Radical reorganisation plan for Sydney’s tertiary art education

Three into one won’t go. A radical reorganisation plan for Sydney’s tertiary art education institutions has readied the nation’s oldest art school to be gobbled up by the University of NSW.

The Baird government is washing its hands of the small but beautiful National Art School in the historic Darlinghurst jail initially designed by the convict architect Francis Greenway.

As part of the deal, the University of Sydney has all but surrendered $7 million worth of students at the Sydney College of Arts at Callan Park (the buildings are also Greenway work) to the UNSW School of Art & Design at Paddington.

While the fate of the National Art School dangles in the wind, the university merger is scheduled to take effect from the start of next year but on Thursday the mooted changes unleashed a perfect storm of protest.

A stellar list of names from the big end of town and a roll call of Sydney cultural leaders signed a letter opposing the move. Among the signatories: financier and arts benefactor Simon Mordant, MCA director Liz Ann Macgregor, Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch, philanthropist Sam Meers, film director Jane Campion and actor Hugo Weaving.

Said Campion: “The independence and boutique quality of the school was one of its defining strengths. I believe size and amalgamation in a more conservative university system is a real threat.”

Professor of Contemporary Art and Culture at SCA Brad Buckley laid the blame solely at the feet of the business model-obsessed Sydney University hierarchy: “Sydney likes to think of itself as a global centre. Culture is part of that so why close art schools?

“Melbourne recognises the value of art and culture to the economy but not Sydney. Little wonder perhaps that the University of Sydney is 101 on the world ratings, while the University of Melbourne is  44th.”

The push back came as a surprise to the University of Sydney who struck a heads of agreement with their UNSW counterparts to merge schools.

Michael Thomson, Sydney University branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said the 60 staff at Callan Park were against the school being folded into the UNSW and felt left in limbo. Meanwhile the University of Sydney Provost and Deputy Vice Chancellor Stephen Garton has written to some staff members saying if the UNSW deal collapsed, the SCA would be relocated on to the Camperdown campus.

There has not been such a high-powered protest about changes to Sydney tertiary art education since the great and the good came out and saved the National Art School from being restructured into a TAFE straitjacket in 1995.

Although the National Art School community is gearing up to remain independent, they are starting to organise wide-scale protests. But the staff are holding fire.

While the universities are federally funded, the Baird government spends about $6 million a year on the National Art School and staff fear speaking out will cost them their jobs.

Among the rumours: the NAS will be folded into the UNSW campus; Supreme Court judges want out of their neighbouring antiquated facilities and the school’s historic Darlinghurst jail site could be developed into high-end real estate project.

Then came the sudden resignation of NAS director Michael Snelling. A blow made all the worse by the Department of Premier and Cabinet spokeswoman Danielle William telling the Herald no decision has been made on a merger when word got out that Property NSW was negotiating a new license arrangement that did not ensure the school would remain on site.

NAS drawing lecturer Kim Spooner said a better resolution would see the school funded by Canberra along the lines of the National Institute of Drama Art.

“No staff wish to be absorbed into the UNSW. Universities are about lectures and tutorials, the NAS maintains small atelier-based classes and intensive tutoring in order to teach not just art theory, but art practice.

“A far better outcome would see NAS become independent and funded out of Canberra along the lines of the National Institute of Dramatic Art.”

Bernadette Mansfield, president of Friends of the National Art School, said the two systems were incompatible.

“Entry to the university courses is by ATAR ranking. Entry to the National Art School is by interview and portfolio,” she said.

“It is inevitable that the larger academic culture will swamp the school and many, many, talented students will miss out.”

Reg Mombassa, the artist, rock musician and National Art School alumni, said he would never have met the entrance requirements.

“There are a lot of kids like me who don’t run on the same tracks, who need an alternate system that recognises their potential, their talents,” he said. “NAS did that for me and it would be a national disaster to lose it to a university mindset.”

A colourful history

The National Art School moved into the old Darlinghurst Jail in 1922 when the Greenway-designed building became redundant for penal usage.Its alumni are a timeline of Australian culture and include James Gleeson, Margaret Olley, Tim Storrier, Martin Sharp, Ken Done, Max Dupain, and John Olsen.

The school suffered for its art at the hands of conservative NSW governments. In 1966, a course review had the president of the trustees of the NSW Art Gallery, Sir Eric Langker, snobbishly doubting “whether it was necessary for an art student to be competent in English, provided he can read, comprehend and express himself. In his view, all these extra learnings were not necessary for a painter”.

By 1974, the NSW government was pushing for art and design to be whipped away to a college of advanced education and a new art school established within Macquarie University.

A decade later, the NAS was caught in the national drive to restructure TAFE courses to be closer to industry needs and among those who successfully howled in protest were the world’s most read art criticTime magazine’s Robert Hughes, cartoonist Patrick Cook, composer Peter Sculthorpe, poet Les Murray, and gallery owners Ray Hughes and Rex Irwin.

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