NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

2020 at The National Art School

When the National Art School campus closed due to COVID-19 in March 2020, students, teachers and staff were not the only ones affected. We also had to shut the doors on the public to the NAS component of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney.

By Stephen Alderton 

When the National Art School campus closed due to COVID-19 in March 2020, students, teachers and staff were not the only ones affected. We also had to shut the doors on the public to the NAS component of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney.

Students in the NAS Gallery with social distancing after returning to school after lockdown. Photo: Peter Morgan

Students in the NAS Gallery with social distancing after returning to school after lockdown. Photo: Peter Morgan

Going into lockdown was difficult for everyone, but we were determined to let our students know that although the campus was closed, NAS was not. Over a few hectic weeks, our Head of Studies Simon Cooper created an Academic Contingency Plan, which included bringing most theoretical courses forward into the earlier part of the year, leaving mainly studio-based practical courses in the latter half. 

We moved our courses online, creating a custom-built Student Portal giving students instant access to lectures, projects and assignments, and our teachers became adept at delivering classes via Zoom. Our students also proved agile as they created studio spaces at home, in their kitchens and garages, on dining tables and rooftops, even turning a bathroom into a darkroom.  

Our marketing team also launched NAS Connect, an online campaign to help students feel connected to the school and each other. The NAS Connect Instagram page was where students, staff and alumni shared their work and experiences, with more than 2,600 posts to our Studio Sessions hashtag. 

About 11% of our students took course leave, or applied to reduce their study load, but the overwhelming majority stayed the course

Even though we and other tertiary providers were not eligible for Jobkeeper, we kept all our academic, program and corporate staff. We were committed to supporting the workforce who had supported NAS for many years, and there was much to do as we projected to springboard out of COVID-19 in 2021.  

Some staff and postgrad students began returning to campus in May, with all students back for the start of third term on July 20. About 11% of our students took course leave, or applied to reduce their study load, but the overwhelming majority stayed the course, and we were able to present full Grad Shows for our 2020 BFA and MFA graduating students, welcoming the public back on campus.

We had maintained no general public access to the site from March 2020 until the BFA Grad Show in December to prioritise our academic program and reduce the risk of infection. Both Grads Shows ran a little later than usual but were still amazing celebrations of the work students had created during an extraordinary year.

Two students from an art theory class put out a call to fellow NAS students, staff and alumni during lockdown to make quilt squares with a pandemic theme, which would be sewn together into a quilt when campus reopened and students could gather in person again.

Our Short Courses were also affected by lockdown and no public access to campus. In response, our Head of Public Programs Dr Ella Dreyfus introduced the School’s first online Short Course program, which was a great success. The courses quickly sold out, with students all over Australia and around the world signing up; the online courses are now a permanent part of our public offerings, providing access to quality art education to those who are unable to attend NAS in person.

NAS lecturer Molly Duggins, alumni Reg Mombassa, and students Rani Matthews and Anna Mould with the Corona Quilt as work in progress, in the NAS Chapel. Photo: Jacqui Taffel

NAS lecturer Molly Duggins, alumni Reg Mombassa, and students Rani Matthews and Anna Mould with the Corona Quilt as work in progress, in the NAS Chapel. Photo: Jacqui Taffel

During lockdown we strengthened our relationships with regional galleries through the launch of On Stillness. Devised by curatorial staff at NAS and Newcastle Art Gallery, this collaborative virtual exhibition across social media focussed on each gallery’s collections, and other regional galleries were invited to participate – Tweed, Orange, New England, Wollongong and Lake Macquarie all contributed.

We also saw a student-led project flourish, the Corona Quilt. Two students from an art theory class put out a call to fellow NAS students, staff and alumni during lockdown to make quilt squares with a pandemic theme, which would be sewn together into a quilt when campus reopened and students could gather in person again. The finished Corona Quilt, which included squares by Reg Mombassa, Joan Ross and Jumaadi, was part of Sydney Craft Week in October and has been acquired for the NAS Collection.

Though 2020 was in many ways a traumatic and disturbing year, the experience at NAS was that through encouraging creativity and supporting personal connections when we were kept apart, students, lecturers and staff showed great resilience and determination. Many commented that continuing their practice helped them get through the tough times, and overcoming this unexpected adversity strengthened the bonds between them.

Many elements of our Academic Contingency Plan, such as online access to coursework, will continue to benefit the School long into the future. I am extremely proud of the dedication, creativity and humanity of staff and students at the National Art School during this last challenging year.


Steven Alderton is Director and CEO of the National Art School

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Dr Jenny Wilson — The events of 2020 have ushered in major change in the university sector and for creative arts in particular.

The most outstanding recollection of the ANU School of Art & Design (SOA&D) in 2020 was the increasing and incredible capacity of my colleagues to develop new ways to teach and make, adapting quickly to offer students truly imaginative learning experiences.

The dramatic effects on international student enrolments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are being witnessed in all our institutions. At Edith Cowan University the impact has not been felt as dramatically as in some Universities that have a greater reliance on international on-shore students as a major component of their income generation.

Here at Southern Cross University (SCU), like much of the tertiary sector, we find ourselves much changed. Being a regional institution, while SCU’s share of international students is small in comparison to larger urban universities, the loss of revenue has been commensurate with size and so has still had a profound effect.

For students and staff at Monash University, 2020 was a year of loss and learning. As for all Australian universities, the rituals of university life were reimagined in ways that previously were inconceivable.

Transforming the structure of a university in the middle of a pandemic might not be on the top of everyone’s wish-list, but this is what happened at the University of South Australia.

Like most universities across the world, ECU has been forced to adapt in the face of the many and varied challenges presented by COVID-19. Notwithstanding the impacts of such challenges, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), when compared to other conservatoire schools across the world has fared extremely well.

Although 2020 was a difficult year, both professionally and personally for all involved, I am pleased to report that the staff and students in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) achieved a great deal together and we have entered 2021 stronger than ever.

For all the storm clouds of 2020, there was also silver to be found. Many schools around the country commented on the incredible ingenuity of teaching staff, adapting to the online delivery of programs and courses in ways never before imagined.

The QUT School of Creative Practice offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, with majors in Acting, Dance, Drama, Technical Production, Music, Animation, Film and Screen, Creative Writing and Visual Arts. As a school that had previously taught only face-to-face, the last 12 months presented many challenges.

The ANU School of Music has been hit like much of the ANU by COVID-19. Our 2020 story was pretty similar to many other stories; finding ways to make remote learning possible; finding ways to bring our students back to campus in Semester 2; and then finding ways to make the savings envelope.

The primary impact of 2020/COVID-19 on the UQ School of Music has been increased pressure in all domains: change and adaptation in teaching, lost opportunities in research, and decreased engagement opportunities.