Alumni give lustre to art school

Artbeat column no 458 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 5.10.09

The Dunedin School of Art has suffered a setback. Can anything practical be done? Perhaps - if people are willing to make a special effort for a special case.

The Otago Polytechnic which administers the school has had $3 million trimmed from its government funding. To cope with this it is dis-establishing five of the school’s 25 equivalent full-time (EFT) staff positions. The school’s student numbers are not what they were ten years ago – down from about 350 to 200 EFTs. The cost per student of teaching in the school is relatively high. The Polytechnic’s Chief Executive Phil Ker has said it “can no longer afford to cross-subsidise programmes that do not pay their way”. (ODT 24/9/09)

Since the news broke concern has been expressed by some staff, students and your columnist. The school’s acting head Leonie Schmidt has shown determination to carry on under the new conditions. Something of the school’s history has been recalled. (ODT 25/9/09) I also briefly traversed that in this column in June. (ODT 15/6/09) These accounts focus on the school’s singularity and success. There’s another side which should now also be recalled.

The School of Art is New Zealand’s oldest publicly funded art school established in 1870 by the Otago Provincial Council. That enlightened body also started the Otago Museum in 1868, the University of Otago in 1869 and the Otago Medical School in 1875, among other progressive institutions. Its abolition in 1876 orphaned a number of them. Some have been struggling ever since. Others have done better.

Among the successes are the university and its medical school. This was not achieved without battles which continue. But by concerted political action and continued appeals to a responsive public the institutions have been put on a sound financial footing and expanded beyond their founders’ expectations.

Residential colleges and privately endowed fellowships and funds have been instituted. The special needs of the medical school have been met. In fact the medical school has been seen as the jewel in the university’s crown. While its operational expenses are far higher per student than the university’s average this has led to its making a greater effort rather than dropping the burden. The School of Art is the Polytechnic’s comparable jewel. But the Polytechnic and an earlier administrative host to the school have both had times of shrinking from the challenge.

After the abolition of the provinces the school was administered by an Education Board which by 1919 wanted to transfer it to a “Board of Managers” responsible for running the King Edward Technical College (KETC). This wasn’t viewed favourably by those concerned about the training of adults for a professional career in art. That was because the KETC otherwise taught only secondary students or people doing night classes, mostly apprentices, and thus wasn’t well adapted for the role. Nevertheless it happened.

In 1921 the Education Board removed from the school its function of training primary school art teachers, who were at least adult students, reassigning that to the Teachers College. The result was by 1921 the School of Art was that in name only, no longer serving its basic purpose.

The KETC then consisted of three elements. The head of one of them, the Technical College, Angus Marshall, responding to the new La Trobe scheme, tried to revive the school under its auspices. But he was out of his depth trying to administer a professional school for adult students. By 1925 new staff were dismissed and all the students had left in protest.

The school revived but under the new administration of the Polytechnic from 1966, was in crisis again by 1970. There were few staff and virtually no students. In about 1975 the Polytechnic’s Principal told me policy was to de-emphasise the school’s prior, (distinguished) existence. Nevertheless it revived again, for the reasons mentioned in my June column, before running into the present difficulties.

It’s worth recalling that while it is relatively expensive to run it has also been highly successful. Like the Medical School it is not only the first of its kind in New Zealand but there is only one older in Australia – in both cases in Melbourne. The art school also has very distinguished alumni: Frances Hodgkins, in 1895 and 1896; Colin McCahon, in 1937 and 1938; Ralph Hotere in 1952. (Hotere’s presence is often overlooked because he attended as a Teacher Trainee, that function having been restored to the school.)

These are the most distinguished names in New Zealand art over more than a century. They add a great lustre to the school’s reputation. A bold council might trade on it. Endowments might be sought for staff positions, bolstering the school’s present strength, its distinctive, focused courses, which make it particularly attractive to students. There are many art schools now. Ours can still be a star.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times