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Artists may be among the greatest individualists in any society but some contemporary practitioners, anxious about the future of the culture, are piloting projects that aim to educate and sustain their younger peers.
Chris Ofili, one of Britain’s top contemporary painters, puts the problem succinctly: if he had been born 20 years later, he says he might never have become an artist.
Ofili completed his bachelor’s degree at the Chelsea School of Art in 1991 followed by a master’s at the Royal College. Growing up in a terraced house in Manchester, northwest England, in a far from wealthy family, he received a bursary to help cover his expenses. Today, however, he would have been expected to take out a student loan for fees that have just risen to £9,000 a year. “How much does it cost now? £30,000? I couldn’t even say £30,000,” says Ofili.
Ofili is not alone. “When I am teaching, increasingly I notice that most of my students come from wealthy backgrounds,” says Ryan Gander. Another of the UK’s leading contemporary artists, with an international career that includes Documenta 13, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the Venice Biennale, Gander teaches at institutions that include Goldsmiths and the Royal Academy in London, and the University of Huddersfield.
For would-be undergraduates in fine arts, the government’s Browne review in 2010 hit hard. First it cut funding, then it focused what was left on the sciences because they were perceived as more expensive to teach. Abigail Smith, of the University of Arts London, says: “For a specialist university like UAL, it means we have now virtually no teaching funding from government. Our argument would be that many creative courses require specialist equipment and studio spaces, and a lot of focused support, so are not cheap to teach at all.”
Gander, who was born in Chester, northwest England, in 1976, supported himself through a student loan. After art school, however, he went to work in a carpet shop in Chester and was only rescued when he won a place at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Amsterdam. In Britain, fully funded graduate opportunities are rare. “There is a big focus on raising money for scholarships at UAL and I’m sure at other universities,” says Smith. She says there is now concern that “postgraduate studies will become less accessible for students who have already acquired a lot of debt”.
Gander, meanwhile, observes that “a lot of talented graduates in, say Manchester and Sheffield, end up going to work in [mobile phone company] Carphone Warehouse.”
Now Gander is taking matters into his own hands. In 2015, he plans to open a residency for young artists in his home town of Saxmundham in Suffolk, eastern England.
Called Fairfield International, the institution will be housed in a Victorian building that was once a primary school. Gander and his business partner, creative consultant Simon Turnbull, are waiting for the final go-ahead from Suffolk county council.
Assuming that it is forthcoming, Gander says residents will be chosen according to both artistic excellence and financial need.
Gander is not alone in his concern for younger artists. Saudi Arabian conceptualist Abdulnasser Gharem, for example, is planning to open the Amen Foundation in Riyadh, an arts centre that will include a residency, library, archive and artists’ studio. Due to open next year, it will, says Gharem, take its cue from what Saudis want from their still nascent contemporary art scene. On the website, which includes a forum where visitors can post their suggestions, there are calls for a women’s art programme and an appeal to host regular artists from outside the country.
Meanwhile, Marina Abramovic aims to open an eponymous foundation in a former theatre in Hudson, upstate New York. Although the core mission is to introduce the public to the Abramovic Method, her unique performance practice, she is also planning to encompass artist residencies as part of the package.
The most advanced initiative is MASS in Alexandria. A fully fledged academy in Egypt’s second city, it was started in 2010 by Wael Shawky, one of the country’s leading contemporary artists. With 24 students enrolled on a seven-month programme (which they can complete spread over two years), maintaining the academy through Egypt’s revolution has been an enormous undertaking. Why is Shawky so committed?
“The thing we really, really need in Egypt is education,” says Shawky, who studied fine art at Alexandria University but also made regular trips to New York and completed an MFA (master of fine arts) at the University of Pennsylvania in 2000. “The government system has been collapsing drastically for 15 years and we are seeing a rise in private schools and universities, [some of which] are not very good.
“But for culture, you still need a non-profit educational system.”
Given the distance between Suffolk and Alexandria, it’s striking that Gander and Shawky discuss their projects in similar terms – in particular the failure of the public sector to provide a service that has traditionally been its responsibility. They also share a sense that they, as artists who have enjoyed certain opportunities, have a duty to fill the gap.
Yet the differences are revealing. A key element of Shawky’s programme will be trips abroad as the contemporary art scene is still limited in Egypt. For example, last year MASS students worked as interns in the Sharjah Biennial and visited Documenta in Germany.
Such events inspire students to begin to think “about the concept of the work rather than how they craft it. The discussions they have when they come back about what they have seen are really important,” says Shawky, adding that “drawing and painting” is still the core of the government-run art school programmes in Egypt. “So we are establishing something that does not exist at all.”
Gander’s residents, on the other hand, will benefit from stasis. “The two most valuable elements for artists are time and space with no need to earn money,” he says. Based on the “theme of socialisation”, the programme will see students stay in Saxmundham with inspiration provided by a variety of visitors. “It could be a scientist, an artist, a mathematician or an astronomer,” says Gander. Each arrival will spend “two half-days and a night”, allowing for a rich exchange of ideas.
Inevitably, funding is a challenge. Abramovic raised more than $650,000 through a crowdfunding campaign that involved people paying for performance events. Gander’s fundraising committee includes British sculptor Anish Kapoor and Candida Gertler, the director of Outset, an arts philanthropy organisation that helps to fund Tate Modern’s purchases at Frieze London. He estimates running costs of £360,000 a year but the residencies themselves will be funded through scholarships and bursaries, with some backers already secured.
In Alexandria, Shawky is facing an uphill struggle. As well as putting his own money into the project, he enjoyed the support of various funding bodies including the Arab Fund for Art and Culture but he now fears that backers have been deterred by the recent turmoil. “People are nervous of putting money into the educational system when there are political problems. I don’t know why.” But isn’t that when you need it most? “Exactly!”
Perhaps most interesting is the fact that several of the artists regard their educational projects as extensions of their own practice. Gharem has described his foundation as “a work of art”. Shawky is an artist whose films illuminate the way in which societies evolve according to the narratives that circulate around them. His first response, when asked what prompted him to start MASS, was clearly linked to his imaginative vision. “I am fascinated by transformation, by the development of people from one system to a higher system.”
Few artistic endeavours could be more worthwhile.