Management by Gallows at The National Art School

by Alex Wisser

Originally published 2010-01-15 on

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.