Michael Lynch OBE AM

Learning the Value of Culture

To build great cultural institutions you need great educational institutions to support training and skills. We are in a time of rapid change and development in Sydney, and it is incredibly important that we balance the long-term development of the city whilst respecting the extraordinary history embodied in our cultural institutions.

Institutions like the National Art School (NAS) play an important role in Sydney as it evolves. NAS occupies the former site of the Darlinghurst Gaol, built in 1885 and maintained in close to its original state. Henry Lawson, one of our great poets, spent a couple of years in the gaol. Jimmy Governor, on whose life Thomas Keneally’s 1972 novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and a subsequent film was based, was hanged there as well as Louisa Collins, the last woman to be hanged in NSW in 1889. There is an extraordinary back story that we need to be able to tell better, to justify why the site has been an art school for a hundred years, and why that is really important to the story of Darlinghurst and Sydney.

It’s been a pretty convulsive year for some of the key arts educational institutions in Sydney, including NAS and the Sydney College of the Arts at Callan Park. Sydney University has moved the Sydney College from its home and has stopped taking students for 2017. The National Art School has been under threat from the NSW Government, which wants to cease funding the school and would prefer that the Federal Government or a university take it over, causing prolonged uncertainty over the Darlinghurst site which has been occupied by the art school since 1922.

Art schools, here in Sydney and around the world, are continually being told that the only way to educate artists is the way most universities teach all their courses, with limited direct face-to-face teaching and a close eye on the economic cost of their courses.

This doesn’t work for artists. It also doesn’t work for actors, musicians, filmmakers or circus performers and is why we need specialist institutions that are government funded and allowed to operate in distinct ways relating to the unique characteristic of their art forms.

Sydney's reputation, both nationally and internationally, makes much of the educational institutions of the city, and of the importance of these institutions to the vibrancy of the economic and social life of the city. They are also significant contributors to the economic and social wellbeing of our city. Why then has it been such a torrid time for the educational institutions whose primary role is to create the artists who play such an integral role in the development of our cultural life and the rationale that sits behind our great cultural institutions?

Sydney should be as ambitious as other great cities in fostering its visual artists. The list of the world’s top ten arts colleges includes London’s Royal College of Art, New York’s Pratt School, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Glasgow School of Art. These are all small-scale independent institutions and provide the world’s best practice models. Why shouldn’t Sydney have an institution of this calibre and international interest in the same way we celebrate, sell and extol to the world our business, medical, legal and accounting schools?

NAS is Australia’s oldest art school and continues to provide Australia’s best artists with a unique art education unavailable elsewhere. NAS is set apart from other universities and art schools by its history, its educational philosophy and its traditions of studio practice. NAS uses the atelier model of training, which is characterised by small class sizes and high teacher contact hours, and is built around individual studio space. Selection methods are based on portfolio and interview and not only HSC results. The school also reaches outside the more privileged metropolitan area with almost 40% of degree applicants coming from non-metro areas. For 2017, NAS has an unprecedented increase in students wanting to come to the school. Moreover, the school’s ratings by the Commonwealth Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching puts the school ahead of all the university courses in which it competes. NAS must be doing something right.

Independent art schools are increasingly facing pressure to merge with universities. For me, a fundamental concern is that the commodification of education that is so well advanced in the university sector leaves little room for unique places in the cultural infrastructure of this great city. How do artists learn to paint other than from other painters? Or potters other than from potters? Without NIDA and the AFTRS we wouldn’t have much of a film industry and there would be an outcry from many quarters that we should be training people to make an Australian contribution in such an important cultural sector. But why not the same outcry and outrage over the threat to the future of a preeminent visual arts institution? After all, among the NAS alumni are Brett Whiteley, Tim Storrier, John Olsen, Martin Sharp, Reg Mombassa, Fiona Hall, Susan Norrie, Cressida Campbell, Max Dupain, Colin Lanceley, John Coburn, Garry Shead and Margaret Olley amongst others.

I marvel at the proposal to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta at a cost to the State Government of $600 million, and the approved expenditure of $155 million for the Walsh Bay Arts precinct. These are major cultural projects that illustrate the Government’s commitment to arts and culture. But all it costs the State Government annually to support the NAS is $5.5 million. Small beer I reckon.

Art schools matter. To me, we can’t have great cultural institutions if we don’t have great educational institutions to give us our own artists to challenge and inspire us. Great art schools make significant contributions to cities—just look at what Central Saint Martins has done for King’s Cross and Greater London. We cannot lay claim to cultural greatness as a city if we only have one art school to create the painters, sculptors, drawers, ceramicists and photographers who will continue to define us, surprise us and express our stories.

The National Art School, photographed at a Committee for Sydney event in September 2016.