On the threatened closure of Sydney College of the Arts

Laura McLean

Bryden Williams

Protesters at the University of Sydney.  Photo: Bryden Williams.

This week, on Monday 4th July, protestors met at the University of Sydney to condemn the proposed closure of Sydney College of the Arts (SCA). Established in the 1970s as the first tertiary art school in New South Wales, and run as a faculty of the University of Sydney since 1990, SCA is one of Australia’s leading art schools. Its teaching staff are renowned artists, experienced educators, and widely published academics. It offers a distinct and rigorous studio-based contemporary art education at Bachelor, Masters, and PhD level that is specifically sought after by students. SCA has outstanding facilities and well occupied, expansive studios for painting, printmaking, sculpture, film and video, photography, glassblowing, jewellery, and ceramics. Its beautiful, spacious Kirkbride campus in Callan Park is an inspiration and resource for Sydney-based artists, and a hub for contemporary art researchers and practitioners working throughout Australia and internationally.

Why then on June 21 2016 was it announced to staff, students, and alumni—by email—that the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) had signed a Heads of Agreement to ‘merge’ SCA into UNSW’s Art & Design faculty in Paddington? This announcement came after secretive negotiations by the University of Sydney and without consultation with staff and students at SCA. The ‘merger’ would see the closure of the Kirkbride campus and the migration of all SCA students to the already overcrowded campus in Paddington. It would see the loss of the incredibly valuable common resource SCA’s studio facilities provide, the erosion of the diversity and availability of education and training for artists and art professionals of the future, and a dimming of the vibrant contemporary art culture of Sydney. The proposed abandonment of the Callan Park campus by the University of Sydney would also leave the state-owned heritage-listed Kirkbride building vulnerable to sale by the Baird government.

SCA staff face the loss of their jobs with no promise of employment by UNSW, with vague suggestions they will be required to re-apply for what jobs might be offered, and have been effectively silenced by a clause in their Enterprise Bargaining agreement.[1] Associate Professor of Photomedia Merilyn Fairskye has told the Sydney Morning Herald that a week before the announcement, “staff were sent an email from the SCA dean warning them not to speak publicly about university matters.” The Dean Professor Colin Rhodes, whose area of expertise is in self-taught and outsider art, has long been seen as disengaged from the activities, needs, and concerns of staff and students at SCA, and has been instrumental in facilitating the agreement with UNSW. In an article published in The Australian by British born and educated Rhodes on the day of the announcement, he speaks condescendingly of contemporary art and design education in Australia. He argues for the need of a “single hub of global excellence” (an echo of the hollow rhetoric of George Brandis’s use of the term) for art education in Sydney, which mimics institutions in occidental nexuses of capital and power. In what has been perceived by many as deliberate timing, Rhodes was in New York at the time of the announcement—which also came during university holidays—writing on the opening of ‘Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett’ at the American Folk Art Museum. He did make it back in time for a presentation on the future of SCA with Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney Professor Stephen Garton a week later, where students of the college responded making their views on the proposed closure loud and clear.

Sydney College of the Arts students, staff, alumni, and supporters came together to protest the closure of the college in even greater numbers on Monday, gathering at the University of Sydney on the front lawns of the quadrangle before marching to a meeting of the Senate (the peak governing body of the university) at the university’s new Business School (completed in 2015 at a cost of $180 million) to make their voices heard. Ascending the staircase spiralling up through the atrium of the building, protestors were met with police officers, campus security, and a temporarily erected fence blocking access to the top floor where the Senate meeting was being held. Here current SCA students spoke with passion to the crowd about the value of the college to them and to the health of contemporary art and culture in Sydney and Australia, slamming the lack of vision and transparency exhibited by the university in managing the faculty. They were joined in solidarity by representatives from the National Tertiary Education Union, the Greens, students from UNSW Art & Design, and Fellow of Senate Andrew West who spoke in support of SCA. Jamie Parker, NSW Greens member for Balmain, criticised the “designed to fail formula” that the university has contrived for SCA. The university claims that in its current location the college is not financially sustainable, and that falling enrolment numbers leave it no other choice than to close the Callan Park campus (all information about enrolling at SCA, it should be noted, has immediately been removed from the university’s website). However, it is argued by staff and students that the university has grossly undervalued the contribution the college makes to knowledge production, culture, and the economy, and has not provided any investment, promotion, or strategy to integrate the rich resources of the college into the fabric of the university as a whole and draw more students to study visual art at the University of Sydney.

SCA students are not taking this lying down. A day after the protest on the main campus it was reported in the Herald that students are taking on the university for breaching consumer law—in most universities these days students are referred to as ‘clients’—with their representative solicitor Thomas McLoughlin quoted as saying “the Student Representative Council Legal Service has instructions from 60 students regarding the university’s breach of section 18 of the Australian Consumer Law. That is, for misleading and deceptive conduct in the course of business…The legal service will proceed to litigate 60 of those cases in the consumer division of the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.”[2] It is openly admitted by the university that discussions and plans for closing the SCA campus and merging with UNSW Art & Design have been ongoing for over 18 months, yet it has continued to accept enrolments at SCA despite secretly planning for students to complete their degrees elsewhere.

These discussions have also involved the National Art School (NAS), which is also rumoured to be folded into UNSW Art & Design under plans to create a single ‘national centre of artistic excellence’—that word again—that would replace the three already existing centres of excellence in Sydney. The NAS has been housed in the old Darlinghurst Gaol, a landmark heritage building owned by the NSW government, since 1922. Just a few weeks ago, management of the site was moved from the portfolio of the NSW Department of Education to Property NSW, the key function of which, The Age notes, is “identifying state-owned property for sale”.[3] This move would seem to support theories that the proposed eviction of SCA and NAS from their current locations is a step towards the sale of Kirkbride and the old Darlinghurst Gaol by the NSW government to private developers.

These institutions and their grounds provide the bedrock and wellsprings for fostering and growing visual artists and art practices in NSW and Australia. Even within a healthy funding climate, they are central in developing and supporting self-reflexive, critical, and engaged practices and reinforcing the arts ecology of Sydney. But in times like these, when the arts are under attack from conservative governments at state and federal levels, and organisations and individual practitioners alike are fighting to survive in the wake of devastating cuts to core funding, art schools such as SCA and NAS are crucial life support systems.

At this stage pointed, practical questions must be asked of UNSW, the University of Sydney, and the NSW state government, and answers demanded. How exactly would their proposed monolithic art school work? Where would it be? How would the space for studios and relevant facilities not currently housed on site be found and paid for? How many students could be accommodated? How would the three very different approaches of UNSW Art & Design, Sydney College of the Arts, and the National Art School be reconciled, and by what staffing and course structures? Would such a homogenisation of art education in Sydney benefit artists and their practices, or rather diminish diversity and discourse in Australian art? Unless convincing arguments can be made for collapsing the three leading art schools in NSW into one, it is up to the art world and its supporters to defend the integrity and variety of art education in the state and #letSCAstay.







[1] ‘Sydney College of the Arts closure: Who’s Next? http://www.ddca.edu.au/nitro/articles/2016/6/29/sydney-college-of-the-arts-closure-whos-next

[2] ‘SCA: Sixty students to take on University of Sydney’ http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/sca-sixty-students-to-take-on-university-of-sydney-20160705-gpyvkq.html

[3] ‘Historic Darlinghurst jail could be put up for sale’ http://www.theage.com.au/nsw/historic-darlinghurst-jail-could-be-put-up-for-sale-20160624-gpr6il.html

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