NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Exiles on mainstreet: The rise of the alternative art school and what it means for universities

By Professor David Cross — School of the Damned is not the type of anodyne name we usually associate with international art schools. With faintly Hammer House of Horror overtones, this alternative educational programme was founded in 2014 by a group of UK-based students “as a reaction to the increasing financialisation of higher education”.[i]

As described by artist and researcher Sophia Kosmaoglou, School of the Damned is a free, artist-led postgraduate art course run by and for its students. “The school is decentralised and seeks to include and unify artists across the UK with a commitment to running crits and events outside London while making use of students’ networks”. The group functions in many ways like a regular tertiary art provider meeting once a month for the core programme, yet unlike the stratified and hierarchical university model, students at the school undertake all of the roles themselves from administrator, promoter, assessor and student. [ii] 

School of the Damned is one of 86 alternative art schools listed in Kosmaoglou’s fascinating archive of international independent creative study programmes. Common to all of these art schools, free schools, projects, support networks and what she calls “vanguards of the alternative education movement”, is an opposition to the pedagogical structures and financial costs of the traditional university art school model. [iii] A cursory glance through the guiding principles of these programmes highlights a shared set of concerns not simply around the huge costs associated with undergraduate and postgraduate study, but around diminishing studio time, a focus on rubric-based learning over the judgement of academics, and an increasingly stultifying culture of managerialism.

While the majority of the programmes Kosmaoglou lists are in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, it seems salient to examine this phenomenon in relation to the Australian higher education sector. Many, if not all of the underlying causes of a flourishing alternative education sector in the northern hemisphere, could be seen to be nascent in Australia and New Zealand where increasing costs, programme cuts framed as efficiencies and instrumentalised learning strategies have radically recast “the art school experience”.

This issue of NITRO seeks to consider the emergence or increasing viability of alternative education approaches and the challenges these models pose for university creative arts providers. As the call out for contributions to this issue highlighted, most academics in the tertiary system at some time have pondered what an ideal art or creative arts school might look like and how it could be made to work outside the system. But as with most shark tank speculation, it rarely has made it past a back of the envelope discourse, always seeming to  run aground on the rocky waters of financial viability. Yet has the inelegant combination of COVID-19, regressive governmental policy and changing university priorities, finally brought about the necessary preconditions for alternative programmes not only to blossom but to be sustainable over the medium to long term? Framed another way has the systemic closure or marked reduction of assorted tertiary creative arts programmes across Australia over the past few years signalled to both prospective students and to new private/alternative providers that the university sector as a whole is less than fully committed to maintaining the creative arts as a key fulcrum of its offerings? Might the conditions be right for creative arts education to be a flourishing exile from main street?

Richard Sennett is a key figure in questioning the pedagogical approaches of tertiary creative arts education. In his book The Craftsman he demonstrates how the pressure of neoliberal market principles such as competition and the pursuit of profit erodes an important aspect of our daily labour: “the desire to do a job well for its own sake”. [iv] Sennett outlines that universities in seeking to produce workers for the new economy prioritise endogenous skills. These he suggests are skills that are inside you, that you can take anywhere, yet which are are not context dependent, they’re not dialogic, they don’t react to other people. [v]

It is precisely this gap between teaching endogenous and socially-mediated or dialogic skills that curator and writer Nato Thompson has sought to fill with his new education programme The Alternative Art School. Promoted with the edict that “this is not your typical school”, TAAS  based in the United States is at the same time an international programme utilising the internet in his words “to collapse geographical space, creating classrooms with artists on different continents in real-time”. The prospectus claims to offer students a structured and intimate global extension of their local embodied art practice, and to this end TAAS employs a roster of leading international artists and curators (described on the website as “dreamers, and do-ers”) with students paying fees based on individual masterclasses. Participants do not secure a qualification as such, but instead a kind of high end mentoring/networking opportunity with artists and thinkers who could be seen to have international profiles. “People aren’t going [to the Alternative Art School] to get a degree” suggests Thompson, “they’re interested in a community and some really thought-provoking space for research, and you don’t need accreditation for that.”[vi] Because the school is aimed at postgraduate audiences, TAAS has far lower overheads than a traditional creative arts programme with no buildings, workshops or studios to resource.

Where this absence of facilities could be seen as a significant shortcoming, Thompson instead prefaces the advantages of this model, the collapsing of geographic boundaries, the affordability of working with leading global figures and interestingly, a focus on dialogical engagement and community. In claiming to be ambivalent about how to teach students to make better art and instead focusing on the skills required to make a better society, TAAS has adopted what might be called a progressive, if partisan, position on the role and purpose of arts education.

The early success of a model which prefaces the idea that “rather than throwing a student out into the world hoping that the global landscape of business and art galleries takes them on, we want to equip them with the tools to consider and produce alternatives”, suggests that there is clearly a market for a different approach to creative arts study. One might suggest that art is better suited to such a globally dispersed online model than say music or performing arts where liveness to varying degrees is key. Yet the spatial modalities of COVID have to a degree challenged these realities. Forced to undertake study via zoom or at best a blended zoom and on-campus mode, students are exposed to the reality that their geographic location could in fact be anywhere. While this shift may be temporary, it has opened the door to a reconsideration of where you can study and with whom. TAAS in creating a model where you can study with an artist such as Janine Antoni or Trevor Paglan for as little as 1500 US dollars while building an international network of peers is clearly a provocative shot across the bow for Australian tertiary providers. At a time when our sector is struggling and international mobility has been almost completely curtailed, will these promises of virtual global dialogue and connectivity lure students away from local institutions, or relatedly, will they lead to equivalent slightly nuanced versions starting up in our own backyard? What is clear is that the pre-conditions for new ways of thinking are especially ripe and tertiary providers will need to take seriously both the causes for the growth of alternative models and the structures that empower students to believe that the bright future of art education is a School of the Damned.

In this edition of NiTRO:

Professor David Cross (Deakin) and Dr Maddie Leach (University of Gothenburg) discuss the differences between the Swedish and Australasian art school models

Fiona Lee (Deakin) explores the arguments surrounding “the alternative art school” and the international Our Day Will Come (ODWC) project

Dr Chris Carter (USQ) and Associate Professor Beata Batorowicz (USQ) argue the need for tertiary arts education to move from children’s education pedagogy to adult learner andragogy approach

Associate Professor Kim Cunio (ANU) shares his perspectives of The Orpheus Institute in Belgium and explores learnings for Australia

Dr Nicole Canham (Monash) argues for a change in learning settings from competition to compassion to help address the challenges faced by music students and graduates

Dr Eileen Siddins (JCU) shares her recent doctoral research highlighting the need for institutional change to support better student wellbeing

DDCA Vice President Professor Cat Hope (Monash) issues a call for an Australian Academy for Creative Arts, a topic which will be discussed at the upcoming DDCA Forum on 29 October 2021.


[i] See, accessed 28/9/21

[ii] See Kosmaoglou, S, ALTERNATIVE (ART) SCHOOLS & NETWORKS accessed 28/9/21

[iii] ibid

[iv] See Gielen, P and van Heusden, B, A Plea for Communalist Teaching: An Interview with Richard Sennett in, Gielen, P and  De Bruyne, P (eds) Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm- Realism Versus Cynicism, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2012, p34

[v] Ibid, p41

[vi] Cascone, S, ‘Curator Nato Thompson’s Alternative Art School Is Kicking Off Classes With A-List Artist Instructors for a Fraction of the Price of an MFA’ Artnet, accessed September 19

David Cross is an artist, writer and curator based in Melbourne. Working across performance, installation, video and photography, Cross explores the relationship between pleasure, intimacy and the phobic in his works, and often incorporates participation by linking performance art with object-based environments. As a curator Cross has produced a number of temporary public projects, including One Day Sculpture (with Claire Doherty) across New Zealand in 2008-09, and Iteration: Again in Tasmania in 2011.He recently co-founded the research initiative Public Art Commission (PAC) at Deakin University which is devoted to the commissioning and scholarship of temporary public art. Recent PAC projects co-developed with Cameron Bishop include, Treatment with Melbourne Water and City of Wyndham (2015-17), Venetian Blind with European Cultural Centre, Venice (2019), and Six Moments in Kingston for the City of Kingston (2019). Cross is currently Professor of Visual Arts and Co-Director of PAC at Deakin University, Melbourne.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Professor Cat Hope — I am always glad to hear a representative from the Australian Academy for the Humanities (AAH) in the media, speaking so articulately for better support of the humanities in higher education and demanding recognition of the humanities as key to a healthy society.

Reflecting upon the current state of higher education in the arts, the pre-COVID lyrics from Inertia Creeps, a song by Massive Attack in 1998, come to mind. As the songwriter, Robert “3D” Del Naja, explained of the lyrics, “It’s about being in a situation but knowing you should be out of it, but you’re too fucking lazy or weak to leave”. The inertia of online learning has been “creeping up slowly” on creative arts programs for more than 20 years; indeed, the University of Phoenix Online offered the first online degree program as early as 1989.

This text is an edited transcript of an interview between Swedish-based academic and artist Maddie Leach and David Cross. It specifically examines differences between the Swedish and Australasian art school models and questions whether the pre-conditions exist in Scandinavia more broadly for alternative education models to flourish at the expense of the current university-based system.

One of the noticeable disconnects between creative arts higher education and industry is that we train many more artists than our sector can support. For our graduates, this situation is often experienced as a personal failure … Recent research on musicians’ mental health and well-being tells us that training and industry cultures can be detrimental to musicians’ health both during their studies and after graduation. We might have continued to gloss over these limitations were it not for COVID, which has highlighted how unworkable many people’s creatives lives became without the option to work as normal.

In Australia we train artistic Higher Degree students in the creative arts – it is one of the things we do best … As part of this process, we sometimes work with critical theory, applying it to the making of creative works. The exegesis which underpins this process offers the chance to be both convergent and divergent at the same time. The Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium offers a compelling example of an approach to research and post graduate study in music practice.

“What is to be done?” is a provocative demand employed by a number of diverse actors to call for change. Vladimir Lenin’s political pamphlet (1901), Barry Jones, our own former politician on the state of modernity (1982), and the Russian art collective Chto Delat, with a mission to combine political theory, art and activism are a small smattering of manifestos calling for change.

As the landscape of higher education continues to shift in response to COVID-19, alternate art schools have become a competitive option for prospective university students. Comparisons between alternate art schools and Australian university degrees may focus on economic and structural differences, yet another key consideration necessitates that education systems support and protect students’ wellbeing.