Are Australian universities creating good artists?

In the area where I was born and raised, there is one remaining independent art school. This is because of the restructuring of Australian art schools that happened almost thirty years ago, a process that saw most independent institutions affiliate themselves with the major universities. The mergers, part of a reform policy by federal education minister John Dawkins, aimed to heighten the ‘international competitiveness’ and ‘national economic development’ of the tertiary education sector, and came just after free education was abolished in 1989. The results were unforeseeable: no less than a restructuring of the art world itself. Fine arts funding is now measured competitively against science and technology. Emerging practitioners must now, almost by necessity, attain postgraduate scholarships to pursue a professional career. This means that much contemporary art is now produced in the arena of ‘creative research’ within universities, requiring it to meet research-based outcomes in established fields of study and to answer specific academic questions.

Debating the merits of this system may sound like a dingy, dry discussion. It is not. Nor is it necessarily anti-academic. It is a political conversation with material consequences, made all the more urgent by the current government’s attempted changes to university regulation and Australia Council funding. It’s about how the intellectual fabric of the art community has changed since being subsumed by university administrations. There is a fairly solid argument as to why artists should be outside the system: that is what makes a critique of that system possible. But we must also ask whether the university system itself is capable of producing quality, socially engaged artists. ‘I fear for the demise of art schools,’ says Louise Fowler-Smith, senior lecturer at UNSW Art and Design. ‘I fear that we won’t have art schools anymore where you go and make things.’

The demise of art schools. As someone who graduated from art school, and who now sees young artists going through a dramatically different system than the one I went through just five years ago, it is sobering at best and terrifying at worst to realise that during all my time in the academy, all my time working in galleries and supporting other emerging artists, I had been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking ‘Can art restructure the world?’ I should have been asking ‘How is the world restructuring art?’ Have the arts been corralled into universities to the point of reinventing their purpose? Yes, I believe. I’ve also come to think that this is a big part of why the Australian art world is so small: it’s because of the ways in which ideas, discourses and practices within the art world have followed the material shifts in tertiary education. The potential consequences of forcing the art world to align with the priorities of market-oriented universities are many: the strangulation of ideas and stifling of creativity, the subversion of art from its very mandate, the mis-education of the next generation of artists.

To examine these issues is to assess not only the impact of a neoliberal approach to education on art schools, but also its impact on art itself in Australia. These big-picture changes in arts education take us to the centre of our ideas about what universities do, and whether they should be the only source of tertiary education. Such discussions are particularly pertinent within the context of an increasingly deregulated higher education sector shaped by diverging private interests and investments. These changes have not only had a significant impact on how higher education plays out in Australia – the emergence of a culture of corporate managerialism, an increase in HECS fees, assaults on academic freedom and so on – they have also fixed the trajectory for the Liberal Party’s more recent attempts at deregulation.

These changes also lead us to another more direct question about cultural life in Australia: are universities producing quality artists?



Fowler-Smith experienced life as both a student and an educator before and after the sector amalgamations of the 1990s. When she started art school during the Whitlam years, there were fifteen students to a class, and each class ran for seven hours. All her art-making materials were provided, contact hours were high and the classes demanding, with plenty of one-on-one time available for teachers and students. Now, at the same institution, she teaches classes of twenty-four students for a mere three hours. The school in which she taught me as an undergraduate – the School of Painting – no longer exists.

Fowler-Smith studied at the City Art Institute in the 1970s. All her teachers were practising artists: none had PhDs, their offices were their studios and their emphasis was on art-making skills and conceptual development. She describes an industrious and creative learning environment in which making art was integrated with learning about it: ‘It was about making great artists.’ This was the dominant model for Australian art schools, as Professor Noel Frankham from the University of Tasmania explains in ‘Attitudes and Trends in Australian Art and Design Schools’: ‘staff numbers and funding were about double and student numbers half’ of the present level.

It is difficult to trace the jigsawed history of educational mergers: in art as in politics, we tend to talk about hardships overcome rather than fiascos. Some of the amalgamations were downright failures from the start, as with the University of New England and Northern Rivers CAE, whose forced unification was promptly dismantled in 1992. Not only was there conflict over which campuses should receive more funding, but according to a 1993 paper by Professor Grant Harman in Higher Education Quarterly, the missions, sizes and pedagogical orientations of the merged institutions resulted in a divorce of irreconcilable differences. The debacle was prophetic, but nothing was learned. Other mergers were cancelled, as with the Australian National University and Canberra CAE, which eventually transitioned into the University of Canberra. As for the City Art Institute, it morphed into the NSW Institute of the Arts, which in turn – following the 1989 federal legislation that removed the distinction between state-owned ‘colleges of advanced education’ and universities – morphed into the College of Fine Arts. Its eventual transformation from an art school into a faculty of the University of New South Wales occurred in 1990.

In its current incarnation as UNSW Art and Design, the school has experienced a significant reduction in the number and diversity of electives, with roughly six offered per semester. Likewise, ‘mobility courses’ and subjects involving offsite excursions and fieldtrips (like a particularly inspiring one I attended at the university’s art studio outside Broken Hill entitled ’Art and the Environment’) have been largely axed. Skills-based vocational learning has been de-emphasised. Undergraduate art degrees have assumed a more ‘generalist’ profile, with the expectation that specialisation will occur in postgraduate study. Contrary to the rhetoric of choice that has accompanied neoliberal changes to higher education, the selection and scope of classes available to students in practical terms has narrowed. The year 2016 will be the first that honours students in the Bachelor of Fine Arts receive neither a supervisor nor guaranteed studio space.

Similar changes in learning and teaching, as well as the resulting mindset of teachers and students, have been documented by others who have witnessed art schools’ integration into the higher education system: generic degrees prevail; funds, staff allocations and skill-based training dwindle; aversion to risk rises. Indeed, Professor Frankham says that art schools’ ‘enthusiastic embrace of academic research, especially research training, radically changed the nature of art and design education’. This is a detail in a broader ‘portrait of decline’ of tertiary education. According to Emeritus Professor R L Stanton at the University of New England:

[T]he Dawkins-inspired corporatisation and forced amalgamation of the universities with a variety of vocational institutions led to the disruption of many long-standing and well-tested university practices, and to the varying corruption of previous standards in teaching and student evaluation. With the regrettable connivance of many educationists, this led on to much damage to some previously very worthy institutions, and to the emergence of what in many cases was a new kind of compliant, politically correct, parody of what had formerly been regarded as a university.

The impact of the decline of art schools might not be so dire but for the fact that, distressingly, there is barely an art market in Australia – at least not one that allows many artists to generate a sustainable income. Dozens of commercial galleries of great repute (Breenspace, GrantPirrie, Gallery Barry Keldoulis, James Dorahy, Boutwell Draper, Harrison Galleries) have closed since the global financial crisis, and the artists they represent have been cut adrift from their buyers. For myriad historical reasons, for good or bad, a culture of patronage, of regularly purchasing contemporary art or paying to see performance art has simply never developed in this country beyond the upper middle class and the seriously rich. The newest big art fair, the Sydney Contemporary, is an attempt to jumpstart the market economy in the sector.

Without a base of ongoing buyers, the economic life of an Australian artist involves a collage of pub jobs, occasional commissions from arts organisations, sales from artist-run galleries and grant applications – but rarely buyers, patrons or philanthropists, as it might overseas, and rarely Centrelink payments, as it might have twenty years ago when welfare was easier to access. That leaves government cultural funding as a crumbling precipice on which artists jostle to perch themselves financially – though, as an emerging artist, I cannot say I have yet found a way to tick all the boxes of any major cultural funding program.

One overlooked effect of arts funding attrition, and of the contraction of the sector more broadly, is that the paid work that many creative practitioners use to earn their keep – say, administrative work for arts organisations, involving support and advocacy for other artists – is also disappearing, and the applicants for those jobs that remain are shockingly overqualified. How many other industries would hire a PhD graduate for event management, data entry or basic publicity?

As a consequence, arts practitioners at all stages of their careers are turning to postgraduate scholarships as their primary source of income. One artist I spoke to (who would prefer not to be named) with a firmly established practice over several decades, comprising regular international exhibitions, biennales and her work’s inclusion in the high school art curriculum, has recently enrolled in a scholarship-supported postgraduate course to stabilise the dwindling financial streams from her art practice. Another artist I spoke to, who graduated with honours near the top of her cohort, found herself unable financially to sustain a career three years later, despite a series of well-received artistic projects and curatorial appointments. It is welfare-by-scholarship, and when programs like the Australia Council’s ArtStart – aimed specifically at supporting emerging artists to invest in the business aspects of career development – are also cut, artists are pushed back into the academy.

If much contemporary art seems dry, over-theorised and, frankly, pointless, it is not the result of some innate artistic wankiness. It’s the result of a pedagogical system that necessitates a particular language and type of art. It’s the result of the fact that, in Australia, being inside the university system is increasingly the most sustainable way to be a practising artist. This affects the kind of art being produced, its intended audience, its mode of presentation and whether it even wants to be understood. According to Fowler-Smith, Australian Postgraduate Awards (APAs) encourage ‘a certain type of artist. You’re not going to get an APA if you want to make beautiful landscapes.’ Painting is out; installation art is in.

The reliance on postgraduate funding affects the very language used in exhibition catalogues and artists’ statements: it is the primary reason for the puffy, jargony ‘artspeak’ so widely derided outside the art world – ‘the juxtaposition of the paradigm of the technopoly with the human …’ – words that are designed to obfuscate and exclude, rather than to illuminate.

Does it really make sense to measure contemporary art against research outputs in the mining and engineering sectors? Writing in the Australian Universities’ Review, Jenny Wilson argues that ‘academics in artistic disciplines, who struggled to adapt to a culture and workload expectations different from their previous, predominantly teaching based, employment, continue to see their research under-valued within the established evaluation framework. Despite a late 1990s Australian government funded inquiry, many of the inequities remain.’ The impetus for art-making now follows funding requirements rather than lateral-thinking and problem-solving through artistic means.

In the university model, I was told repeatedly as an undergraduate that ‘the artist is like a scientist’. It is for this reason that I was asked to explain my choice of a colour palette, composition or material, and to provide a rationale for how an underlying concept was made manifest by those decisions. My fellow students and I were discouraged from making decisions based on easy emotion or aesthetic preference. Instead, we were taught to follow a logical path to its full extent – to solve a problem using conceptual and abstract thinking.

I did, of course, learn much from this approach, and I broadly agree with it. I learnt how to conceptualise, and I’ve applied that skill in my current job as a PhD researcher and writer. I’ve also come to believe that this emphasis on conceptual thinking – making art that comes from ideas as opposed to instinct – is both the strength and weakness of art schools. A problem arises when concept is pitted against aesthetics, skill and feeling; when artists cannot make a living either from the market or from funding opportunities; when the APA becomes the main form of artistic subsidy, and art education becomes an escalator to itself – a world unto itself, disinterested in the broader world or in expanding its audience, a world where artists are making works that can only be interpreted by other postgraduate artists and theorists. A problem arises when this becomes the dominant form of organisation within the art world. It stops us from asking the question: how are we going to break contemporary art into the Australian mainstream?

In all these ways, the reliance on APAs as arts grants and as welfare-by-scholarship has artistic implications. As universities have institutionalised the arts, they have also institutionalised creativity itself. Now the soft, plush crib of university buffers artists way into their twenties and thirties. The apprenticeship never ends. Receiving an APA is conflated with being a practising artist. The preferences of the Australian Research Council (currently science-based projects) have a warping effect on the types of art being produced by creative practitioners inside the university system. Personal art is discouraged in favour of works that hit the zeitgeist, and the audience for art is presumed to be others in the academy. Beyond ‘commercially viable’ and ‘culturally important’, a third category of art opens up: ‘academically rationalised’. The true art becomes playing that institutional game. The best art coming out of this part of the art world has a precise quality to it whereby rich ideas are communicated with exactitude; the worst is clinical and inhuman. To make a career out of creativity, one must become isolated from the general public. In this model, one cannot orient one’s own professional art practice if one’s sole understanding of being an artist is, in fact, being an art student.

A similar trajectory can be traced in the field of creative writing, in which APAs are a vital yet unacknowledged source of welfare for many young writers, particularly poets. In combining a creative body of work with a written thesis, the creative doctorate brings non-traditional projects inside recognised arenas of research. The academic discipline of creative writing has grown from almost no enrolments or completions in the early 1990s, to being offered at most major institutions today.

But establishing creative fields as academic arenas is fraught. Even the most basic issue of common processes, practices and standards in the examination of creative doctoral theses is still in contention: how to assess uncertainty and subjectivity? How to grade in a way that takes into account interpretation and taste? Is creative writing itself a research method? Does research in the arts even exist? Or is the idea of ‘practice-based research’ a necessary result of jamming artists into an ill-fitting neoliberal machine? These are the questions art theorists have been asking ever since art moved into the university. They cut to the core of what art is and what it is for, and there are no easy answers. From arts education researchers in the UK to the USA to Denmark, there is no consensus on the future of arts inside sandstone walls.

One filmmaker I spoke with is writing her next film as part of a creative doctorate. Her APA is functioning as a de facto screenwriting grant, allowing her to create something that the free market could never produce – a vital function the APA can and should play. Incorporating all these creative fields into the academy was intended, in a way, to validate them. But what if it has actually nullified them, sequestering them away from a broader audience? Though they appear to protect artists from the brutality of the market, universities are in reality part of that market, and their funding parameters and research priorities reflect market-based concerns. The attempt to squeeze something as amorphous as a video art project or a hybrid cine-poetry film into the research criteria of the academy is the consequence of twenty-five years of neoliberal government policy.

I am not for one moment trying to drive an anti-intellectual argument. As a researcher in film studies, I’m involved in producing, editing and reviewing scholarship for peer-reviewed publications. It is a world that allows for deep thought and innovation, and is one which I admire and respect. There is an important place in the art world for academic artists. But is academia the best foundation for the Australian art community? For an article in Vulture in May this year, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz articulates the problem in relation to art criticism: ‘In the art world, two or three generations of critics were all but lost to academia or having the subjectivity and original opinion scared out of them, making them refrain from writing clearly, with voice, judgment, something personal.’

The loss of that ‘something personal’ – that feeling element of art – has been similarly lamented by Bill Henson, doubtless one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists. Writing in The Monthly in September 2014, Henson argues that ‘the bankruptcy of much contemporary art is due in some measure to the fact that we have forgotten ourselves and we have forgotten that meaning comes from feeling – not the other way around.’ There is little space for this feeling aspect of art in the academy, and yet it is also this inherent feeling aspect that has made art so vulnerable to being gutted.



Postgraduate education doubtless influences the kind of artist you become and the types of work you make. Academia is a space for delineating theoretical ground and advancing an argument. Is there space in the academy to represent the power of ‘I do not know’? Is there space for the kinds of works that pose more questions than they answer, that are suggestive rather than conclusive? Some of the most engaging exhibitions I’ve seen in the last several years are by Australian artists producing work not in the academy but in different global residencies. Video art duo SODA_JERKS’s Dark Matter Cycle at UTS Gallery in 2013 and Angelica Mesiti’s Citizens Band at the Art Gallery of NSW were both works that were open-ended and expressive, simple but not simplistic. These artists found ways to engage broad audiences with a balance of conceptual depth, far-reaching intelligence, technical accomplishment and aesthetic sophistication. Most of all, they were passionate works that produced feeling in me as a viewer: they were works that, themselves, created something in and of themselves and in me.

The late novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace said that good writing helps readers ‘to become less alone inside’. I think the same is true of art. Conceptual art – art that comes from ideas as opposed to instinct – need not contradict that notion. Imagine an art community not constrained by the rules of the academy, whose heart is not scholarships, competitions and jargon. What might this new art world look like? What might its guiding intelligence sound like? Would it be more linked to the branded galleries of the commercial sector, as in the world’s major art centres? Or might artist-run spaces be validated as galleries to aspire to rather than to emerge from? What kind of things might be discussed at artists’ talks? What language would be used? How would artists’ and curators’ statements read?

There are ways for universities to support the arts without putting artistic ‘output’ on the same ledger as scientific research – for example, providing fellowships in the form of studio residencies, curating public talks and programs by art graduates, and harnessing philanthropic support toward the provision of gallery space. The abundance of blockbuster shows at major museums, the success of new spaces like Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art and Sydney’s White Rabbit gallery, the mainstreaming of performance art such as Kaldor Public Art Projects’ 13 Rooms and Marina Abramovic: In Residence shows that the public can be engaged by outward-looking art that wants to be engaged with. At those shows, I glanced around the room and saw audiences from all walks of life, smiling, enraptured. Art that looks forever inward risks reinforcing its own irrelevance in an increasingly hostile political environment. By way of an alternative, we might look to the words of Art Gallery of South Australia Director Nick Mitzevich, curator of Dark Heart: 2014 Adelaide Biennale, which was met with record attendance and critical acclaim. Mitzevich offered the following rationale for the show: ‘I am after an inherently emotional and immersive exhibition … My focus is on assembling an exhibition that connects with the viewer and provides a moving experience.’ To participate in something greater than ourselves, to engage with ideas, to feel: these are the reasons we turn to art.


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Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and researcher, published in Guardian Australia, The Toast, Indiewire, Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Overland, Meanjin and others. She is a contributing editor to Metro and the author of Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem (Platform Papers, 2013).

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