Trouble At Mill

Art Life Jan 11, 2010 No Comments

After the fractious campaign to secure an independent future for the National Art School, the appointment of Professor Anita Taylor as the art school director seemed to outsiders like a sober and sensible choice. For those expecting business-as-usual, however, Professor Taylor’s new broom approach has prompted a vigorous internal debate on the values of the institution, its processes and staffing policies. Here is an excerpt from an open letter written by Dr. Jacques Delaruelle, who was until recently head of art history and theory:

An open letter to Mr Peter Watts AM,

Chair of the NAS Board of Directors,

(and whoever else cares about the National Art School)

Dear Peter

Allow me a degree of frankness which may not have been appropriate when we last met a few weeks ago, at the NAS end of year exhibition. I had asked you a question about your Board’s involvement in the management of the school and, more specifically, its eventual function as a court of appeal. You answered that you believed it imperative for the Board of Directors not to interfere with the running of the school and implied that its CEO, Ms [Anita] Taylor, had been given carte blanche and could therefore do as she pleased. Your response, which I hope to have correctly paraphrased, filled me with dire foreboding. My anxiety that we would be treated… well, just as we have been treated… increased considerably. Yet even though my colleagues and I had for some time been aware of Ms Taylor’s agenda, I wondered whether you and your colleagues on the Board would condone the destruction of our professional lives and the dismissal of our many years of service to the NAS as worthless. Now the haste of the selection process, its transparent bias and the hypocritical reassurance given to us all along by its chair does not necessarily suggest that Ms Taylor coolly planned our elimination with the Board’s unanimous approval. But there can be no doubt that the manner of our execution implied at all stages, a remorseless resolution.

Much worse can be said about a selection process whose indifferent violence forced all Heads of Department out of positions some had held for many years. Were we all that bad or were we paying the price for the incompetent management of the last director and his acolyte? In any case, even though we had all been previously selected on merit and the job descriptions had not been altered in the new structure, all Heads of Department were dismissed as one. How can anyone possibly believe that due process, based on merit selection, was followed in the latest round of interviews? As far as I am aware the NAS, still being a State-funded institution (albeit through grants), is bound to follow government regulations regarding the selection of staff. But did it, and given the collective result of the selection process, how can the representatives from the State bodies on the Board of NAS Directors regard and countenance such extraordinary recruitment practices? [ At present the two stakeholders of the NAS company are the Ministries of the Arts and Education with representatives on the NAS Board of Directors.]

What can one think of a selection process that allows one of the successful applicants to grease his way to the coveted position by wining and dining the NAS CEO, who would soon interview him for a job, at a exclusive Sydney restaurant? Prior to that the same individual had likewise treated a member of your board to a similar feast. That the two guests of our entrepreneurial applicant had remained blind to the conflict of interest and nepotistic overtones of such invitations begs to be explained. And other questions, albeit tangential to the current issue, beg to be answered with regard to the NAS CEO granting the NAS artist studio to her own husband for the third time in a row. Another point of contention is related to her own appointment at the NAS. Ms Taylor was interviewed for her position by a representative from DET, Ms Sandra Yates, author of the still undisclosed report that led to the NAS becoming a public company, and Mr John Mc Donald, art critic at the Sydney Morning Herald. In November 2008, Mr McDonald was invited by Ms Taylor, the founding director of Jerwood Drawing Prize, to judge and write the catalogue essay for the show. Mc Donald was flown to London, courtesy of the Centre for Drawing, University of the Arts of which Ms Taylor is the Director, and the following month was a member of the selection panel which appointed Ms Taylor as the new Director of the NAS.

It has been said that the NAS (its staff, not its walls, I presume) had virtues which other art schools lack, and more particularly perhaps, a distaste for the kind of empty semiotic gestures which dominate the current art scene. More importantly, the NAS was alone of its kind in protecting a certain idea of art making deemed obsolete or ‘romantic’ elsewhere. The history of art was taught at the NAS more extensively than it is taught anywhere else in Australia and approached from a critical perspective which will no longer be tolerated under the stewardship of our decapitator (“too many heads…” she was heard jesting). The ideals of collegiality and academic freedom, which barely managed to survive under the previous regime, are strictly incompatible with the management style my colleagues and I have experienced for the past six months. The soothing contralto in which her unfathomable pronouncements are conveyed and her autocratic intolerance of debate in meetings made it all too obvious that only sycophants would be admitted in her entourage or mules, to carry the load or perform the work that she herself would not care to do.

To return to my previous point that the singularity of the NAS was its best chance for long term survival in an environment saturated with conformism and fashionable sameness, one can only deplore that this opportunity has been so gravely jeopardised by a person who showed herself as utterly indifferent to the identity of the school she highjacked as she was callous to its people. Finally, though the CEO’s official task, some would say her mandate, was one of conservation, her defining action has been essentially destructive. The continuity of the NAS teaching has been interrupted in such a drastic manner that the new school will find it hard to cling to its old name with even a semblance of legitimacy.

The Friends of the National Art School (FONAS) have battled long and hard for the autonomy of the NAS, but I cannot believe that the massacre which has just taken place is what they had in mind. At this particular juncture, the NAS stands ready to be reduced to a piece of historical real estate, a shallow educational ‘philosophy’ (the so-called atelier model) with an obsessive emphasis on drawing, and a brand to be marketed in the hope of financial survival once the government subsidies come to an end. Since there can be no independence from money, one may be excused for suspecting that the real meaning of ‘independence’ for the NAS has now less to do with a freer, or more appropriate learning mode than with the departure of the school from the public system of education. Again, there is nothing here to celebrate. The privatisation of the NAS is not merely a disaster for those teachers who, having served the school for so many years, have just been rewarded with a kick in the face. It is a calamity for its future students and staff as well, not to mention the likely impoverishment of the Australian visual arts in the years to come. Does anyone here really care? I doubt it! Please correct me if I am wrong.

Dr Jacques Delaruelle
Head of the Art History and Theory Department, NAS, (1997-2010)
3 January 2010

Delaruelle’s open letter has apparently prompted an emergency board meeting of the NAS, scheduled for this evening. We’ll keep you updated.

The Art Life

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