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Britain's art schools in danger of decline

Michael Craig-Martin sounds alarm at wide ranging Art Fund debate

The artist and emeritus professor at the Art Fund debate

The artist Michael Craig-Martin warned that art colleges in the UK are in danger of losing their pre-eminence during a symposium held at the British Museum in London yesterday (7 November). Craig-Martin, who was speaking in the debate “Art Without Frontiers: Where Next for the UK on the World Stage?”, said that even though museums and the market are booming in London, “art education has been excluded” from the mix.

“Pre 1990, art colleges [in the UK] were at their peak,” said the emeritus professor of art at Goldsmiths, University of London. “All the things that made the richness on which creativity depends have been significantly altered.” Most successful artists working today who come from a lower middle-class background would be deterred by tuition fees of up to £9,000, he said.

The event was organised by the Art Fund and sponsored by the lawyers Farrer & Co. The panel was chaired by Anna Somers Cocks, the founding editor of The Art Newspaper. In her introduction she emphasised how London’s thriving cultural community is underpinned by private funding. “If London ceased to be a rich city, sponsorship would dry up. If sponsorship ceased, there would be a different scene and the death of great possibility,” she said.

The keynote speaker, Paul Ruddock, who is the chairman of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, outlined how the UK's museums have become better at attracting philanthropy. He stressed, however, that institutions in Britain “have a long way to go to reach US standards of US donor cultivation”, adding that government support is still essential.

He also touched upon a delicate topic: the relationship between public insitutions and the art market. “The US has a great tradition of curators working with dealers and collectors. [British] museums need to be more welcoming of the art trade without compromising [their] integrity,” Ruddock said.

The big commercial galleries are arguably fulfilling the traditional role of public institutions. Robin Vousden, the director of the Gagosian Gallery in London, said: “Commercial galleries are working at the same level as kunsthalle,” and rebutted charges of empire-building (Gagosian now has 12 venues worldwide). “We’re not expanding because of megalomania but because artists and the market require it,” he said.

Other speakers from across the public and private sectors, including Patti Wong, the chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, and Alain Seban, the president of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, discussed how UK and European institutions are responding to developing Asian markets and museums.

UPDATE:A detailed report of the discussion is now available on the Art Fund's website:

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12 Nov 12
14:57 CET


Regrettably, art education has become a big export industry, as many British art schools have opened up to increasingly greater number of international students. Whilst those able and willing to pay the high level of fees, are keen to enhance their visual practice, they often lack a level of comprehension and ability to engage in English with their peers through various language barriers. Often they feel not only a culture shock, but stressed and unable to keep up in class. Art as a Universal language needs to come further under the microscope if we are to understand what is at stake in art education today.

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