisors to stay.

The best thing about the town is that it’s only two hours from London by train or a single straight road, it is close to the sea and it is saturated in history; many significant artists have resided in the region. The town is remote, cut-off enough however to be an enabling space for concentration…yet it contains all the necessary amenities; hotel, bar, post office, supermarkets, art and craft supply shop, bookstore, furniture store, pub, deli etc, as well as my home where the pantry is always stocked, the fire is always lit and there is always someone to lend an ear.

I’m still assessing an academic programme or curriculum but it needs to be rather unstructured; I’ll need help with this but perhaps one day a week there would be one or two visiting practitioners with whom the residents could talk if they so wished. These visitors would be offered a place to stay and a meal with the participants and they would perhaps be chosen and invited by the artists themselves.

Once a year there would be a symposium; the remit of which would be left as open and adaptable as possible so that the current residents could choose how to interpret it as they saw fit, deciding whether it would be a paid symposium to which people were invited to listen to speakers…or an open exhibition, or a curated show. The most important thing is that the artists are given time and space and that any real activity or movement into the public domain comes from the heart of the school itself – the artists rather than the administration.

I think I need about £2.5 million, which would ensure the renovation of the building and help secure the operation for a period of three years, enabling the program to set itself up and ensure that the director could raise further funds to run the programme into the future. It all seems quite ideal, the only problem being that I don’t have £2.5 million, but I do have aspiration and I have ingenuity and I have energy for self-initiated activity. So perhaps in fact I do have £2.5 million, I just don’t know it yet.

Fairfield International is due to open in 2014.

Ryan Gander was one of 10 artists to feature in this year’s Apollo 40 Under 40 – a selection of the most talented and inspirational young people who are driving forward the art world today.

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