You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Royal College of Art’ tag.

If you think you’re the next big thing, forget it. You’re nothing. So said the tutors of the Royal College of Art to their fine art and sculpture master’s students in 1991. Gavin Turk, then a student, now a highly acclaimed British artist, remembers it well. “‘Britain has had David Hockney; we aren’t bothered by you,’ they told us. They were incredibly patronising and we were a bit depressed after that,” he says.

Little over a year later, Turk had his work snapped up by millionaire art collector and talent-spotter Charles Saatchi – despite being refused a master’s for leaving only a heritage plaque to commemorate his work at his all-important final show.

Today, Turk and some of his fellow artists accuse art colleges of doing just the opposite to dampening students’ ambitions. Art colleges are behaving irresponsibly, they say, by raising students’ expectations that they will “hit the big time”. This is particularly unfair as the country enters a recession and the art market shrinks, they argue.

“It is possible for a gallerist or someone in the art world to come to a degree show, enjoy a student’s work and for the student to find themselves in quite a professional form of art soon afterwards,” says Turk.

But the economic climate has changed since his and Damien Hirst’s days at the start of the 90s, when Britain was experiencing an art boom.

“When art students come out of college now, they aren’t going to be in that climate,” Turk says. “The recession will make things even more difficult for them. Let’s try to keep their feet on the ground. If we build their expectations, they aren’t going to be able to square it with reality when they come out of college.”

But colleges are building up expectations, according to Naomi Pearce, 23, who graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2007 with a textiles degree.

“Most students know that it won’t be easy, but art colleges ignore the fact that you are going to be poor and might not have your work picked up,” she says. “They use their famous alumni in the prospectus. I do feel my expectations were unfairly raised.”

When there was no interest in Pearce’s work after her final-year show, she “wondered what on earth to do” and “felt the art world was completely out of my grasp”. She came up with the idea of curating recent graduates’ work with fellow Goldsmiths textiles graduate Gavin Ramsey, who was in the same position.

The pair now tour the country’s art college degree shows and pick some of their favourites to display for art-lovers. Their partnership – Pearce and Ramsey – takes a small commission from the work sold.

“No one ever told me that I was going to be the next big thing at art college,” she says. “But you hope it will happen. All you hear about are the big shots.”

The “big shots” tend to agree with her – or go even further. British artist Patrick Hughes says art schools are “extremely indulgent with their students”.

“The colleges treat students as if they were little geniuses,” says the former lecturer at Bradford, Leeds, Chelsea and Wolverhampton schools of art. “The art teachers walk around and say to their students: ‘Oh, you are interested in pigs, are you?’. That’s OK up to the age of 15, but past 18 it’s a bit indulgent.”

British artist Fiona MacDonald says London art schools have a “hot-house element” and treat their students as an “elite” for getting on to their courses at all. “It’s as if they are saying, ‘You are now here and are going to have a career paved with gold’,” the Chelsea school of art graduate says.

Some recent graduates have indeed fast-tracked to success. Boo Ritson, for example, graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2005 and had her first solo show two years later.

Pearce and MacDonald were among those who spoke out on this topic at the Crunch Art at Hay Festival last November. “A decade ago, you had a longer-term view of things. You’d work up to your first solo show five to 10 years after you graduated,” MacDonald says.

She doesn’t wholly blame the art colleges or their students.

“It’s our reality TV society that makes us think we can go from pauper to princess,” she says. “There’s more chatter about who sold what to whom than there used to be. That atmosphere has pervaded the art world in general.”

Artist Adam Dant agrees. “The media covers the financial aspects of the art world much more than it used to,” he says. It follows that “more people are attracted to art college because of the perceived financial gain and celebrity success”.

He remembers being given unrealistic expectations himself back in 1992, as a student at the Royal College of Art. “A woman who came to talk to us started her sentence ‘when you earn between £50,000 and £60,000 a year…’ I only know two or three people who earn a living as fine artists, including myself,” he says.

British artist Brad Lochore says there is a “ghastly celebrity culture in the art world” and artists in their 20s are “tempered by it”. He gave up teaching in art colleges in 2001.

He blames the massive growth in the number of art students. To reduce unreasonable expectations, colleges “should reduce the number of students and it should be harder to get in”, he says.

Art colleges have expanded at an even greater pace than universities in the last decade. Between 1998-99 and 2006-07, the number of art students at undergraduate level in the UK rose by 23.6%, compared with 20.6% across all subjects.

But the colleges say they have made up for this with extra tutors and resources. They provide business courses – in how to publicise a gallery, for example – so that students have other skills.

The rector of the Royal College of Art, Sir Christopher Frayling, refutes the criticism of the artists and graduates. “A lot of high-profile artists tend to badmouth art schools because they think it diminishes them as geniuses to admit they ever learned anything,” he says. “They think they jumped Minerva-like to stardom.”

Frayling says this portrait of art colleges might have been true a decade ago, in the heyday of British art, but isn’t true now. “We encourage them to build a career slowly,” he says. “We really try to train them not to be dazzled by the celebrity culture.”

The art world is a lottery, he says, and yet 93% of graduates are in work related to their degree subject within two years of leaving his college. “If we were to dangle the carrot of gallery success in front of our students, it would be immoral. But we aren’t.”

Richard Noble, head of the art department at Goldsmiths, says the artists’ criticisms are “an absurd caricature”. “The idea that we promote a celebrity-driven notion of the art world is simply wrong and does a disservice to the seriousness of our students,” he says. “Students are required from their first year to have their own practice and to develop it through a sustained critical engagement with tutors and fellow students.

“Celebrity, if it figures at all in any of this, only does so as a subject for critical engagement. Of course we try to help our students make the transition into the professional art world by inviting artists, gallerists and career counsellors to speak to them in the summer terms. But we would never suggest that visual art is a means to either celebrity or riches.

“The written and verbal skills they acquire with us, as well as their understanding of the visual, prepares them better than many traditional humanities and social science disciplines for work in the 21st-century economy.”

Professor Karen Forbes, head of the school of drawing and painting at Edinburgh College of Art, says the first priority for her college is to help students develop to a point where they will be able to sustain their work “even in complex circumstances”.

These circumstances may be just around the corner. Artist Jane Simpson says she can predict that the “DIY attitude” she had when she left college in the late 80s may be about to return. “Then, we created our own opportunities and couldn’t rely on a dealer to flog our work at an art fair,” Simpson says.

If so, students about to graduate should perhaps be taking Pearce and Ramsey as examples, rather than Damien Hirst.

Jessica Shepherd
The Guardian