TAFE Art School: A Jewel in Newcastle’s Crown under threat

Stroll through Newcastle on a balmy evening and take in the John Paynter Gallery at the Lock-up, The Region Art Gallery, Back to Back cooperative Gallery, the Watt Space, and the Newcastle Art Space, and you will encounter exhibition openings featuring an array of surprising, bold artworks. This is not to mention the many private and smaller “pop-up” galleries that currently flourish in the city. Small galleries, handicraft shops, boutiques, creative design and media groups are all moving in to the city, creating a new commercial and vibrant cultural life in the city.

Newcastle is a city that has never depended solely on industry for its identity. A distinctive art and cultural scene that is not afraid to break new ground has made Newcastle the city of choice for many emerging artists. The central place of art in our city relies on constant rejuvenation as our accomplished artists make their name and move onward. That rejuvenation depends on our city maintaining a viable Art School. Yet courses in Fine Arts are now under direct threat from some misconceived decisions by the O’Farrell state government.

The Newcastle Art School at TAFE has built an excellent reputation over more than 100 years in practical, studio-based training for artists. Its graduates become successful practitioners as sculptors, ceramicists, photographers and painters or enter art related fields as diverse as directors of art galleries, art therapists, program providers for disadvantaged youth, academics, cartoonists and innumerable small business owners. A significant number of Art school graduates move on to complete bachelor and higher degrees at the University of Newcastle. Indeed the articulation between Newcastle TAFE and the University of Newcastle in the area of Fine Arts is one of the most successful in the country.

From January 2013 Fine Arts courses including sculpture, visual arts and ceramics will no longer be subsidised by the NSW State Government. Premier Barry O’Farrell justified the cuts on the basis that courses in Arts are “areas of low economic growth” and that therefore “job prospects are low”. These cuts will see the key course of Diploma of Fine Arts and 3 other Certificate courses deprived of current funding to become full fee paying.

Yet these very popular courses attract students from a highly diverse range of backgrounds. Some are students who come from school without an academic approach to learning. They learn by making, seeing and doing. Such students acquire transferable skills they deploy on graduation by embarking on careers or other activities that use and develop those skills. Other students wish to develop the practical side of their talents before moving on to more academic studies in the Arts at university. For others again, Fine Arts course are a second chance to re-enter tertiary education. Many of these students are from disadvantaged backgrounds and many are women. Without support and subsidies for Fine Arts courses, these students will lose the opportunity to turn their lives around.

There is no evidence that Fine Arts courses are uneconomic or fail to provide students with employable skills. Creative industries, including visual arts, architecture and design, contribute 2.8% of gross GDP and have been growing in terms of employment opportunities (See Centre for International Economics, Creative Industries Analysis 2009). Employment in the field of the Arts is not always as visible as in more traditional trades.

Artists are often the ultimate entrepreneurs, anticipating new trends they use their creative initiative to establish innovative and unique businesses that stimulate growth, build new markets leading to much needed urban renewal. Take a look at some of the little shops and galleries that make up the Renew Newcastle sites and you will get a small glimpse of what our Art School has done for this city.

We need to save our Art School.

Therese Doyle, Greens Councillor, Ward 2, Newcastle City Council

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