NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Scandinavian Art Education: David Cross Interviews Maddie Leach

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.

By Professor David Cross and Maddie Leach 

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. Leach, who trained as a sculptor at ILAM School of Art in Christchurch has extensive experience in developing pan-disciplinary art programmes firstly, at Massey University New Zealand, and more recently as Head of Fine Art at HDK Valand Academy in Gothenburg.  

David Cross: You began your academic career in New Zealand/Aotearoa before taking up an appointment at Valand Academy at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, six years ago.  How might you, in your own words, characterize what an art school looks like within a Swedish context and how it might be different from an Australasian model?

The difficulty of securing a place in a Swedish art school, is interesting as it may be one of the few factors that could lead to the growth of alternative educational models here like School of the Damned or Nato Thompsons Alternative Art School in the US. For example, in our BFA program at Valand, it isn’t unusual for around 500 people to apply for 16 spaces.

Maddie Leach: I think the main difference that I instantly noticed was the reduced number of students. This can be observed across Scandinavia, not just Sweden, where there’s much stronger regulation on the number of people accepted into art schools, both at BA level and MA level. Coming from New Zealand where, at the time, we were working with cohorts of about 30 to 35 students in each year group, at Valand in 2016 there were year groups in the BA and MA programmes of around 10-12 students. In total, there may be as few as 50 to 60 graduates produced from BFA programmes each year across Sweden. At Valand, this bespoke economy of scale was also noticeably determined by a sense of physical “real estate”. We only had so many individual studio spaces in the building, which meant there was a fixed number of students accepted – because we didn’t have enough studios to accommodate more enrolments. It was a very static equation, you could say. 

David: How did this compare to your own teaching and art school experiences in New Zealand?

Maddie: The model of the individual studio was very different to my experience of studio spaces at art schools in New Zealand.  Even when I was at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch in the early 1990s, we always had a shared studio model. Whereas at Valand, you would walk along corridors with a series of large individuated rooms, each of which had a door with a padlock on it. This conception of the individual studio also determined aspects of the teaching process – in which a lecturer might see a maximum of seven students a day for individual tutorials. It might seem luxurious within a southern hemisphere context, but each one-to-one tutorial was always an hour, never less than that. It was a qualitative idea strongly held in the Valand student-teacher psychology.

David: You are painting a picture of consistency, or at least a stable system within Swedish art school education, where the changes that we’re currently experiencing in Australia (increasing fees, ‘efficiencies in class numbers and studio hours) feels like we’re on this constant sort of a cost management treadmill.  And it doesn’t feel like Sweden has gone through that process. The idea again of one-hour tutorials consistently hasn’t changed. The studio model hasn’t changed. The No fees policy is still sacrosanct. Is this a fair characterisation?

Maddie: It would depend who you speak with. I have Swedish colleagues who would observe that there has been a lot of change, and at Valand we have made some significant departures from the situation I describe above. It would also depend on which of the five major art schools we are talking about. However, it is true to say that Swedish students and students from the European Union are not charged fees for their education. They do have access to student loans to help support themselves while they’re studying, so there is some debt involved for many. But certainly, compared to Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the luxury of the free education system here is something which students may not fully recognise if they haven’t experienced other contexts.

Before we fully orient ourselves towards socially engaged practice, performative and dematerialised forms of “creative production”, the question of returning to, or reinventing, our physical encounters with materials and built spaces remains in front of us.

There are two other important contexts to consider in terms of the differences between Australasia and Scandinavia. One relates to a building boom in which a number of art schools here have either just completed, or are in the process of commissioning, purpose-built signature buildings.  As you have noted, it feels like something of an architectural arms race towards the most “contemporary” building. A second key difference relates to the large discrepancy between the number of applicants to fine art degree programmes and the number of students we actually accept.

On the first point, there’s been an interesting discussion in Scandinavia in relation to new builds for art schools. For example, there was a new art school built in Bergen in Norway and a significant renovation of an old factory space for KHIO in Oslo. HDK-Valand Academy of Art and Design, where I work, is currently in the process of finalising the design for a new building that we will move into in 2026. Malmö Art Academy has also just moved to a newly renovated building. This means there has been quite a lot of discussion around what the philosophy and the ethos is behind the organization of these buildings, and how teaching and learning happens within them. In a nutshell, there has been a significant critique towards shiny glass buildings with atriums and “highly flexible” learning spaces. There has been a lament, perhaps almost a romanticism, for the less glamourous but functional spaces of the old style of art academy in Scandinavia. I think many people would agree there were ways of teaching in those older models that we do not wish to return to, especially cult-of-personality “Professor as guru” scenarios – that’s a good thing to have moved beyond. But many also see the zeal for multipurpose spaces as a new  orthodoxy – in which open-plan designs create a sense of surveillance of workspaces, the sensation that there’s nowhere to be on your own in a concentrated sense, and you’re endlessly moving students around from space to space.

The second point, around the difficulty of securing a place in a Swedish art school, is interesting as it may be one of the few factors that could lead to the growth of alternative educational models here like School of the Damned or Nato Thompsons Alternative Art School in the US. For example, in our BFA program at Valand, it isn’t unusual for around 500 people to apply for 16 spaces. That figure would be relatively common as a ratio across other art schools in Sweden, forcing prospective students to apply to multiple art schools with the hope of getting into one. You sometimes hear students saying “I applied three times and on the fourth time I got accepted!”.

However, it should be noted that there is also a very established and well-regarded system of preparatory schools and “folkhögskola” in Sweden, which students often attend for anywhere from six months to two years to ready themselves for tertiary level study. This is one of the notable features of the education system here, that it offers multiple entry and exit points.

David: 500 into 16 is not  generous set of numbers. Does the issue of exclusivity potentially create the preconditions around which alternative art education models might begin to flourish in Sweden?

Maddie: Yes. For example, at Valand, part of its vision statement is to “broaden participation” and to reflect the diversity of contemporary Swedish society. But this is rea­­lly difficult to achieve when you have a system with highly limited entry numbers. It means we are on a really steep uphill path trying to achieve this widening of access. The fact that there are only 16 students we enrol, no matter how you look at it, inherently limits the aspiration to achieve a diverse demographic mix.

David: But I am curious about the degree to which there have been alternative models of education, whether it’s in art or other creative art areas that have sprung up separately to these more governmental instrumentalized systems.

Maddie: There’s an independent organisation here in Gothenburg called Skogen, which translates as ‘the forest’. It has a venue in the central city where there are (or were!) live performances, music, exhibitions, and events. In 2017 and 2018, Skogen set up their own “school”, a group you could join with no requirements for qualifications or prior artistic knowledge. A sense of interest in certain themes, practices and questions was the guiding principle, and I think it ran after work and at the weekends. At a very local level, in Gothenburg students who have graduated from Valand are choosing to stay in the city and starting to put studio collectives together. There are also some interesting initiatives where a group of people get together and buy or rent a site, and start a series of activities, festivals, workshops, events, symposiums, and hosting residencies. One of the things about Sweden is there are still parts of the country where you can buy abandoned industrial sites and buildings (paper mills or train stations for example) for relatively affordable amounts of money. An example of this is ‘The nonexistent centre’ where, in 2015, eleven young artists jointly purchased an old iron mine in northern Sweden. So, I’d say while these are not primarily conceived as alternative art schools, there is evidence of growing collective artistic activity here.

David: Do you think that the COVID situation potentially has the capacity to transform creative arts education? And again, maybe just using the alternative art school and NATO Thompson’s project as a case study, it seems that what’s interesting about that model is, the fact that we can’t travel at the moment is not an issue for an online art school, because you can build an international network and community and get your hot shot artists lecturers in there, and charge people 1500 bucks to do a course with Janine Antoni and Trevor Paglan. It’s an interesting approach, especially when a preface is things like community that don’t want to produce artists, that want to produce people that can change the world.

Maddie: Yes, I think those points you make are true – that COVID has made us realise what’s possible. There’s a salient case to be made that we can do things differently now in which the idea of flying someone in to do a lecture in a room, to show a PowerPoint, just seems excessive. I also think art schools face a more complicated question of what the purpose of an art school building is going to be? What can a building offer that we cannot find anywhere else in an art education? Students remind us that it’s the chance for improvised and occasional meetings, that it’s still about the studio as a social space to hang out, it’s about the need for informality. I also think, before we fully orient ourselves towards socially engaged practice, performative and dematerialised forms of “creative production”, the question of returning to, or reinventing, our physical encounters with materials and built spaces remains in front of us. Do we still hold this kind of experience as having something specific and enabling about it? Maybe some of us don’t, maybe some of us do.


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.

Maddie Leach is an artist from New Zealand. She is currently based in Sweden and is Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at HDK–Valand Academy of Art & Design at the University of Gothenburg. She recently completed her PhD by Prior Publications at Deakin University in Melbourne.

 

More from this issue

More from this issue

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]
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.

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.

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.

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.