Art Education – what’s happening with that then?

Before Christmas I found myself frothing at the mouth, in a most unlady-like fashion, at the announcement from Cardiff School of Art & Design that the sculpture pathway in the BA (Hons) Fine Art course is to be closed to future students.

The spittle has dried a little now, but not the dismay. And I have to wave my hands in the air and say that, back in the mists of time, when students got grants and housing benefit and could sign on in the holidays, and there were only 40 students in my year’s intake…blah, blah, blah and other old-farty remarks, I was a graduate of the Fine Art course at Howard Gardens. And I went through as a student who spent a happy few years causing havoc in a well-equipped, well-taught and well-resourced sculpture department, learning how to weld, carve, turn, draw, automate and do strange things with tissue paper and glue. All while Margaret Thatcher was ripping the guts out of the mining communities in Wales, Apartheid was still in force and the US still had nuclear weapons on Greenham Common.

Back in the day, Cardiff Art College (no-one in their right mind referred to it as “South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education, Faculty of Art & Design, Howard Gardens Campus), had a strong reputation that extended into Europe. And this reputation was built on the strengths of the multi-disciplinary approach to teaching Fine Art. Although I was based in the sculpture department I was taught by painters, printmakers, performance artists and film-makers. Of course it’s only now, some twenty five years after the event, that I can appreciate how rich that education was and how it informed my practice then – showing me that an idea didn’t have to be squeezed into a particular fine art discipline but had many possibilities.

Ok, so I realised fairly soon after graduating that – although I could make things out of other things, and make them stand up and not crush passing children –  I had so few self-promotional skills (a singular failing of the course at the time) that penury and starvation were staring me in the face and moved seamlessly into arts administration. But as I age I become increasingly grateful that I was lucky enough to be an art student then and not now.

So the sculpture pathway has gone at CSAD, following hard on the heels of the demise of the MAP (media and performance) pathway, leaving just printmaking and painting. And while CSAD management make reassuring noises about creating a new Artist Maker type of student, and that sculpture will still be possible through Textiles and Ceramics (TWO DIFFERENT COURSES EVERYBODY!), it seems that future students will be pursuing a discipline in the same way as a science student who has been told that they can’t access a laboratory, or have any test tubes or Hadron Colliders, or whatever it is they need to learn.

Nevermind, wannabe artists who want to study in South East Wales (because it’s a great place to be a student), there’s always the Fine Art Course at University of  Wales, Newport. Oh, hang on, they’ve just announced that they’re closing the Fine Art Course effective from this year. I can’t find a link to this news, but the course has vanished from the UWN web site so here’s a poignant little video to show you what’s gone.

What can it all mean? Well here’s a clue as Higher Education Institutions in Wales start talking mergers and not duplicating courses to fit in with the Welsh Assembly’s desire to reduce the number of smaller Higher Education Institutions in Wales. Although this is not a desire to reduce the number of students, who will presumably continue to be jammed onto courses taught by increasingly demoralised and anxious staff, just the number of vice chancellors.

On paper this makes sense – I remember when there was just the University of Wales and a few independent universities and colleges. However the reality is that in this administrative exercise the baby is not only being thrown out with the bath water, it’s been chased down the sewage pipes and bludgeoned until it’s definitely deceased. The arts education offering in Wales has produced a number of centres of excellence – I can’t envisage the Documentary Photography MA at Newport without the steady feed of students that have come through the Fine Art Photography route to constantly challenge documentary practice or inform the European Centre for Photographic Research – Performance at Cardiff (where else?), not forgetting the special top trumps features at Swansea, Carmarthen, Treforest, Wrexham and Bangor. But, and here’s the real rub, these organistions are the single most significant employer of artists – there are no other routes to an income that can be derived from artistic practice. So few artists in Wales make their living through sales of work or their own artistic projects that they would fail to register on any economic scale.

And yet, and yet, these are the artists who have the breathing space to develop their practice and ensure that art from Wales is seen on an international stage; who have the opportunities to create networks for other artists and who will be nurturing the next generation of artists. These teaching jobs ensure that artists can survive and practice in Wales to the benefit of all. My breath is bated for the next installment and my beady eyes will be looking North and West as these merger talks develop.

I just hope that the impact of these closures and dumbing down don’t result in a crater in Welsh life that can only be equated with the decimation of the mining communities in the mid-eighties.

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