David Cameron has a neon Tracey Emin piece on his wall that reads, "More Passion". It's said to be worth £25,000, which seems like quite a lot for something you might see in a Hoxton bar, but Cameron got it for free, because Emin donated it to Downing Street. That's not the only piece of art that Dave hasn't stumped up for.
Since 2010, when Cameron was elected, things have become pretty bleak from Britain's young artists. Arts council funding has been cut by 30 percent, making grants almost impossible to get hold of. Last year, benefits were withdrawn from most 18 to 24-year-olds who were not "in work, education or training". If you genuinely think that you can pursue your creativity comfortably and have a full-time "non-creative" job to pay the rent, then you have obviously never tried to sit down and write after 12 hours on your feet waitressing. Then there's university: With art courses now charging colossal fees, the future of young, low-income, would-be artists doesn't look great. While some students have taken to the streets to protest about this, there has been a quieter, more gradual protest going on: the development of free art schools.
I first heard that you could go to art school for free last week when a friend invited me to her final MA show and I asked her where it was that she studied. " The School of the Damned" (SOTD) she told me, which sounded like a cross between a 1930s horror film and a dedicated Dave Vanian fan club. On the SOTD website, the "class of 2015" manifesto is pretty clear about it's position regarding money and education. "The School of The Damned is a course run by its students and supported by a growing circle of visiting lecturers and tutors," it reads. "The course aims to establish a new network of artists, academics and institutions, which not only advocates free education, but also demands a universal acknowledgment of education as a fundamental right."
I got in contact with the organisers (the students themselves), who explained that the course was "started by a group of artists who couldn't afford to study on an MA, so set up their own initiative". Do they think free art schools are the way forward? "No. They are reactionary, a coping mechanism," they told me. "They are a temporary solution, which hopefully adds to the conversation that education should not be exploited by Conservatism. We believe you need people from many different backgrounds to create an exciting learning environment."
What SOTD alludes to, and what is perhaps the most devastating affect of the diminishing of arts institutions for monetary gain, is that groups of art students from identical backgrounds – where there is no social or economic mix – will hardly produce artwork that is sparkling with diversity or dynamism. Where's the progression in that?
SOTD is not the only free art school to open its doors in recent years as a reaction against restrictive access to arts education. Open School East, which opened last year, is a free study programme for emerging artists that's located in a former library in Hackney. Anna Colin, a curator who co-founded the programme, told us, "Finding work in the art world was never easy, but in the current situation, who can realistically afford to go into major debt to find themselves in unpaid or precarious freelance positions?"
OSE was conceived to support emerging practitioners through, "free tuition, shared studio space and a critical environment in which to develop their practice", said Colin. "These days, students seem to be provided with less than when they were paying low fees, which is huge contradiction."
I asked her if free art schools are a sustainable model. "Well, free art schools may be free to artists but someone has to pay for them to function," she said. "We often muse that if every aspiring artists invested £1,500 a year with ten others – instead of investing £9,000 – they could get themselves a sizeable shared studio, and pay practicing artists to come and mentor them a couple of times of month. I seriously believe that unless radical changes are done to break down current barriers to higher education, the future for many practitioners will be non-accredited."
Free art schools aren't just a London phenomenon. Islington Mill Art Academy (IMAA), which was founded in 2007, is based in Manchester and describes itself as, "a peer-led experiment into alternative modes of art education. IMAA emphasises shared responsibility, and its nature changes with its membership, with each member bringing their own ideas and energy."
Similarly, artist Ryan Gander outlined plans in a letter earlier this year to open a free art school in his hometown in Suffolk, called Fairfield International. He is even more vocal on the benefits of having students from poorer backgrounds included within the art world. "Once in a blue moon you come across an individual whose work astonishes you, usually signified by a slight jealous feeling in the pit of your stomach," he said.
"These students are often – although this sounds like a romantic stereotype – from unprivileged backgrounds; northern town dwellers, broken families, working class terraces, uneducated, uncultured families. I'm sure it has less to do with understanding visual language and the history of contemporary art and more to do with the fact that out of these situations come strong characters who are self-reliant, resourceful and entrepreneurial." Of course, these are exactly the kind of people who are likely to be put off attending university if it means getting into debt.
Unless you're one of the lucky few to work with one of the dominant museums or galleries in London that generate tourism, the message from the government is that you need to get off your lazy artsy arse and get a "real job" (bad luck if you live outside the capital). When we've got a government that wants young people to choose between poverty or debt and which cuts art funding, ultimately preventing low-income artists from being able to work, maybe free art schools represent a viable way forward.
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