Art School Educated: Curriculum Change in UK Art Schools 1960–2010

January 2009 – February 2014

A research project investigating the changing impact of art education on artistic production in Britain over half a century

The research project ‘Art School Educated: Curriculum Change in UK Art Schools 1960–2010’ investigated the impact of art education on artistic production in Britain. A comprehensive history of UK art schools and their impact on the history of modern British art had not been undertaken, despite the schools’ distinguished contributions to cultural life. This project therefore aimed to build towards such an account by identifying the decisive reforms in the curriculum of the major London art schools from the 1960s to the present day, exploring how these new curricula related to the output of the artists represented in Tate’s collection and seeking to shed light onto the interrelated histories of fine art teaching and artists’ relationships with society.

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the study, which began in 2009 and concluded in 2014, looked at a fifty-year period in British art, starting with the publication in 1960 of the first report of the Coldstream Council, which had supposedly had a transformative effect on the structures of art teaching at higher education level. The project quickly focused on the London art schools, but some comparative work was conducted with schools outside of the capital, especially with Leeds, Leicester, Coventry, Cardiff and Newcastle. The team also built valuable international contacts, especially with Scandinavia, that might support and encourage future work on the theme.

Based at Tate, the project sought to exploit the art museum’s role as a mediator between teaching institutions, the community of artists and the public. Art schools can be immensely competitive, with institutional and individual artistic reputations constantly being contested and their histories retold. It is a sphere, however, in which Tate has few conflicts of interest and the project team sought to position themselves as neutral observers as they studied the key moments and issues in this history.

The project also aimed to understand better the circumstances and conditions that were likely to have determined the artistic training and intellectual formation of the generations of artists whose work has been collected by Tate. The team’s conclusions centred on the perceived consequences of two sets of radical changes to UK art school education since 1960. First was the abandonment of the Life Room, the drawing classes at the core of academic fine art education since its invention in the early modern period. Second was the institutional restructuring of the sector during the 1990s and since to bring fine art fully into the university sector and at the same time accommodate the changing image of the artist and new artistic practices (including, for example, the use of time-based and digital media, conceptual practice, installations and performance). With the formal rejection of the Life Room, art education lost a unique signifier whereby pedagogic practice was based on a manual/vocational and intellectual skill comprehended across the academy and recognised as specific to the visual arts.

There are, even now, few substantial secondary sources relating to the history of UK art schools and the work of the team was therefore overwhelmingly concerned with primary material taken from interviews and found in institutional and personal archives in the form of taught course documentation and ephemera. Each member of the research team was trained in oral history techniques at the British Library. It was always recognised that interviews with practitioners and students would be both important but also problematic since such material is richly evocative and has the potential to inform but is also deeply subjective and cannot be used with full confidence unless its claims are checked against other evidence. To help gain this broader perspective the team also conducted research in a great number of archives, including the Tate Archive, the National Arts Education at Bretton Hall, the National Library of Scotland, the archives at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, the National Archives, Kew and individual art school archives.

The project concluded with a conference at Tate Britain called ‘Art School Educated’ in September 2014, in which team members shared their reflections with other panellists and a broader public in four sessions (‘Art School Education and the Image of the Artist’, ‘Drawing and the Life Room’, ‘The Changing Curriculum’ and ‘Structural Dilemmas: Art Schools and the FE/HE System’). Another key project highlight was the creation of the display ‘Basic Design’ at Tate Britain in 2013. This explored a radically new approach to training in art schools in the 1950s and 1960s, looking at the work of key teachers including Roy Ascott, Richard Hamilton and Harry Thubron and that of their students. The display contained archival material and video documentation, and was accompanied by a booklet.

The team went on to produce a monograph, The London Art Schools: Reforming the Art World, 1960 to Now (London 2015), with essays on:

  • the history of the exhibiting of art students’ work
  • the Life Room
  • the foundation course (an innovation that saw part-time teachers quadruple in number in four years)
  • the contribution of William Johnstone, an underestimated figure
  • the teaching of art history and contextual studies, massively encouraged by the Coldstream Report
  • the teaching of colour
  • the architecture of the Chelsea College of Art and Design
  • the pedagogical shift from criticism to performance, with its origins in group critical practice at St Martin’s.

An appendix also provided key information about the histories of individual art schools including department histories and changes of title, the profiles of key teachers and heads, geographical moves and institutional mergers and other changes, key dates and data about student numbers.

Complementing this volume, this site republishes the book’s institutional histories and presents excerpts from interviews with the project’s protagonists and commentators, as well as films documenting a series of artist-led life drawing masterclasses.

Nigel Llewellyn
Head of Research 2007–15

Project team:
Catherine Antoni, Administrator
Elena Crippa, PhD student
Lucy Howarth, Research Assistant
Professor Nigel Llewellyn, Head of Research (Principal Investigator)
Alex Massouras, PhD student
Dr Victoria Walsh, Head of Adult Programmes, Tate Britain (Co-Investigator)
Hester Westley, Research Assistant
Beth Williamson, Research Assistant

Editorial team:
Jennifer Mundy, Head of Art Historical Research
Beth Williamson, Coordinator
Susannah Worth, Digital Editor (Research)

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