By Professor Paul Gough
I’m back in the UK, back here after a really memorable and innovative time at RMIT University; six deeply enjoyable and action-filled years as head of a college crammed with all the creative industries including the oldest School of Art in Australia, with its exquisite studio-based activities in gold and silversmithing, and innovative research and galleries that stand comparison with anything on the global stage.
Back to Blighty, not quite as benighted as some might fear; indeed rather combative, even upbeat and generating some inspiring “underground” arts; just listen to anything on BBC Introducing to hear “alternative” regional music that speaks to the concerns of the day. Regional cities like Hull and Stoke-on-Trent are seizing the Indy opportunities through a bold maker culture, pop-up pavilions, and a self-help aesthetic that eschews the big arts labels.
Yet, returning home to England I can still see the raw archaeology of the Global Financial Crisis a decade ago and how it created deep schisms in the landscape of higher and vocational education here and in Europe. The cultural landscape was shaken; jagged chasms opened up overnight; geographies were torn asunder.
By comparison, Australia saw only hairline cracks. In the UK art schools a gritty realism seems to have prevailed; people tightened their belts; they had to become truly agile, fleet footed, more ready to initiate change, find new ways of working, although many quite rightly pushed back at the wicked political opportunism that dictated a decade of austerity.
Walking around the studios this week, talking to my new students in their workspaces, I am immediately taken by the intensity of activity, the packed libraries, every studio occupied by students seizing the moment, maximising on their investment, as if time were running out. Despite the energy, the exuberance, and the feverish creativity there is though a downside. My excellent Student’s Union (SU) sabbaticals warn against a culture of over-work, of over expectation, because there are serious consequences: a real and apparent struggle with health and well-being that afflicts so many students nationally.
So, as we open our beautifully designed 300 study rooms in the Halls of Residence unfolding opposite my office, the SU remind me that this could in fact fuel and heighten the energy levels; by being so close to their studio we might find we are unwittingly feeding the culture of overwork, bringing exhaustion, anxiety and impacting their well-being.
It’s not quite what I expected to hear. It’s made me think again of what, as educators, we expect from our students and even more so what we expect from “the studio” as a sacred site of study. In the past six years I should have tried harder to raise the debate about the very nature of “studio”: what is it actually for, why has the territorial debate about “my space” dictated the way we teach, instruct, and propel our graduates with such expectations into the world. Given the pressures of space and of graduate expectations, even of entitlement, I think it’s the big debate we need to have. It’s not that we’re short of innovative thinkers.
One of the early directors of Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) was also the lead figure in a complex of studios that I once rented in the UK. Rather radically she raised this issue of “studio”, that precious cube of special space full of settees and cigarettes, kettles and canvases. “Why are they always empty?” she asked, knowing full well that the occupants were busy out earning a crust in order to pay for the very space they hadn’t time to occupy. Having a studio seemed a little like renewing annual membership of a gym you knew you’d rarely visit, seeing it as a surrogate form of life insurance. Instead she offered ideas of timesharing, of rotation, of project spaces, and then she devised an Associates scheme which offered a modest but well-designed place, more like a well-equipped library, a repository of ideas that could be genuinely shared by a loose collective of artists whose work might be screen- or time-based, who needed moments of rich discourse rather than a creative closet behind a padlocked door.
How many of us could confront that significant shift in the way we divvy up the terrain in our huge buildings? And from what I saw across Australian universities I think they are mostly huge, with wide corridors and lofty ceilings. But the very concept of “studio” was never contested; looking back, it was a failing not to really engage in the debate. I’d been told over and over again by insightful colleagues at the many subject associations I addressed that it had been wrestled with too many times before, an old bone well chewed, best lobbed in the long grass. Except, the grass is now charred by fire: and the brittle bone is still there. So, a final question from the far north: “Are we yet ready for the debate?”
PS As I depart the awesome area of Australian arts, I’d like to thank all of you in the HE and VE sector who made me feel so welcome; to all at DDCA and ACUADS for being such an inspirational environment, and to NiTRO in particular for providing such a positive platform for the active exchange of ideas.
Painter, author and broadcaster, Paul Gough was Pro Vice-Chancellor at RMIT University, 2013-2019. In January 2020 he became Principal and Vice-Chancellor at Arts University Bournemouth, UK.