NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

An Art School of the 21st Century

By Steven Alderton — In 2022, the National Art School in Sydney will celebrate 100 years on the site of the former Darlinghurst Gaol, where the tall, convict-built stone walls date from 1822 and the first prisoners arrived in 1841.

Looking back at the history of NAS, one of our greatest challenges has been to preserve our independence and protect our successful studio-based teaching model. At times the school had to battle for its very survival.

But 2019 was a turning point. Last February, NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin announced the school’s new 45-year lease on the gaol site, and that NAS was now a State Significant Organisation (equivalent to the Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks) with an ongoing funding model. This delivered the long term stability we have pursued for so long, to support and develop our unique core academic program.

It was 1922 when Sydney Technical College moved into the old sandstone buildings, including the art department that would eventually take over the whole site, but the gaol’s artistic past goes back much further.

NAS Open Day 2019. Photo: Peter Morgan

NAS Open Day 2019. Photo: Peter Morgan

The beautiful stained-glass windows in the chapel, which date from 1873, were made by notorious prisoner Henry Louis Bertrand. Dubbed the “Demon Dentist of Wynyard Square”, his hanging sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in Darlinghurst Gaol after he murdered the husband of the woman he was involved with.

Educated in art and music, Bertrand set up an artist studio in his cell in E Wing, where today ceramics, painting, sculpture and art history and theory are taught. NAS’s new café, due to open in March, is named Two Emus after an intricate ivory artwork carved by Bertrand.

In 1972, NAS celebrated 50 years at the gaol, but two years later, the school was nearly extinguished. The technical college’s division of fine arts was moved offsite in 1974, to the Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education, which would become the University of NSW’s College of Fine Arts. But a small group of dedicated and determined art lecturers remained onsite at the gaol, and slowly rebuilt the original school.

Some things will never change at NAS – we believe traditional skills and theory are still a vital foundation for artists, and nothing replaces hands-on time with experienced, talented teachers and working hard in the studio. Our Bachelor of Fine Art students all take drawing and art history and theory classes for the three years of their degree, no matter what discipline they have chosen, from sculpture to ceramics to print making.

We also value our independent academic board, which dictates its own terms and direction, always with the studio-based teaching model at its core, so our students graduate with outstanding art-making skills to convey their contemporary ideas, underpinned by a deep theoretical understanding.

What has changed is our focus on giving students real-life experience of 21st Century arts activity. We curate and present an innovative program of landmark exhibitions each year and partner with key arts and culture platforms, including Sydney Festival, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Vivid. Opening in March, NAS is the new exhibition partner for NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney.

NAS has always played an active part in the art industry, with alumni consistently emerging as leading figures in Australia’s art world, but we are now playing a more proactive role. For the past two years we have participated in the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair at Carriageworks, contextualising the outstanding work of our recent graduates with some of the most successful galleries from around Australia and the Asia Pacific. This gives our emerging artists invaluable experience in the commercial world, enabling them to achieve success in Australia and globally.

NAS’s new stability also allows us to invest in expanding and modernising our studios and facilities, and to increase support for those who work here. Last year we launched our Academic Staff Development Grant, encouraging our lecturers to pursue the presentation of professional projects such as exhibitions and writing outside their work at NAS.

NAS continues to support and develop rigorous research through our teaching staff and students, with a growing output and hosting critical industry forums, such as The Australian Object: Material Culture in Context Symposium in 2019, presented with Sydney University’s Power Institute.

We are also strengthening our commitment to drawing as an art practice. In 2019 we re-established the Dobell Drawing Prize, hosted in the NAS Gallery for the first time and judged by Ben Quilty, and the school received a $500,000 donation from the Margaret Olley Trust. Later this year we will open a new gallery dedicated to drawing.

One of the big challenges for Australian cultural institutions for the 2020s and beyond is to examine where art and culture currently reside, who has access and who does not, and to push beyond the unseen boundaries.

On the academic side, we are building our Indigenous arts program, and working to strengthen our relationships with Aboriginal communities. We also highly value our place in the local community, forging strong links and inviting participation. Last year we ran a successful HIV Art Related Program in collaboration with the South East Sydney Local Health District, working with HIV positive participants to make and exhibit art, and we are about to host our first gaol history tour for deaf visitors with an AUSLAN translator.

Our aim is to broaden our reach to allow more people to participate in art making, rather than passively consuming art. We believe art and creativity are vital for the holistic wellbeing of people, communities and social cohesion as a nation.

As Australians watched their country burn, it was notable that many of the bushfire fundraisers were organised and presented by artists and performers. In February NAS hosted the HOME bushfire art auction fundraiser, with work donated by more than 60 acclaimed artists, from Tony Albert to Del Kathryn Barton. The event raised more than $220,000.

Our aim for the next century is twofold – to continue to deliver, extend and improve our core academic program, while reaching far beyond the usual higher education boundaries to offer art for everyone, no matter what your age, background, interests or economic situation.

We are also determined to build our place in the global arts community, particularly in the Asia Pacific, developing partnerships and collaborations across the region, and encouraging students from diverse cultural backgrounds to join us.

For the Darlinghurst Gaol’s first 100 years, it was a brutal place of internment, hangings and breaking the human spirit; then followed 100 years of burgeoning creative activity and thought at the art school. Now we look to the next 100 years of expansion and inspiration, forging new connections at home and overseas, and leading Australia’s professional visual arts practice as a dynamic 21st Century art school built on a century of tradition.


Steven Alderton has been the Director and CEO of the National Art School since 2017. He has worked as a curator, arts administrator and director at key cultural institutions including the Australian Museum, Casula Powerhouse Art Centre and Lismore Regional Gallery. He has worked with some of Australia’s most notable artists including Margaret Olley, Ricky Swallow, Nicholas Harding, Janet Laurence and Tracey Moffatt, and was instrumental in setting up the Margaret Olley Art Centre at Tweed Regional Gallery. He also continues his art practice as a painter.

More from this issue

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