Art school gallery

Artbeat column no 450 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 15 June 2009

There’s a new public gallery in town. In April the School of Art Gallery opened in the new block off Riego Street, an extension to the art school’s premises. It’s a modest space operated with modest resources but a significant innovation. Like similar developments elsewhere it raises questions about its own and its parent’s roles.
For its first year the new gallery will concentrate on exhibitions of the school’s post-graduate students’ work.  It will also showcase old alumni which include some distinguished practitioners. It has announced no intention to be a test bed, like the Blue Oyster in Moray Place.

Dunedin’s was the first of the old four New Zealand art schools and a very early example of a new way of training professional artists. In the renaissance you learnt as an apprentice to a master. In the mid 18th century Sir Joshua Reynolds pioneered a more gentlemanly and intellectual system in a school joined to the Royal Academy. (The one in Melbourne, founded in 1861, was based on this example.) In the mid 19th century the perceived failure of British industrial design led to the establishment of a new model, the South Kensington, of which the school here, established in 1870, is one of the very first. Similar undertakings were inaugurated in Christchurch in 1882, Wellington in 1886 and Auckland, a private foundation, in 1890.

The one in Christchurch was initially part of Canterbury College but ran on the same South Kensington principles until it was joined to the university in 1957 and then moved to Ilam. The Wellington establishment was called a “School of Design” from the beginning, led to the foundation of the broader Technical School in 1891, later the Technical College. It had been renamed an art school when it was separated off into the new Wellington Polytechnic in 1962 and again named a school of design. The Elam school in Auckland was administered by the Department of Education until it was joined to the university in 1950. Nevertheless, by the 1960s it had ambitions to become at least partly a school of design.  The Dunedin school was long affiliated to the King Edward Technical College but became part of the new Polytechnic in 1966.

The net effect was that Wellington and Dunedin remained wedded to teaching skills, and hopeful of influencing industrial design, while Christchurch and Auckland aimed to form artistic minds. All aspired to produce Fine Artists. Questions arose about the different models, such as whether it’s even possible to form creative minds by teaching and the relevance of industrial design in an economy premised on primary production. But events have continued to reshape the art schools.

In Christchurch the school of fine art has its Campus Gallery at Ilam. In Wellington The Engine Room was opened in July 2005 primarily to show students’ work but also to explore contemporary art practice, thus leaning towards the test bed role. In Auckland the George Fraser Gallery was inaugurated in October 2008 and seems to be a student practice pit and showcase. Dunedin’s School of Art Gallery now completes the suite. There are signs a circuit is developing exchanging shows of art students’ work.

This raises several questions. Does an art school need its own gallery? Should such a space replicate the test bed role? Should art schools teach history and philosophy or should they concentrate on teaching skills? Do you really need art schools at all? The history of art is studded with the careers of autodidacts and many great practitioners denounced their old academies as scenes of worthless effort.

The questions are capable of some answers. You probably can’t teach anyone to be creative but even highly original minds have profited from training – look at Picasso. Anyone crushed by an art school is probably not creative anyway. Philosophy and history are probably unnecessary but some of the greatest visual artists knew something about them. Visual artists need practical skills. Contemporary artists need to know gallery practice. The school’s new space is a welcome addition.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times