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Saturday, April 17, 2021

ANU School of Art and Design at risk

Staff at the ANU School of Art and Design (SOA&D) are dismayed by the prospect of severe cuts that could see three workshops close, disciplines cancelled, and the institution’s international reputation suffer.

“Our concern is that we are the last bastion of the Bauhaus model, and we’re the last art school in Australia that has the full suite of workshops,” technical officer and NTEU Union delegate, Millan Pintos-Lopez, said.

The ANU is desperate to close its financial gap of $103 million per annum from next year; COVID-19 has left the University in an uncomfortable financial situation following what Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt has called the “most challenging … year” in its history.

SOA&D is in the crosshairs. The School has run since 2014 with an annual budget deficit of $2 million, due, according to the ANU, to the high cost of infrastructure and maintenance in the heritage-listed Art Deco building, and to salary expenditure far exceeding revenue earnings. Each year, $7.5 million is spent on recurrent salary costs – $2 million more than the School’s total revenue earnings of $5.2 million.

To make the School financially sustainable, the ANU Recovery Plan proposes: disestablishing the Furniture, Glass, Jewellery and Objects workshops; disestablishing the Animation and Video program; merging the Glass and Ceramics workshops; scaling back the School’s gallery; and cutting the number of technical and gallery staff. Seven people have taken voluntary separations; five more positions – four academic, one technical – will also go. The cuts follow staff reductions three years ago when all seven senior staff members left.

Outgoing Head of School, Professor Denise Ferris, issued a statement on the SOA&D website: “While the prospect of losing disciplines is truly challenging, and devastating for the five individuals who may lose their roles, the changes are directed at greater financial sustainability. We remain committed to studio practice and will continue to deliver a high-quality studio-based teaching and learning experience and ‘make things’.”

But Mr Pintos-Lopez and postgraduate coursework convenor Dr Erica Seccombe believe that these cuts will make the School’s operation more difficult. Closing the gallery, for instance, is “a ridiculous notion”, Dr Seccombe said; it is the School’s major resource to promote itself. Each workshop has an international reputation; losing staff means losing experts of standing. That, in turn, will put greater pressure on remaining staff, limiting both their ability to take on new research students and to produce more research.

Mr Pintos-Lopez believes the cost of running the School is exaggerated; the figure includes the cost of major repairs to the 1930s building.

“Unfortunately, that adds onto our cost, and makes us look like we cost a lot more to the University than if we were in a brand-new facility like some of the other schools.” Or like the $80 million refurbishment and new two-storey building the University announced for the School last year.

SOA&D is also a draw for the university. Students choose ANU because they can do a flexible double degree in science, anthropology, forensic science, or maths, and also go to an art school, Dr Seccombe said.

Similarly, she said, staff contribute a lot to research through collaboration with other disciplines. She is working with the Department of Applied Maths to develop pioneer visualisation tools in micro-CT (an imaging technique using X-rays to see inside an object). Others are developing VR experiences using plate film from astronomy; working on environmental issues such as the Anthropocene and climate change; or gaming and sport.

“Our commitment to excellence in teaching and caring for our students still remains, and will always remain,” Mr Pintos-Lopez said.

“The proposed disestablishment of the workshops will never get in the way of it. But it does put at risk our capacity to do that – and risks our reputation.”

The wider Canberra community could also suffer.

“We’re a huge feeder organisation for the art and design sector in Canberra,” Mr Pintos-Lopez said. “If you look at any arts organisation in Canberra, 90% of the staff and the people who use it are graduates of our school.”

Others, Dr Seccombe said, work in local and federal government roles demanding resilience, entrepreneurial skills, creativity and collaboration. “We rely on students to come into the community, build up their careers, and be part of the community,” she said.

At present, the atmosphere in the School of Art is tense; half the staff feel their positions are threatened.

“The ANU really let their care to staff lapse. When you’ve got a staff of 60, and you tap 25 on the shoulder for a spill and fill, there’s so much anxiety and concern because those 25 fear for their own position.”

The lack of consultation rankles, too. “As staff members we could come up with some really good ideas to help, but we haven’t been given that opportunity,” Mr Pintos-Lopez said. “We’ve just been told what’s going to happen. They say there’s a consultation process, but my belief is that it will go ahead as planned – unless they listen to us.”

Mr Pintos-Lopez urges those who are concerned about the cuts to write before the consultation process closes on Wednesday 2 December to:

“We ask in your letters that you attest to the School’s excellence in teaching and the excellence of our graduates of which give back so much to the rich tapestry that is the Art and Design sector in the ACT, Australia and the world,” Mr Pintos-Lopez said.

“Please draw the ANU’s attention to the fact that this School is one of the last bastions of the Bauhaus model in Australia that still maintains such a complex suite of disciplines. No matter what happens, we will continue to provide that excellence and contribute to the sector through our graduates, but the proposed cutting of disciplines puts so much unnecessarily at risk.”

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