Outrage and sorrow at art school cuts

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Happier days… artist Sally Mumford being awarded an EASS Residency with Megalo Print Studio at the ANU School of Art graduate exhibition, 2018. Professor Ferris at rear.

OUTRAGE, sorrow and white-hot anger have fuelled arts community responses to news of cuts and amalgamations at the ANU School of Art & Design, which include the axing of the furniture, jewellery and object workshops, proposed in the ANU’s “Managing Change” document, released on November 18. 

Citing the school’s operating budget deficit of $2 million, it proposes a scaling-back of the gallery, with its resources redistributed into digital communication, the “disestablishment” of the animation and video major, as well as the furniture, jewellery and object workshops and a merger of the glass workshop with ceramics.

No matter that the 50-year-old school, under its founding director, Udo Sellbach, had adopted the Bauhaus model of small workshops where students work closely with mentor artists. The document claims the furniture, jewellery and object workshops operate in a heritage building where larger student loads are not possible and the small classes can no longer justify the cost of salaries, maintenance and consumables.

The paper also proposes a joint administration group for the School of Music and School of Art & Design into two teams, focusing on operations and technical support.

While it’s believed that the School of Music, which from 2012 was under attack for its “elite” one-to-one model for teaching, has already brought about change, for the School of Art & Design this will mean the net loss of five positions and the direct transfer of 31 academic staff positions.

Those with long memories are lamenting the incorporation of the old School of Art into the ANU in 1992, which, although it initially offered high-quality degrees in arts and music, has been downgraded by the the ANU’s evident distaste for practical studies and the constant erosion of the intimate teaching models on which both schools were founded.

Director of the public art festival “Contour 556”, Neil Hobbs, puts the blame squarely at the feet of the Federal Government for not funding the education sector properly, saying, “The School of Art & Design has been caught by that, there is very little they can do.”

In Hobbs’ view, over the past 15 years, thanks to its strength in the visual arts, Canberra has developed its own distinct cultural industry, with makers of craft and art like silversmith Alison Jackson and steel sculptor Dan Lorimer able to study here, then go on to make a living.

“These people won’t be provided for and they will just go,” he says.

Ashley Eriksmoen, former head of the school’s furniture workshop, has urged friends and alumni of ANU Furniture and Contemporary Crafts to write to the ANU by the consultation deadline of December 2 to protest again the proposed disestablishments.

Head of the School of Art & Design, Professor Denise Ferris, has written to the schools’ wider community that studio practice is critical to teaching and research at the school.

“While we have expanded curricula and reorientated disciplines in recent years, like other art and design institutions, we require substantial support to maintain the range of disciplines, but maintaining the broadest possible range of disciplines nationally is now being challenged with [the] change management proposal to reduce staffing,” Professor Ferris wrote.

Director of Megalo Print Studio, Ingeborg Hansen, will be penning a letter on behalf of Megalo and also as a School of Art graduate and member of the Canberra arts community.

“My family came to Canberra in 1980 after my father, a skilled migrant, had been invited to help set up the now potentially defunct Silversmithing Workshop. I grew up there and would never have ended up heading one of the ACT Government’s key arts organisations if I had not graduated from this institution,” Hansen says.

Rachael Coghlan, CEO and artistic director of Craft ACT and Design Canberra, says, “The craft workshops at the School of Art are respected internationally and have created a global identity for Canberra as a city of making and design excellence… a welcome dimension to a city which is well known for roundabouts and politicians. Craft ACT, which supports craftspeople, designers and makers at every stage of practice, is concerned that these proposed cuts could see the school’s legacy and influence diminished in the future.

“CityNews” craft reviewer and decorative arts advocate, Meredith Hinchliffe, believes the result will be that graduates may be able to create terrific designs of objects, but may be unable to make them.

“They will probably have no knowledge of the materials they want to use… This is a retrograde step: the ANU will be the poorer for it, and its international reputation for leading the arts – particularly the decorative arts – in Australia will be permanently damaged… I am appalled,” Hinchliffe says.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor


  1. The ACT government used to help fund the School of Art and the School of Music even after the ANU takeover as a holdover from pre self government days when both schools were established. The ANU is not the real enemy here (I honestly believe that Brian Schmidt believes in the School of Art and School of Music), the real enemy is the ACT government for not honouring a handshake agreement to support the schools for the benefit of the canberra community as a whole.

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