As I write this article there is a questionnaire being circulated throughout South Africa which we hope will ultimately give us the information and statistics we so sorely lack. Once this data-bank is in place, hopefully many unanswered questions regarding the state of the visual arts will be answered and we will be able to look at the situation regarding teachers and art education and a host of other things relating to art in South Africa, and come up with some useful and workable answers. We have been in the past, and still are in effect, working in the dark. This obviously is unacceptable.
To get back to the issue of teachers and teaching there are few real options for eager people who want to make a career in the visual arts. The same applies to those who do not want to go so far as making a career as artists (Arts Practitioners is the word now used) but would like to learn to paint or sculpt competently. Tertiary Education seems to cater essentially for those who wish to become lecturers, teachers, arts administrators, curators, arts journalists, gallery owners or gallerists.
To work in the academic arena one would need to have a minimum of a Fine Arts diploma and preferably a master’s degree.
As things stand at the moment at academic art schools, there seems to be little reason or sense for those wanting to make a career as artists or gallerists in the non-academic arena to spend the three or four years to obtain a diploma or degree. If you want to learn to be an artist and work as a professional painter or sculptor it makes more sense to find an experienced professional artist to mentor you and teach you.
The academically trained artists, of whom there are proportionally less than one would assume when one looks at the total or wider art market, seem to remain in the academic arena and seldom venture farther afield. They work from exhibition to exhibition and live off the salaries they generally earn from academic art institutions or from other academic pursuits. Monetary grants made available by organisations such as the National Arts Council (NAC), Lotto, ACT, various banks and other corporations are a major source of income and funding for them. Very few of these practitioners earn a living from actual sales of their work.
The existing alternative to academic training is to seek private tuition or try and go it alone. The latter is not a very good option and most of the artists claiming to be self taught are anything but. They, in almost every case have had assistance or mentoring from numerous artists and art teachers, (even if not in formal classes) but for some reason it embarrasses them to give the people that have helped them the credit they deserve. A strange notion that having been helped somehow demeans one?
No one is born with all the skills and knowledge required to become a career artist. Gleaning information and knowledge from books and sources such as the internet is important, but with the exception of very few books usable information is fairly limited and there are no alternatives to having a good teacher/mentor.
METHODS of AQUIRING KNOWLEDGE AND TRAINING
My friend and well known sculptor Carl Roberts (www.carlroberts.co.za ) should be writing this article because he is one of the few people I know, who after long years as a lecturer and academic, made the successful transition to a full time professional artist who derives all his income from the sweat of his brow.
He has some very strong and interesting opinions, and has huge experience in the academic field as well as in the trenches as it were. However seeing that Carl is not writing this but I am, you will just have to bear with me and my own limited knowledge and experience of the subject pertaining to academic vs. a non-academic career as an arts practitioner.
Working with academics and teachers in various situations over a number of years, my experience is that in most cases they have to buy into certain academic trends and fashions, and in spite of students personal aspirations they have to “toe the line” (The academic discourse of the moment.)
It has to be the academic way or nothing, and the school system is much the same where curriculums are set and everyone has to adhere to them. It is the manner of the academy. Even though they do some sterling work and giants of the art world do emerge from their ranks, essentially they produce clones. So even though you may study long and hard there is no guarantee of being able to survive as an artist after completing studying and obtaining a diploma or a degree, and sadly you probably have more chance of becoming an earning/selling artist via a really good private teacher than through the academic system.
So then it seems that the only other real choice is the private tutor, and this is in effect little better than the academic route except here you can often learn and observe the methods and requirements needed to be a professional artist if your tutor is such a person – a professional artist.
To me the worrying thing about the private teacher is that the prospective student has little or no guarantee that the person professing to be a purveyor of the required knowledge has the wherewithal to help their students achieve what they are hoping and paying for.
Anyone can claim to be an art teacher and literally charge whatever they want. There are no tests or proof of ability and the only qualification are those the teacher claim for themselves. In other words a teacher by decree!
Some few years back we set up an organisation which was called KZN Visual Arts (KWAZUNVA). The purpose of this organisation was to lift the standard of art and also things like the quality of Art organisations, societies and groups, and this also included private teaching. It was suggested that a testing system be set up and so all private teachers who wanted to be listed would have to undergo a well prepared test to find what they knew and then according to their knowledge, ability and experience they would be publicised and advertised by the organisation. It was considered that there should be three categories. An ‘A’ category that could teach up to advanced students and master classes, a ‘B’ category teacher who would teach up to intermediate students but not advanced students and a ‘C’ category which would allow those teachers to teach beginners and hobby students.
It was considered that tuition fees would be set according to knowledge, ability and experience and any teacher could apply to be retested at any time and move up the scale. The tests would also be scientifically formulated.
The result was extreme anger and resistance from teachers and so it was shelved. Personally I think that was a great mistake and a tragedy. As one of those private teachers I would be more than happy to subject myself to any such test. I would then know that I was offering value for money and it could not be questioned. I do believe and in fact know that many students attending private art classes are not getting value for their money and often it can take such a student many expensive months to find they are travelling down a dead-end road.
The only thing one can say about this state of affairs is that a mediocre teacher is better than no teacher…or is it? I don’t think it is.
There should really only be one other serious alternative, and to my mind this should be placed high on the priority list of the Departments of Arts and Culture – Nationally and Provincially. This alternative should be for those wanting to study art, especially if they want to paint or sculpt for a living, that there should be alternative public art institution.
During the time when many of us were lobbying for a better deal for art and artists, the suggestion was put forward that the old Durban station be made available and converted into a hands-on art school or college. Later we tried to do this with the old Central Prison. Each time the idea was turned down. More recently in 2004 to 2006 a group of artists, arts activists and administrators (at an Arts Conference/ workshop) in Durban, suggested that the derelict old Children’s Hospital be converted into such a school or college. The then Minister of Arts, Culture and Tourism for KZN, Narend Singh, said he thought it was a great idea and that he would go into it. Needless to say nothing ever came of it, but with many young and old, black and white people wanting to learn to earn a living from painting or sculpting or fine craft, or merely use those skills as a hobby and for those people who cannot afford the money or time for full time academic training this alternative could be the answer. Classes that are hands-on rather than essentially experimental or theoretical, but are still properly run and structured, would be a boon to art and artists and could possibly set a president and blueprint far beyond our borders.
The idea would be that the accent would be more on the practical side of art with just sufficient theory. Courses could also be run for crafts and possibly things such as general curatorship or gallery ownership/ marketing/advertising, as well as some critical writing skills and even bookkeeping.
I would really love to see such a place come into existence. Well run and with good administration and good and enthusiastic teachers.
Until that happens we will just have to manage with the unhappy and inefficient situation that calls itself Visual Arts Education.
There is not one aspect or area of the Visual Arts Industry that does not require close scrutiny and continued education. We really need a place where Art Materials suppliers can learn about their product. So too gallery owners, gallerists, artists, arts writers and all the rest.
It really should not be too difficult to create such a place or institution, but it requires the vision and the will, two things that seem to be in short supply in our country and possibly in the world just now.
I hope this gives you, the reader, some pause for thought and if you feel that you agree with me add your voice to my voice and say we need things to be improved. Just maybe someone out there will hear our plea and be motivated into supporting us?
What do you think?
Till next month….
Written: November 2009