"It doesn't matter how much you prepare for something like this, it is the question and answer session at the end that helps consolidate ideas. It was the same with this event. I did a talk about the Art Academy published below and listened to the talks by School of the Damned, Migrants Mutual Aid and TOMA which were really interesting. During the question and answer session I realised that a lot of alternative art education seems to be aimed as an alternative to the MA, not at undergraduate or foundation level. Younger audience members were talking of the pressure to do a degree in a subject that would get you a well paid career, and that school education was focussed in this direction. So convincing family that an art degree is a good choice is really difficult. This made me realise how special Islington Mill Art Academy is, because although some people have art qualifications you don't need one to join and you can become a member at whatever level you are, so long as you want to make art. I had brought with me one of the original flyers and when I read it out, it got a cheer. I think what the Art Academy provides is a space and peer group in which to develop your own art practice, at your own pace with the input of some amazing people. So here's the draft of what I said in my talk...
Alternative Art School Symposium – Talk
Islington Mill Art Academy is a title, which covers a learning experience that encompasses many paradoxes, which can make it a very frustrating experience for new and old members alike. In my opinion it is these paradoxes that have led to its survival. It is organised and completely disorganised at the same time. It is permanent, yet in constant flux. It is strong but fragile, political and apolitical at the same time, and although dynamic, it also experiences periods of hibernation. It changes its dynamic, or flavour as I like to call it depending who its members are at the time.
Islington Mill Art Academy is ten years old this year and for the purpose of this talk I am going to start with the history, then talk about my experience of it in the present and then discuss its legacy and future.
So, starting with the History...
I’ve been researching the history through the Art Academy blog and I’ve been in contact with the founder members to ask them what effect their experience of the Academy has had on their present careers, which I will talk about when I get to legacy. On the blog I discovered a copy of a letter Maurice Carlin wrote to Art Monthly in October 2008, and basically I’m going to use this to describe the history.
That eighteen months previously he and a group of fellow art foundation students were debating the choices available for further study on BA fine art courses.
Following talks with students and recent graduates their research revealed much disillusionment and the feeling that time (and money) spent had not yet yielded expected results. The expectation seemed to be that graduation would signal the arrival of an accession point, where the student would become an artist. On talking to graduates several years out of college it was clear that a whole other period of “education” was required to even begin to carve out something that resembled a career.
Talking to tutors who identified their frustrations with management, University selection criteria and the necessity to maintain course numbers by retaining students unsuitable for the courses did little to inspire their confidence in third level education. This left them with the following questions, which I suspect are the same questions you are all trying to answer!
What is three years of University Education worth?
What can you reasonably expect?
Is this the best way to develop a career as an artist?
What does it actually mean to be a practicing artist?
When do you become an artist?
Although most of their fellow students went on to University, some decided to take a different approach and chose to set up Islington Mill Art Academy beginning a project to experiment with what an art education could be, where it could take place and how it could be paid for. They embarked on a period of writing, debating, planning and imagining. They talked about the ideas of introducing fees, each putting a fixed amount of money in a pot to pay for tuition and other expenses.
With no history, track record, tutors or accreditation, not even knowing how long this experiment would last, would anyone be prepared to pay for this?
The general concensus after taking advice from artists they knew was that if they had a place to work and a number of interested people, they should just do it.They came to an agreement with Islington Mill that they could work the bar in return for a space to work.
So in their first 18 months what did they do? They organised talks, research trips to Glasgow, the Berlin Biennial and Art Sheffield. They ran study blocs, regular critiques and discussion groups, film nights and a residency programme working with national and international artists. They did a two week residency in Berlin where they set up a temporary free arts school. All self funded and achieved through their own efforts and the generosity of artistsand others who helped, advised and worked with them along the way.
To quote directly from Morry’s letter “ It has by no means been easy. We are constantly having to evaluate what we are doing, the content, structure and direction of the project. With no one to answer to but ourselves, every aspect of our education is open to debate and interpretation: are we students or artists? Do we graduate and if so, when and who decides? Do we work 9-5 everyday? Whom do we ask to tutor us? We spend at least 50% of our time organising our education. If we don’t do this nothing happens. Most professional practicing artists we have met have told us that this balance between professional practice and administration is a reality for them also. Many of these are the basic considerations of any education. However we are excited about the potential to reassess our own art education from the bottom up.”
Interestingly they managed to attract many more visiting artists and lectureres than some of the loacal universities and were invited to work on projects by established artists, groups and institutions. By disregarding the need for university accreditation they were treated as a group of young artists, working alongside more established and experienced practitioners. Opportunities probably not available to students at the end of their first year on a BA.
Morry was clear to state that” The group does not position itself in competition to the university system” They often worked with artists lecturers and students based in these institutions, all interested in the deabate about art education. In 2008 Morry ended his letter, “We have not found the answer to the problems facing art education at the moment and are willing and eager to put our energies into furthering and expanding this debate”. Which is why I am here today in 2017!
Which neatly brings us to the present day.
So how did I get involved and what is the Art Academy like today. Well for me the Art Academy is not the same Art Academy previously discussed. In the same way that when I put my glasses on I look like my Grandmother, Mum and Aunty Margaret, when I look at the original Art Academy, I can clearly see the likeness, the shared DNA. However, I would suggest, it is now coming to the end of its third generation, it seems to morph every three to four years.
I joined in February 2014. I did a City and Guilds in Embroidery at night School in the nineties, loved it, got a lot of praise and then continued with the day job.
Frustrated at my lack of creative output I tried again in 2009 and did an HNC in textile design, distance learning at Bradford College. I got a distinction for my HNC final show, lots of praise again and this time decided I had to do something with it. To cut a very long story short, I gave up my job in social care and used my connections to develop a community art practice. So in effect I used my creativity to swap one job, for one I had more control over, but still wasn’t producing my own stuff and most importantly, because I have done all my learning through night school and distance learning I had no peer group.
Late in 2013, I met Bill Campbell from Islington Mill at an artists newsletter networking event. I asked what Islington Mill was and how to get involved. He suggested I come to a Potluck supper. I duly turned up at the Christmas pot luck, and to be honest felt completely out of my depth and very old! However I could sense there was something there that I needed. I turned up again at the January potluck, and again felt very out of it and then Morry asked me who I was. During that conversation I felt a welcome for and an interest in Claire the artist. He recognised I was an artist in search of a peer group and suggested I come along to an art academy meeting. This was to be an image reading group. And the rest for me is history. I slowly found my feet and am now one of the core group.
I joined at the end of the Academy’s second generation. At that point it was mainly writers and artists who work on line. So it was mainly reading groups with a few making days. It was also very much a two meetings a month, evening class type of activity as everyone in the group had other, non art making commintments such as earning a living or raising a family. As the writers moved on to bigger and better things we dwindled to a tiny group of about five people, all only able to make a part time commitment.
We needed to assess what the art academy was now and also to review our own practise within it. The Mill had access to a large warehouse and we rented a mezanine level in it for a summer school, and spent the summer working on our own stuff, sharing ideas, having crits and trying to decide what to do next.
We were a mixed bunch, some with no university education like me and others with degrees in non fine art subjects. Over the summer of 2015 we became a making Academy, with visiting artists from the Mill popping in to share their skills.
I joined the Academy as someone who was unable to say they were an artist. With the support of a peer group, two residencies, access to conversations with strangers about art, regular crits, constantly being asked and asking questions, having a lot of fun, feeling out of my depth and developing an inner confidence I am now happy to call myself an artist. I will be having my first show in a public art gallery this June, at Ordsall Hall and I can categorically say that would not have happened without the Art Academy. For me it has been a place to make a commitment to myself.
So what’s its legacy, whats happening now and whats its future?
I contacted some of the people who founded the Academy in 2007 and asked how the academy had shaped their present careers.
Interestingly of those who replied, many already had higher level qualifications. Laura a practicing artist said that after University the academy was like “a breath of fresh air”, we asked “why are we doing this and what are we doing?” “ I realised that I am an eternal student in this world, that we all can be, that the most valuable education doesn’t need to end”
Maria who is now a Phd student at Durham university and recently accepted a post-doc research fellowship at University of the Arts said “ what the Art academy gave us was space, in the physical and metaphorical sense of head space. We had a physical space to experiment with materials, processes and methods. But we also had space in our heads to think about what kind of artists we wanted to be, how that would be possible and how we can get there. We had space to discuss, debate , read and think”
Lowri, working as a professional artist said “ I think the inclusivity, the rebel spirit, the DIY ethos of the academy has influenced how I make art and confirmed why I do it.” It wasn’t a stepping stone or something for an end. It was the thing itself”
Amy, now a freelance artist making socially engaged work collaboratively said “ IMAA was something that opened my eyes to the possibility of what art could be and how this fitted the things I was interetsed in” “It encouraged my confidence and made me feel I had something to say. The DIY attitude of we can do and we will do has really encouraged me in the world I live in now” “After talking to people about their own arts education I feel proud of my own path and the others of IMAA that we have gone about things differently.”
Craig, now a practicing artist in Berlin said, “As it began to get going, I began to feel attached and dedicated to it in a way I had rarely experienced in any form of education up to that point. In truth I had no particular idea of what we were doing, and was not thinking about the project it interms of its philosophy or any educational theory, but I felt a surge of enthusiasm for doing and making things.” “ it was really fun – which I feel is very important. But in hindsight it was totally pivotal for me in the way I went on to live and work in the years since then”. “ It was the Art Academy that gave me a taste of what being an artist could be like, and probably also gave me the confidence to go for it, whatever the consequences”
Morry, currently the first Clore Visual Artist Fellow said “ I think that confidence is the most important thing you need in order to be an artist, skills can always be honed, but confidence is always elusive and hard to find and hold on to” “ For me the confidence came from taking ownership of the process”
Put simply, they had all found the Art Academy had had a major impact on their present careers, It had given them space to be and develop themselves and confidence. The most interesting aspect was that it wasn’t the organised learning that they felt impacted most, but the unspecified muddle that went alongside it. I think the Art Academys major strength is that it captures all the informal learning and networking that goes on at a University, the conversations over lunch, the ad hoc comments made by friends and colleagues about your work, the book recomendation, the chance meetings and to some extent the peer pressure.
So what of the future?
One of the drivers of the Art Academy has been Maurice Carlin, one of the original founders. Recognising in 2016 that his art career was moving him into new and exciting places, and that the Art Academy needed to function without the safety net he provided we had a two day residential to try and work out how to keep the Academy sustainable, and a new members drive was a part of it.
Those new members have brought different skills, different interests and different expectations. I can sense that the fourth generation of the Academy is beginning. These new personalities will give it its own twist. Morry is part of the mill and has effectively been a connector the Academy could use to plug into its networks, databases and personanlities. This is changing, we need to make our own connections and opportunities and the Mill is changing too. Our new members are plugged into different networks, we are starting to develop links further afield, such as Bradford University. So yes the Academy is morphing into its fourth generation, something new, something that represents 2017, not 2013 or 2007 and it is really exciting.