The return of the ‘art school’

Kingston has become the latest institution to reclaim the title ‘School of Art’. Is this trend merely a rebranding exercise or does it herald a more ambitious re-examination of the role of art and design within higher education?

If Madonna-like reinvention is your thing, there are certain moments in life that seem better suited to it than others. Clean breaks, mainly. A move to a new job or city, where no one knows you (that is, ‘you’ in your current form), are ideal. That’s not always possible, though, and so the next best option is the return after an extended hiatus. That’s why glossy magazines, the kind aimed at young women – especially teenaged, often more susceptible to this kind of ‘advice’ – shout from newsagent racks, towards the end of summer, about the virtues of a ‘new term, new you’ makeover. The start of a new school year is, apparently, the perfect time to emerge, butterfly-like, and make your debut as an entirely different person to the one you were in June.

Whether any of this so-called advice is of genuine benefit to anyone’s sanity is one thing but, if you’re an educational institution at least, the ‘new term new you’ approach does have an appeal. Wipe the slate clean over summer, and be ready to receive returning students and the next crop of freshers anew; it’s less confusing that way. Enter the Kingston University’s former Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture. Under the direction of Interim Dean, Professor Anne Boddington (who is perhaps the closest thing the arts education world has to Gok Wan, having performed a similar makeover at Brighton a couple of years ago), the department became Kingston School of Art in September this year.

Sure, it’s more a gentle renaming than a dramatic identity overhaul. And it all happened quite quietly, too. There’s no real rebrand, as such, save for a stripped back prospectus and a quiet marque that tags onto the main Kingston University logo, hung underneath like it’s been there the entire time. The only real fanfare, if you can call it that, came from a press release and a semi-promotional video that follows Boddington around the Knights Park campus, cutting from the Hogsmill River, picturesque on a sunny day, to studios busy with students and work, to the hanger-like workshop, the ceiling tangled with insulated extraction pipes, her voice drowned out, almost, by roaring machinery. There’s a shot of an architects’ impression of the proposed redevelopments to the site; beyond that, though, it would appear that very little has really, noticeably, changed.

“I think the really important thing is to put Kingston School of Art on the map,” says Anne, in the video, squinting into the sunshine. “Not only in terms of what it does beyond, in the world… but also what the role of having a School of Art is in a university.” And in that sentence, what appears to be little more than a nominal change, that cynics will have already dismissed as the machinations of marketing departments to churn through increasing numbers of students, lays bare a larger identity crisis being faced by arts education as a whole.

Kingston School of Art, as it was first named, opened in 1875 and there’s talk, in the press release, of using the original title to reclaim “142 years of art school heritage”. And since the aforementioned Kingston School of Art has, in one shape or another, existed ever since, the immediate questions you might ask are – why?, and – where was its heritage previously? Equally – reclaim said heritage from whom, exactly? Kingston isn’t the only one determined to emphasise legacy. Leeds College of Art who, after being awarded university status, became Leeds Arts University, did the same; Professor Simone Wonnacott, Vice-Chancellor, said this new title was “an important recognition of over 170 years of leading arts education in the UK”.

You have to wonder whether the amount of weight being put on ‘heritage’, ‘tradition’ and longevity is meant as a selling point

And they’re only the most recent. Manchester Metropolitan University’s faculty of art renamed in 2007; Manchester School of Art will be 180 years old next year. Sheffield Institute of Arts, part of Sheffield Hallam University, is coming up on 175 years; they renamed, quietly, in 2013. Independence, of course, is in name alone. But you have to wonder whether the amount of weight being put on ‘heritage’, ‘tradition’ and longevity is meant as a selling point – a signifier of quality, maybe – as higher education in the UK and ideas of competition are clumsily mashed together by the Government, or whether it’s, in fact, symptomatic of something else.

Sheffield Institute of Arts’ new home in the city’s old main Post Office

It’s perhaps worth unravelling what this 180 year old idea of art school ‘heritage’ actually is.

An 1835 report by the Parliamentary Select Committee decided that, compared to other European countries, “art [was] not properly encouraged” in Britain. Despite the industrial capabilities, craftsmanship was poor. Goods were inferior. And so, as the Westminster Review put it two years later, “we were beaten in foreign markets by greater encouragement being given in France, Germany, and other manufacturing countries, to the art of design”. The very thinly veiled subtext to all this, of course, is that languishing commercial profits and a perceived chink in the armour of dominance weren’t particularly good signs for an economy – or for an empire. And what you may already know is that the solution to all of this, so ministers concluded, was to experiment and set up the Government School of Design in 1837. We know it now as the Royal College of Art. The School was different from the already established Royal Academy in that it was, essentially, a training school for industry. It was part funded by the government, partly by student fees, based in Somerset House. From here a centralised curriculum was developed, and rolled out across the country in the provincial schools that followed; Manchester the same year, Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham and Coventry in 1843. And by 1851, there were 20 regional schools feeding industrial cities with designers.

And then – well, as you might expect, it wasn’t long until the sorts of problems that sound mind-bogglingly familiar started to arise. Funding was insufficient; student numbers high, too high, for schools to cope; materials were wanting. Former tutors, including ‘expert practitioners’ had to retrain to keep their jobs, which led to shortages… And when staff numbers finally increased, a ‘Payment by Results’ system had been implemented that meant that their salaries would be determined by the number of students that enrolled, and the number that went on to pass their exams.

An inevitable and massive restructuring happened in 1852 and, as part of the restructure, the curriculum changed to include fine and ornamental arts alongside the subjects more obviously aligned with industry. It’s difficult, without the help of obscure documents hidden away in multiple archives to establish whether what happened next was government enforced or otherwise. But after this restructuring, these pre-existing Government School(s) of Design began renaming: Nottingham School of Art (1852); Manchester School of Art (1853); Sheffield School of Art (1857). New schools followed suit. For a while there was a period of semi-independence and relative consistency in nomenclature, until governmental ambitions for art and design education changed again and, following Britain’s war efforts, there was a renewed focus on industry. The National Diploma in Design was introduced in 1946 and, in the 40s and 50s, former Schools of Art became Colleges of Art. Then, in 1963, the Robbins Report advised that Colleges of Art be subsumed by other technical colleges nearby to create Polytechnics, and only 30 years after that, the Further Education Act of 1992 turned these Polytechnics into new universities. Each time, the art schools adopted a new name in order to survive.

All this is to say that the Schools of Art today – the kind we see in 2017 at Kingston, Brighton, Manchester, Sheffield, or wherever else – are fundamentally different from the Schools of Art that once were. Iterations of, maybe; but not by any stretch of the imagination the same. So the whole idea of ‘reclaiming heritage’ seems a bit hokey. In fact, it’s more of a nod to historian Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘invented traditions’ – in as much as these renamings are ‘responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations’. The only real tradition, if you can call it that, is constant change (and, even then, Hobsbawm would argue that a maximum 180 year history isn’t long enough to establish a true tradition.) In a present where thousands of pounds of debt, shonky terms and conditions on loan agreements that only ever benefit one party, and the questionable intentions of university management teams are the norm, the new-old names seem more like a wilful glossing over of the past than a reclamation of heritage. But its maybe exactly these norms, as well as the wider erosion of art and design education by the government, that created the conditions for renaming in the first place.

Tradition is usually ‘invented’ for one of three reasons: to establish or legitimise a practice or institution; to establish or symbolise a community; or to inculcate a set of beliefs.

According to Hobsbawm, though, tradition (or heritage, whatever you want to call it) is usually ‘invented’ for one of three reasons: to establish or legitimise a practice or institution; to establish or symbolise a community (either real or artificial); or to inculcate a set of beliefs. While there’s obviously, inescapably, an element of the first – a sort of historical posturing – the reality, I’d suspect, is that very few potential students really care about this so-called heritage, and that, anyway, longevity doesn’t axiomatically lead to being any good. And so I wonder how much of a role community and/or belief systems have to play.

Let’s dip back into recent(ish) history again, just for one moment. In response to the absorption of art schools into polytechnics at the time, painter and critic Patrick Heron, wrote a scathing, emotionally charged attack (completed by the totally biased title – Murder of the Art Schools) in the Guardian that might be worth acknowledging here. “It is Government policy,” he said, “that any organic cohesion uniting the departments of the art school shall totally disappear in the new set up of the polytechnic: the art schools separate departments will henceforth simply take their places as independent units alongside and among all the other polytechnic department units.” Which happened. And whilst Heron was talking more, I think, about arts courses being ideologically deconstructed, pulled apart and considered as stand alone, interchangeable units of degree matter, there’s a similar point to be made in regards physical space, too.

Because what students do care about, vocally so, is having a base, a permanent space that’s theirs to own. They don’t – as student feedback regularly points out – want to be shunted from one dreary office-y room to another; neither do they want to traipse around all over a city to find other courses to collaborate with. It’s maybe no coincidence that most of these ‘new’ Schools of Art come with investment into buildings and locations. Manchester Met and Sheffield Hallam invested £34 million and £9 million respectively into their arts buildings after renaming. Kingston’s Knights Park campus, which already houses similar courses together is, for an undisclosed amount, “undergoing major renewal in a project overseen by Stirling Prize winning architects Haworth Tompkins”. Because being able to define a community, whether that’s spatially, nominally, real or imagined (as Hobsbawm suggests), is one the most rudimentary elements of any rebranding exercise.

But any good rebrand – even one spurred on by the past interferences of government – is future-focussed. So, in that case, what’s the ambition of these newly rebranded Schools of Art or, as Anne Boddington puts it, what is the role of the School of Art in a university? Well, maybe it’s a baby step towards real independence; a manifestation of a kind of collective consciousness, a shared ambition across institutions for a time of autonomy and stability, rather than constant flux. Maybe the names, the sites, are intended to define communities and spaces where students are shielded from bureaucracy, where the kind of radical thinking that was once synonymous with art school can be fostered, ‘inculcated’.

And I suppose, bigger than all of this, is a question with an answer that hurtles towards us. As arts and design subjects are eroded faster, earlier in the chain of education, then – whatever the intention – how long will these new-old Schools of Art, and the communities they symbolise, even be relevant for?

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