Reg Mombassa Photo: Chris Peken

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Fears for the development of Australia’s cultural heritage have been heightened as Sydney’s art education institutions begin to be merged and streamlined.

Sydney University will dissolve its College of the Arts campus at Callahan Park and merge with the University of New South Wales’ Art and Design Faculty. In the wake of the news that Sydney will be left with just one tertiary art school, head of the National Art School, Michael Snelling, has confirmed that the independent institution is in discussion about a potential merger with UNSW.

“That’s a disgusting proposition… the National Art School is probably the best known and most longstanding art school in Australia and it has produced some of the best Australian artists,” National Art School alumnus Reg Mombassa told City Hub.

Mombassa is perhaps most well-known for his distinctly Australian art style, and he is one of many notable National Art School alumni.

“Reg Mombassa is a classic example of the type of artist that can come out of the NAS,” said fellow alumnus and Archibald Prize-winning artist Tim Storrier.

“But it’s very hard to imagine that; a) Reg Mombassa would ever have been allowed to attend a university faculty art school, and b) that he would have been given the due credit in the teaching style that he needed.”

Without a diversity of choices in arts education, the general worry is that more traditionally focussed schools based on craft and practice will be lost to lecture halls.

Discussions between both universities, the NAS and the state government have been ongoing for the past year.

“It’s not so much that the art school is looking to merge with anybody, we really like being independent and we’ve spent a lot of time trying to become that,” explained Michael Snelling.

“However we are owned by the NSW Government and [if they put plans on the table], in all good faith we need to have a look at them, evaluate them, and give them feedback.”

“I’m very hopeful of seeing a positive outcome for the NAS. I think the government has devoted a huge amount of energy to trying to come up with a solution that meets its needs and meets our needs…”

While Snelling is adamant to maintain the independence of the NAS, he assures that they have a positive and collegial relationship with the other schools, adding: “We’d like to work with them much more…we’re not antagonistic, we’re not at odds, we’re simply different.”

Meanwhile, as an alumnus of the Sydney College of the Arts and another Archibald Prize-winning artist, Ben Quilty is “devastated” to hear that his art school is shutting down.

“What they promise is that they’re building a ‘super school’ and there’s been comments about the three schools performing below par… But look at the alumni, to tell me that Sydney College of the Arts has been behaving below its maximum ability is extraordinary,” said Quilty.

“The alumni from the past 10 years [alone] is extraordinary: Venice Biennale artists, famous film makers, artists in collections right around the world…”

“It follows a pattern that has been happening in Australia for some time; the University of Western Sydney [WSU] Arts School was shut down a few years ago, many of the TAFE art courses were shut recently, earlier this year the University of Newcastle Fine Arts Degree was shut. They’re slowly closing all of the arts schools and the reason, I think, is that universities are forced to increase their numbers of international students to pay for the ongoing costs of education,” said Quilty, adding that artists study in their home countries to “tell the story of [their] place of origin”.

Both Quilty and Mombassa fear that as artists’ options to work and study in Australia become limited, we are likely to see a cultural “brain drain” much like the mass exodus of local talent seen in the conservative 1950’s and 60’s.

“I think people are getting really sick of…being bullied by relatively ruthless governments and wealthy individuals and institutions that [only] want to make money out of things, when people would prefer to have a viable community life or an interesting educational institution,” said Mombassa.

“In 1991 I had the choice of three different university art schools around Sydney and five other art schools including major TAFE art courses, and [if the amalgamations go ahead] by the end of next year that ends up being a couple of half-funded TAFE schools and one university arts school, that’s just breath taking, that is a city going backwards fast,” added Quilty.

The state government’s slashing of art education is comparable to the federal government’s drastic cuts to the national arts budget, symptoms of a time in Australia’s history where we are seeing a general lack of interest in promoting the arts at the top political and bureaucratic levels.

“I stress that I don’t see any direct connections between these things that are happening at the state level and the federal level,” stated Snelling.

“But I do think they reflect a general Australia wide need for a lot more affirmative noise about the state of the arts, the importance of the arts, the need for transparency and funding from governments…and a recognition about how much the arts contribute culturally, socially and financially to the way that the country functions in the wider world as well as how the country functions at a very local level.”

Unless strategic policy changes are made, all education in the arts – from visual arts institutions, to NIDA and The Conservatorium of Music – are due to come under pressure.