While SMH art critic John McDonald continues to rabbit on about “scandalous” attacks on East Sydney’s National Art School I have yet to hear a peep about the real scandal in Sydney’s arts education — the end of art at the University of Western Sydney.
The art school at UWS used to be one of the best in the country. In the 1990s graduates were a parade of hot talent. The work was gritty, sometimes unpredictable, and bouncing with energy. It told of a place with few resources and a population greater than South Australia. Local and state government authorities responded to this energy, and in recent years have opened arts centres at at Campbelltown, Penrith, Blacktown, Parramatta and Fairfield. Later this year an expanded Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre will reopen as a major resource for the Liverpool region and beyond.
But while local government can make the link between creativity and economic prosperity, UWS is taking a different path. In recent years arts budgets were slashed in favour of commerce. Students sniffed the wind and started to look elsewhere. Enrolments fell. The drama program that nurtured David Wenham was first to go. Last year there was no intake of first year students in visual arts. This year students have been told to go to TAFE for two years. Most of the remaining teaching staff have taken voluntary redundancy.
As a result, those who would study art in greater Sydney have the choice between two university art schools in the extreme inner city (Sydney College of the Arts at Rozelle and College of Fine Arts at Paddington), or a bus ride to Wollongong. Sydney’s public transport is so exquisitely appalling that this places students without wheels at an enormous disadvantage.
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The media coverage of the dismantling of art education in the west has been minimal. If ever proof was needed of the myopic self-centred nature of the media then this is it. Ross Fitzgerald, father of a student at the former East Sydney Technical College (aka National Art School) has had several bleats in the Australian about the possible closure of his daughter’s institution, but nothing, no-one, gives a stuff about Western Sydney — except the people who live and work there. Who happen to be the majority.
Declaration of interest: Joanna Mendelssohn is an Associate Professor at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW and is on the Board of the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.