Management by Gallows at The National Art School
by Alex Wisser
Originally published 2010-01-15 on Carnivalaskew.com
So, the gallows are working again at the old Darlinghurst Goal and the Sydney art community is abuzz with the collective silence that surrounds the radical overhaul of one its major institutions. It’s true that Jacques Delaruelle wrote a letter, at once eloquent and toothless, The Australian published a non-committal story basically reporting that Jacque had written a letter, and Vasili Kaliman tweeted a barbed good riddance. Aside from that, there is an abiding silence and an almost complete lack of public dialogue around the forces playing themselves out at the National Art School. The Board of Directors has called an emergency meeting to discuss the fallout from this current crisis, but if this is the media storm they are facing, I can’t see what they’re worried about.
Let me declare from the beginning that I graduated last year from The National Art School, that I believe that NAS is in great need of serious structural change to make it relevant as a contemporary arts institution and that as a student, scurrying about trying to complete my degree under the gathering shadow of the events unfolding before us today, I came into contact with much gossip and speculation which I am completely prepared to share. Someone has to say something out loud.
So lets draw a map. The National Art School, originally belonging to the TAFE system, won itself some modicum of independence and even the ability to offer degree courses. This shifted the status of the school away from the TAFE model though it was still beholden to the system, a fact that the school chaffed against, both from an operational point of view as well as one of prestige. In 2008, there were a number of approaches to various universities in the hopes of amalgamating. As far as I’m aware, the school rejected all proposals from the universities because the latter weren’t as interested in maintaining the National Art School’s independence as the National Art School was. Couple that with a funding crisis, and the magical appearance of 5 years of funding from the NSW ministry of arts and education, independence from TAFE, and appointment of Anita Taylor, an ‘outsider’ as director must have looked like all the National Art School’s Christmases came at once.
But after Christmas comes New Year, and after New Year there is always a hangover. And all the National Art School’s hangovers came at once. On the 31st, the old school was dissolved. On the 1st the new private entity was formed. And two weeks later heads started to role. The heads of the heads of department to be exact. 5 out of 6, and the only survivor kept her job because no one else applied. In the end, the actual number of casualties is 8 out of 9 senior staff (though John Bloomfield, ex-head of painting, now holds a six month contract as an undergraduate coordinator).
How is it, I can hear you asking, that an institution, renowned for an entrenched faculty with a reputation for holding out against the forces of change or reform, could be so defenceless against its new director, Anita Taylor, who walks right in and just starts chopping heads?
As I understand it, the strategy behind the independence of the school was sold to the faculty as the only way forward. It involved dissolving the old corporation and registering a new one, independent of the TAFE system. The faculty were told by Miss Taylor that their passage from one institution to the other would be a formality, and finally seeing the light at the end of their job security nightmare, they voted for the plan without much protest. In one stroke, Miss Taylor severs the lines of obligation between herself and the faculty, and pulls the rug out from under any potential opposition to the reforms she wishes to initiate. It seems to me a stunning coupe, clean and sharp and military in its precision.
While Miss Taylor brings the change I have hoped for, her methods make me shiver. And when I say she brings the change I hope for, I mean only that I hoped for change and she’s certainly delivered that. I have no idea what kind of change she brings. Despite the swiftness of her actions and the singleness of her intention, she has betrayed nothing of what she hopes to achieve with her reform. It is this absolute disregard for the consideration of the art community, the sense that she would not condescend to consult, or even attempt to convince us of the value of her program that is the most frightening and infuriating aspect of her manner. Even if she meets all our wildest dreams, would we want to swallow the sense of disenfranchisement she would serve it with?
NOTE: The meeting of the board of directors was brought forward to last night and all new appointments have been confirmed. The next round will be deciding on the fates of 50 fractional lecturers and sessional staff.