Art Schools: Sydney’s Shameful Shambles

rozelle campus
Sydney College of the Arts Rozelle campus

The palaver about the destiny of the three tertiary art schools in Sydney would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. Sydney as a centre of Australian art in all its forms is slipping into oblivion. Far be it from me to make pronouncements, but I have occupied senior administrative posts in two Sydney Universities and, at the other end of the spectrum, have recently been a TAFE student in Visual Arts with major in painting. I know how the logic of the market operates in Universities and how this inevitably shapes  the options in fields which do not immediately translate into lots of student numbers or ready external funding. It costs a lot  to run outstanding art education and the cost per head of student is inevitably going to be far higher than the cost for running a business or standard arts program. And you can’t charge sky high fees (as in Vet Science, Medicine or Dentistry) because a degree in Fine Arts is not going to result in an assured income, or any income at all in some cases. [Although arts incomes in the US have been strongly rising recently].Rising incomes in the US for art graduates

artists incomes

Art education lies at the heart of a community’s ability to support a flourishing creative sector and cultural life. Art courses in secondary schools are mostly taught by teachers who are graduates of University art programs. Professional artists increasingly come from dedicated art schools. In Sydney, the three main tertiary Art programs offer three year undergraduate degrees while serious students go on to the Masters of Fine Art or beyond.

What University management expects is something very different from what artists need. The key institution in Sydney has been what is now the National Art School although in my mother’s day when she was a student under Roy de Maistre and other luminaries it was still East Sydney Tech. Most of Australia’s very best artists – painters, sculptors, printmakers and others – are graduates of the NAS. The great names of an earlier generation came out of the NAS and its more recent alumni are no less distinguished: Guy de Maestri, Luke Sciberras, Fiona Hall to name a few.

National Art School – old Darlinghurst Jail site, Sydney

A few years ago the NSW Government backed an enormous push to move the NAS into what was COFA, then a college of UNSW. This was successfully resisted, fortunately, but the pressure will not go away until somebody “up there” realises that a National Art School should be just that. I fully support the recommendation that the NAS be separately funded by the Federal Government on the same model as the National Institute of Dramatic Art. The NAS should not be a teaching program of a University but should retain its strengths in the training of practicing artists and all the other roles which necessarily go with a flourishing art culture in any great international city.

At the University of NSW the College of Fine Arts had a semi-independent identity but following a huge rebuilding program funded mostly by philanthropy it was fully integrated into the University in 2014 and its new title “UNSW Art and Design”reflects the distinctive character which has developed there, with its focus on new media, design, digital production, cinema and a fair dose of po-mo theory. Don’t mistake me, the old COFA/new Faculty does great work and offers outstanding programs and courses, but the fundamental commitment is not to the production of studio based fine arts such as painting and drawing.

UNSW Art and Design: artist’s impression from Oxford Street Paddington

Sydney College of the Arts was originally established as a College of Advanced Education (CAE) in 1970 and was amalgamated into the University of Sydney in 1990, being given the wonderful old sandstone harbourside site of Callan Park as its home. SCA has many distinguished alumni including Ben Quilty, Bronwyn Bancroft and Locus Jones. Callan Park has been  a massive dilemma for the NSW State Government which owns the site and is just itching to do something spectacular with it – new development unspecified. Local opposition to the various plans for the site with the strong support of Leichhardt Council has been able to stave this off for some years, but now that the Councils have amalgamated and with the insane development mania now gripping the NSW Goverment the likelihood of the site remaining as it is goes to zero once the art school is moved off it.

callan park master plan
Callan Park Master Plan: glorious harbourside and classic sandstone
save callan park
Save Callan Park success – but for how long?






Three art schools, each with distinctive profiles, cost a lot to run. It is easy to see why the planners and economists thought it would be a really good idea to amalgamate them all with what used to be COFA and have the whole lot somehow managed by UNSW. But less than a month later after the announcement of this totally unfeasible plan it’s been dropped and the SCA is going to remain with the University of Sydney but will be rolled into the Faculty of Arts.

This actually makes a lot of sense although where on earth the studio facilities and art-workshops will be located on that crowded campus is anyone’s guess. But it’s not impossible to imagine something good transpiring. Carriageworks is located on an old railway site not far away  and its stunning spaces host many great art exhibits. If student studio space could be developed nearby it would consolidate the cultural value of the site.

Carriageworks – at the old Eveleigh Workshops site. Amazing space!

While the Faculty of Arts at Sydney no doubt has its own financial difficulties and will not welcome trying to stretch budgets to accommodate a new Arts program, it makes sense in other ways and could open up a much wider vision for the Faculty of Arts itself which is to tell the truth pretty unadventurous. The School of  Art, or whatever its name will be, could  engage more deeply with other humanities areas and open up a lot of new synergies.  This is where the high school art teachers, for instance, would most appropriately be trained.  And other students in the Faculty could build their programs to include a new range of subjects. Good outcomes all round there, although there would still need quarantined funding for the studio programs and the various technical facilities which will go with them.

So there is a way forward and it could be a positive thing for Sydney. If only something could be done to redirect the enthusiasm of the new Director of the Art Gallery of NSW towards actually supporting art instead of wanting to be an architectural designer, and if the three art schools could be confirmed in their separate identities with different funding models, Sydney could be restored as a centre for Australian art. As it is now, all the best students want to go to Melbourne.

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