The fight to save Sydney’s National Art School is becoming desperate. Faced with a choice of amalgamation with the University of NSW’s College of Fine Art or oblivion, NAS lecturers, students and famous alumni are bravely fighting for a third option – independence.
In Monday’s Oz, Ross Fitzgerald claimed that the education of artists does not need to include the awarding of degrees. “It is essential that the National Art School remain independent. It must not be attached to a university. You do not need a degree to be a sculptor or painter,” said famous friend Margaret Olley.
Fitzgerald further claimed a Thatcherite model of amalgamations has not worked in Australia, therefore NAS should remain independent. Although this argument seems credible, like many of the claims made by NAS supporters, it is based on a contradictory and self serving line of reasoning that misrepresents the facts and distorts the truth.
Claims that NAS’s teaching method is unique are incorrect – the atelier style is found in both private and public art schools – Julian Ashton and the Sydney Gallery School both have comparable teaching methods. Many of its “famous alumni” didn’t actually attend the school – Olley was educated in Paris at Le Grande Chaumière, John Olsen famously quit NAS in disgust to attend Ashton.
Although a degree may not be necessary to be an artist, NAS has been happily awarding them since the mid-90s. Most ironic of all is that COFA has more claim to the tradition and name of the “National Art School” than NAS does. In 1975, NAS and Alexander Mackie Teachers College were amalgamated. In 1982 the college became City Art Institute before becoming COFA in 1990. What’s more, COFA graduates have taught at NAS, further undermining its so-called uniqueness. NAS’s claims to its heritage are based on little more than real estate and teaching style.
The pity of this whole debate is that many in the wider art community, including COFA graduates like this writer, would be happy to see NAS continue, but instead of uniting the art community behind a banner of inclusiveness, NAS has chosen to promote distortions and half truths. This strategy may well prove to be the art school’s undoing.