Private sector picks up the pieces as UK government cuts art education funding

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Arts education in the UK is under attack yet again. Two years after the former Conservative education secretary Gavin Williamson announced he was cutting higher education funding for arts courses by 50%, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has launched an offensive against “low value” degree courses.

“Students and taxpayers will be better protected against rip-off degree courses that have high drop-out rates, don’t lead to good jobs and leave young people with poor pay and high debts,” Sunak and the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, promised in a tabloid-style government press release, issued on 17 July.

In 2019, a government-commissioned independent review of post-18 education and funding in the UK, chaired by the writer and former investment banker Philip Augar, highlighted arts and humanities courses, particularly the creative arts, as providing the worst value for taxpayers’ money and the lowest earning outcomes. The findings of the Augar Review have underpinned the Conservative government’s current desire to cap or cut what it now terms “rip-off” courses.

But who is going to suffer the effects of this crusade the most? Students from less privileged backgrounds who do struggle to gain employment in the art world, chiefly because of structural barriers: unpaid internships, low wages and the London-centric nature of much of the industry.

Several universities are already making cutbacks to plug multi-million-pound deficits, with arts and humanities departments bearing the brunt. The University of Wolverhampton has “a rolling programme of course closures and redundancies”, according to Aidan Byrne, the subject leader for English literature and former chair of the University and College Union. One of the greatest losses is the permanent closure of its glass and ceramics BA and MA courses.

At the University of Brighton, more than 100 academic staff are due to be cut, including the widely published and respected scholars Cathy Bergin, principal lecturer at Brighton’s School of Humanities and Social Science, and Lizzie Ward, the school’s principal research fellow. Neither was available for comment when contacted.

“Our senior managers are destroying the art department at Brighton,” says Kevin Biderman, a senior lecturer at the university’s School of Art and Media. “After the last round of voluntary redundancies there is hardly anyone left to teach fine art. But they still think they haven’t cut enough. That’s why we are taking indefinite strike action. Our government does not want to see working class young people in university education, especially education that develops their ability to think for themselves.”

The commercial sector has been quietly plugging some of these deficits for several years. Over the past decade, a handful of private art schools have opened, most recently Tracey Emin’s artist residency in Margate, which offers studio space and tuition to young artists from around the world. Also in the Kent town is Open School East, a free, independent art school established in 2013 and catering to pupils and students aged 5-21. Another coastal initiative, the Sidmouth School of Art, was launched in 2021 in collaboration with David Shrigley.

Dealers offer fellowships and bursaries

Art dealers are also stepping in. In 2020, Lisson Gallery launched its Solomon B. Hayden Fellowship for Art History, named after the artist Hugh Hayden’s father. The fellowship, personally financed by Hayden and the gallery’s senior leadership team, aims to support diverse candidates wishing to pursue a career in art history and/or curation. Last year, the gallery began offering bursaries worth £10,000 each to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students on postgraduate courses enrolled at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Hauser & Wirth set up its learning department almost a decade ago when Debbie Hillyerd joined the gallery, having been a lecturer in critical studies at Bath Spa University. The learning programme was initially rolled out in Somerset in 2014 followed by Los Angeles in 2016, where the gallery partnered on a residency exchange between the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and Bath Spa University, and in 2021 in Menorca, where the gallery is currently working with the University of the Balearic Islands. In 2019, Hauser & Wirth gave $1m to the California State University’s television, film and media studies department.

“As a gallery, we can provide an education into the working world that the university doesn’t,” Hillyerd says. “You spend years in the lecture theatre or in the studio, but that’s very different to the actual outside art world. The bridge into that system is so important.”

In 2022, the gallery engaged 150,000 students across all its sites and, to meet demand, Hillyerd has recruited four new team members in the UK and US this year alone. Nonetheless, she thinks such expansion should not plug the gaps left by statutory education. “The role and responsibility of the creative industry is to recognise the value and impact that we can provide in helping the future generation access these careers,” she says. “Learning shouldn’t be this privileged thing that we package up and put a price tag on. Imparting knowledge should be the greatest privilege for all of us.”

The world’s top auction houses have traditionally been highly exclusive working environments, employing scions of the titled, the wealthy and the well-connected. But now, gradually, their hiring practices are becoming a bit more diverse and inclusive.

Phillips New York announced in June that it was launching an apprenticeship scheme in collaboration with the US-based outreach organisation Art Start to foster “a more open and diverse career landscape” in the art trade.

The selected apprentices, chosen, with the help of Art Start, from long-marginalised communities, will spend 12 months experiencing the various career paths offered by Phillips, including specialist departments, events, client services, operations and property handling. Successful completion of the scheme will lead to a full-time job offer at Phillips, according to the announcement.

“It’s about changing the system,” says Michelle Petrazzuolo, Phillips’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA). “These organisations are hundreds of years old,” adds Petrazzuolo, who recognises that the most prestigious auction houses tend to hire “a homogenous group”.

Petrazzuolo says there is no fixed target for the number of apprentices taken on by Phillips. So far, three have been engaged by the auction house, which has 216 full-time and fixed-term employees based in the US. “Change won’t be fast, but we want it to be lasting,” she says.

Phillips bills its apprenticeship scheme as “a first-of-its-kind program for the auction industry”. That may be the case in the US, but Christie’s has been operating a similar, government-sponsored advanced level (level 3) programme for non-graduate apprenticeships in London since 2017.

Christie’s has been collaborating with Art History Link-Up, an organisation devoted to introducing state-educated schoolchildren to the subject, now offered as an A-level by fewer than eight schools outside the private sector.

“We’re trying to encourage a different type of person to Christie’s to bring fresh ideas and a different energy,” says Toby Monk, the auction house’s state-educated global recruitment director.

Christie’s currently has around 600 staff in London, 35 of whom are apprentices, mostly state-educated, working across a range of the company’s functions, including the specialist art departments. The initiative currently scores 9.3/10 at ratemyapprenticeship.co.uk, the UK’s online resource for school leavers seeking to train in leading companies.

As yet, Sotheby’s does not operate an equivalent apprenticeship programme either in the US or UK. However, in 2021 Sotheby’s New York did publish a corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) action plan for 2022-2025.

The document says the company is committed to conducting a recruitment process that “actively seeks and prioritises diverse candidates from historically excluded communities at all levels of the business”.

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