One hand is called administrative efficiency. The other is called funding projections. Together they are throttling the life out of education in the creative arts. We have to fight back while we still can.
The search is on to find a new rector for the Royal College of Art. In itself this might not seem a very pertinent issue for the readership of Building but in a roundabout way I think it is. So what should the RCA be looking for? A charismatic, inspiring and creative educator is what I’d say, but no doubt there is another camp that favours deft political manoeuvring, proven fundraising ability and managerial skills over creativity. They do so at their peril.
The Royal College is a unique place: at once part of the system and outside of it. It is this quasi independence that has made it such a desirable college to attend, since its success is not judged by the money it extracts from the government or the number of overseas students it attracts, but from a legacy that is altogether more profound – the education and nurturing of the creative brains that may affect the course of our cultural history.
Well, that is no mean feat and one whose significance should be understood by those responsible for design education. In the interest of economy and efficiency, art and architecture schools have been gradually absorbed into universities. The University of London includes Goldsmiths and the Bartlett, and the all-embracing University of the Arts has prestigious art and design schools such as St Martins, Camberwell and Chelsea.
In the seventies the Architectural Association (AA) produced the most significant architects of our generation. Goldsmiths did the same for artists in the eighties. The AA held out for independence, which without question was the right move, but at a cost: only a very small number of British students can afford to study there. I know we have gone global, and indeed in my office the British are in a minority, but it has to be wrong that the intake of students at
one of our best architecture schools is predominately the preserve of the rich. The consequence is a less driven and focused cohort, which in turn means that the AA is less likely to produce the exceptionally talented architects that it did.
At Goldsmiths, it was Michael Craig-Martin who radicalised the school. The decision to merge all the courses into one was key. No longer was there a distinction between printmaking, filmmaking, fine art and sculpture. Instead, everyone was taken in on the basis of their potential talent, given access to 25 tutors whenever they needed it and they found their own paths in their own time. The result? The birth of Brit Art and all that it has done for London’s prowess, not to mention its economy.
It has to be wrong that the intake of students at one of our best architecture schools is predominately the preserve of the rich
It is absurd that art or architecture schools need to score research points to earn income. This may well be a valid criterion in academia but it simply isn’t relevant for art and design. Art students are now taking PhDs in studio work – come on! The University of the Arts is facing an unprecedented level of complaints from students about the quality and the quantity of teaching. Individual tutorials, once the backbone of British art education, are now a rarity, particularly in undergraduate education.
Art and architecture schools depend on having having a healthy turnover of quality practitioners who are willing to spare a day. A wide array of practitioners is vital to the vibrancy and reputation of these colleges – in fact they thrive on casualness and lack of structure. By contrast, those in full-time teaching positions are generally less likely to provide this, and so less likely to inspire. This contribution is being lost as the tyranny of government bureaucracy takes hold.
It’s no good just moaning; there has to be a solution. Before that (to circle back to the Royal College) I believe the best candidate will be the one who is a known and respected creative talent. Of course, they should also have the ability to administer, raise funds, delegate and run the school, but the essential requirement is that they can determinedly steer the creative direction of the school.
I really think that if we carry on as we are, we will lose our status as the world’s creative capital because without the creative thinkers and makers we are barren. So how about a new independent art school and a new independent architecture school? I’m convinced there is enough money out there – imagine the prestige of having an experimental, creative venture in your name. And I am convinced that money could be used to prove that independence has value. And once that value has been established, it would be only a matter of time before the whole education system for art and design would unravel, for the benefit of us all.
Amanda Levete is a partner in Future Systems