(Debate on Petition over 10,000 signatures, 13 October 2016, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
The National Art School provides a unique form of arts education that has produced generations of successful artists and is essential to thriving arts scenes in Sydney and the state, and to Australia’s artistic reputation.
There is strong community support for the school with over 14,000 people having signed this petition and we could have another 10,000 soon! Petitioners come from across New South Wales including Manly, Coogee, Rose Bay, Castle Hill, Hornsby, Penrith and Byron Bay.
I acknowledge supporters in the gallery and the hundreds of people who attended the August rally which closed roads from Oxford to Macquarie streets.
The proposal to subsume this important cultural institute into the university system and relocate it from the Old Darlinghurst Gaol is alarming.
The National Art School provides a different arts education than university based schools and must remain separate. Its atelier form of teaching is based on dedicated studio space, high contact hours with teachers, and small class sizes. The intensive studio education trains artists to develop discipline, technique and individual style. By contrast universities have an academic approach.
Many students from across the country purposely select the NAS because of its unique teaching style.
The National Art School accepts students based on interview and portfolio as opposed to universities which use the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank. As such, the school can train students with significant artistic talent who may not meet university entry criteria. World renowned artist and graduate Reg Mombassa says that he would not have met university entrance requisites when he applied to NAS.
Proposals to amalgamate the National Art School with the University of New South Wales Art and Design school are part of a wider merger proposal that would also include the Sydney College of the Arts to create a single art school for Sydney.
The university schools were to be merged earlier this year but the Sydney College of the Arts withdrew pending inclusion of the NAS. Students are still being moved from the Callan Park campus – also the subject of protest! Talks about a NAS merger continue.
There are risks from homogenising arts education.
Different education approaches, styles and practices produce diverse artistic and creative talents and help enrich the cultural fabric of our city. Cities with strong artistic communities are better places to live and work for everyone and have an edge over other international cities in attracting labour forces. Different artistic and creative talents will be needed in the future economy which will increasingly rely on innovation and entrepreneurship.
Loss of independence could mean the loss of the atelier teaching model, reduced teaching hours and a more theoretical approach. Changes could happen immediately or over time as the culture of the school changes under new management.
Creating a centre of excellence/super art school would only warrant merit if it coincided with a large injection of additional funds, but that is not what is being proposed: the amalgamation seems to be more about cost cutting.
Alarmingly, the government recently transferred ownership of the National Art School’s home: the Old Darlinghurst Gaol from the NSW Department of Education to Property NSW. The site will now be managed as an asset and there are rumours that it could be sold for residential development.
The NAS provides a purpose that compliments the heritage values of the old gaol, and the gaol provides ideal facilities for the school’s teaching model including small light-filled studios and gallery spaces with architecture and gardens that motivate and rouse creativity. Occupation of the site is fundamental to the school’s success.
The NAS has been located within the old Darlinghurst Gaol since 1921 and as its sole occupant since becoming independent in 1996.
As a school, the public is able to access the site including the grounds and galleries. It is used for public events that complement the school such as Art Month nights.
The Darlinghurst and inner city communities strongly support keeping the NAS where it is and are broadly concerned about the sale of inner city assets and services including the Powerhouse and Millers Point housing.
If the state government will not guarantee future funding for the school, it should ask its federal colleagues to fund it, modelled on the National Institute of Dramatic Art or the Australian Film Television and Radio School in recognition of its unique place in Australian arts education.
Art and creativity are essential to the wellbeing, liveability and visibility of a city and they help create its history. We need to nurture and help establish local artists who can tell the stories that matter to us. Without an independent National Art School, Sydney's cultural wellbeing would suffer.
In closing, I call on the state government to maintain the National Art School's independence, funding and occupation of the Old Darlinghurst Gaol, and work to achieve national funding with government colleagues in Canberra.