In late June, the University of Sydney sent out a press release announcing that it had signed a Heads of Agreement with the University of New South Wales to consider merging the Sydney College of the Arts with UNSW Art and Design (previously called the College of Fine Arts). Meanwhile over at the National Art School, similar discussions about a possible merger with UNSW had been taking place, precipitated by the NSW Government indicating a lack of willingness to continue their annual subvention of AUS$6m – the funding of higher education is primarily the responsibility of the Federal Government.
All of a sudden it looked as if three schools could become one, in a city of almost five million people. (The University of Western Sydney closed its highly regarded art school in 2008). And despite the authorities in all cases claiming that the ambition of the amalgamation was to create a ‘centre of excellence’ with superior facilities, conspiracy theories ran riot. Was it about the real estate potential for development given that the NAS and SCA are both located in heritage buildings on prime sites? Was it a cost-cutting exercise by universities facing funding difficulties? Or was it simply a lack of commitment to funding studio practice which does not sit well with how universities allocate funding to faculties, requiring as it does more space per student than other disciplines? The figure of AUS$5m a year loss was widely reported by the University of Sydney. UNSW had already moved away from a traditional art school model to one focused on interdisciplinary approaches with a basis in design and technology.
Whatever the motivation, the response from the arts community was fast and furious. Artists, donors and arts professionals came out to defend the colleges from what was seen as an attack on visual arts education. Such was the outcry over the lack of meaningful dialogue or consideration for the short and long term impact of such a move that the University of Sydney decided, just five weeks after announcing it, to terminate the proposed merger and instead presented plans to relocate Sydney College of the Arts at Callan Park to its main campus, thereby saving on the costs of managing the heritage buildings. Staff are now working with the university to decide what that will look like; there will inevitably be some casualties.
Last week a group of students occupied the administration building in the hope of forcing the university into making a commitment to the Callan Park campus or to finding an independent alternative. The one existing independent art school, the NAS, is still in discussions about its future, with little indication that the Federal Government is inclined to take over its funding except in the context of a university merger. Supporters have, however, gathered 13,000 signatures in a petition that calls for the school to remain independent and to be given a long-term lease.
Which brings us to what some argue is the crux of the matter: the Dawkins report into higher education in 1989 which caused the merging of art schools with universities and, some would argue, into a new way of assessing funding that is increasingly inimical to art school practice with its emphasis on studios and one-to-one teaching. Some art schools have succeeded in working within bigger departments but their success is dependent on key people within the university hierarchies being supportive of fine art as a discipline. Others have been less successful, or appear under increasing threat.
What is certainly true and worrying for the sector is that the focus away from studio practice, which the NAS and SCA excel in, will have a serious long-term effect on Australia’s visual arts, especially given the recent cuts to the small-scale sector by the Australia Council for the Arts – a response to the redistribution of funding from the Australia Council to the Federal Ministry for the Arts. Moreover, only a small percentage of art school students go on to become successful exhibiting artists, yet many remain employed in the large and vibrant arts sector while others put their creative training to work in other fields. Surely cutting the visual arts at a time when there is a government focus on innovation is short-sighted and counter-productive. Short-term financial gain wins over long-term investment in creativity.
It seems a very long time since Australia led the way in arts policy with its Creative Nation policy, which was initiated by the Keating Government in 1994. Yet the rising interest in contemporary art across the nation has been nothing short of meteoric – the Museum of Contemporary Art alone has seen its numbers grow from around 100,000 to over 1m visitors annually. The increase in demand for access to creative learning programmes from the general public has also been exponential. These programmes ironically are devised and led by artists.
We are all hoping that sanity will prevail and that the powers that be will recognise that cutting off access to creative visual arts tertiary education is a sure-fire way to reduce Sydney to what some cynics have always suspected it to be: crass and commercial rather than sophisticated and cultured. That would indeed be a great pity when, in artistic terms, the past few years have seen a greater international interest in contemporary Australian art. The MCA/Tate joint acquisition programme supported by Qantas is a good example of the ways in which Australian art is being celebrated overseas. We need to continue to campaign for local support for creative practice to safeguard the artistic future of the country.
Elizabeth Ann Macgregor is director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.