Thursday, August 22, 2013

Old school

There are now so many art schools in New Zealand that to list them would risk readers dropping off but, back in the day, there were really just two, one in the North called Elam and one in the South, Ilam. The huge expansion of art school choices, the drift north and the earthquake haven't been kind on the Southern school whose last hurrah was probably incubating Cotton, Robinson, Pick and Co, 25 years ago.

Of course there have been others since (Francis Upritchard is one and Dan Arps another, albeit via Elam) but Ilam, like most of the schools south of Auckland, has struggled to keep attached to its alumni in the way, say, Elam does. Every new graduate of Ilam faces a choice: move to Auckland or struggle to have your reputation creep any further north than Wellington and even that only on a good day.

So you'd think, wouldn’t you, that the University of Canterbury might put some effort into differentiating NZ’s oldest art school and make it a destination for anyone seriously wanting to be a practising artist. Well not so much. The Vice chancellor apparently once told art school staff that the place would be more financially effective as a car park, which doesn’t really have the can-do spirit. And when energy is applied to the art school by the university it most often seems to be in the form of a review.

So some input for free based on conversations with readers over the last few moths. How about getting some variety in the school’s staff (over 80 percent male and by the look of their photographs 100 percent white), taking on some of the art interests that haven’t been cherry picked by other schools (performance come to mind). And, at the very least, showing some of the successes of students from the last 10 to 15 years on the website and on Wikipedia where the youngest artist listed will be 50 next year.

COMMENT FROM ROBIN NEATE 24 AUG: While correct in your observations of the University’s attitude (and that of powers beyond) towards Ilam art school (or any art school) unfortunately any input “based on conversations” is dubious.

If variety of school staff is an issue then applicants that would provide that variety would need to apply for the positions when advertised. In the case of my particular appointment I was put in a position of applying for my job twice. Three years apart and in completely new rounds and each time there were between 40 and 50 applicants, a total of around 90 applications overall. No applicants with relevant qualifications were non-white or female. Rest assured if any of them had even a hint of that variety in the current p. c. environment they would surely have gained the position above me (someone truly at the bottom of the heap) ­- an old white middle class Christchurch based male. Also one should be aware that photography can be a deceptive art form and that what may appear 100% white may not be so in reality – Roger Boyce, Senior Lecturer in Painting, is in fact of Native American descent.

As far as taking on “some of the art interests that haven’t been cherry picked by other schools, Ilam currently takes on art interests that other art schools ignore or dismiss as passé e.g. painting, documentary photography, narrative cinema, sculpture. If you think this is unhip then perhaps the following by Anna Lovatt on Rosalind Krauss may be of interest  –

“ In recent years, Krauss has sought to retrieve some of the modernist concepts jettisoned in The Originality of the Avant Garde, particularly the idea of medium-specificity. Observing the current ubiquity of installation art and the unashamedly affirmative relationship much of this work has with the art institution, she argued that what was once a critical dismemberment of the modernist medium has become an ‘official position’.”

An art school isn’t just about producing artists as not every graduate can or will be a successful or well-known artist. I wonder how successful a performance graduate would be? Not really the kind of art-making that would support any kind of career (well, maybe as a busker) let alone support a dealer supporting a performance artist. Even object-art is difficult for dealers to move these days. After all, at the end of the art-day you still have to eat.

With regard to often touted Robinson/Cotton/Pick era (all taught by white males) this was a particularly unique and singular moment. A group of artists inspired by the Reagan era 80s art boom (albeit a few years behind locally), the opening up of this country via Lange and Rogernomics and the accompanying (initial) optimism, the rise of dealer galleries, (ironically) the waning of parochialism and the acceptance that young artists (and curators) can be good and don’t have to be over thirty and last certainly not least a Maori Renaissance that needed young contemporary Maori artists (and their friends that came along for the ride).