Does the art school have social value?

This post was written in response to Loki’s video entitled:

What makes the Art School more valuable than YOUR school?

Loki –

I’ve taken to write this because I felt compelled to address a few points made in your video.

To begin with, I 100% agree there is a social inequality in our society; a class problem with many issues that are not being picked up and addressed for the swarms of red tape allowing us to act humane out of our white collar job ties.

Poverty, hunger, crime, deep rooted class issues are rife in Scotland, and indeed across the world. These fundamentally need addressed.

In addition to the agreement of some of the sentiment in your video, I also like your work, very much so and have raved about some of your performances and writing to friends.

But let me tell you where I’m coming from here and which part compelled me to address your video. As a former student of the Glasgow School of Art, what jolted me into making this response was your comments questioning “the inherent value placed on the Art School” and what in turn is “it’s social function?” and “how much art comes out that challenges our society?”

To paint a background of where I come from, I was born and raised in Leith, Edinburgh and lived through regeneration, where a lot of good buildings were pulled down, communities lost. Some decisions made were non-sensical and I agree, like you said about Pollok that the human element of these spaces was not considered. In most instances (apart from the capitalist motorway decisions, that you are right about) genuine attempts are made to better communities, and in the past communication between authorities and communities was poor.  It was consultation not co-creation. Even when a decision was being made for the better of a community, it was not always communicated to be so. Here you are right.

In my teens we moved to Silverknowes (my mum got remarried so we were able to afford a slightly better house and area than where we’d grown up).

Next door to this community I saw communities torn apart in Muirhouse by drugs, regeneration, crime and a generational lag of families being out of work, this has gone on since around the 1970s.

Some of these issues still exist or have had a lasting cultural impact on the area today. I have witnessed this and seen the statistical figures on the community (and surrounding areas) to know a lot of re-building still needs done there.

There is an incredibly strong and resilient community in that part of Edinburgh and I’ve been honoured enough to be welcomed back to work with their young people, as a designer, to research, design and publish their own newspaper about the area they live in. We’ve been running issues there like ‘How their voices can be heard?’ and ‘How they will address bullying in the neighbourhood?’

I conceived, applied for funding, set up and delivered that project (called The Matter) in collaboration with Young Scot after leaving art school in Muirhouse, which has many social problems akin to those of Pollok. In fact, when the project finished, we did some evaluation with the group. Apart from a quantitative increase in their skills (confidence, team work, leadership – all the skills said to be lacking through education system and needed to enter the work place and gain jobs) they said they now felt ‘we could make anything happen’. What I hoped they gained was aspiration, dreams and the ability to forward themselves as individuals. In fact a year later they’ve self published their own two issues in the local area from the skills we taught them.

My focus for the past 5 years has been on making Scotland a better place to live in by working with authorities, communities and government by bringing people together to design the places they want to live in, the services they want to have. I do this as a designer trained from the Glasgow School of Art.

The main point I want to address is that you question, ‘What social function does the art school have?’

Between 2005-2009 I went to the Glasgow School of Art. I left with £3000 of debt (from the bank) and worked 4 days/nights a week to afford my place at the institution. I also am now paying back my additional £4500 student loan. My parents couldn’t support me to go.  I think it’s important to say that I am not from a middle class background. I worked hard for my education and have always been grounded and witnessed some of the difficulties of society around me.

I went to art school because it was a place to dream, to be given the space to think differently about society and how it could be remoulded, altered, changed.  The art school provided the safe haven to think differently about how society and the built environment around us is constituted.

In your video you talk about ‘artefacts’ and forgive me if I am wrong in what your sentiment is but you are merely talking about the physicality of produced art works, which I will come onto in a second.

The main reason I am writing this because whilst I agree with points made in your video, to question what ‘social function’ the art school has, in your tone of voice this seems to be rhetorical? And please correct me If I am wrong but your are insinuating that it doesn’t have a social function or connection with the rest of society.

Perhaps in this next statement I am going beyond what you were intending to say but from your tone of voice it sounds like you hold the art school (and others) as a disjointed institution not capable of integrating across society or have any connection?

The Glasgow School of Art is more than just paintings. It is design, innovation, architecture, historians, photography, literature. As I said, I will also address the ‘myth’ about artists and the perceived notion of them.

I studied product design and was lucky enough to be in the presence of engineering departments. Work produced included new ways of treating cancer patients, special tools for operations to help save lives during heart transplants, products for cleaning water in developing countries, initiatives for communities to grow their own produce, HIV testing kits that were more humane, re-designs for the blind to be able to cook without burning themselves.

Community buildings were designed with people in the architecture departments, sustainable housing built from only re-used materials. Pilot programmes developed to support communities to build their own homes.

Innovation both physical and social was produced and that was only in the five years I was there. Both products were designed and programmes, that I believe, focused entirely on the people who would use and experience them.

In fact, in many instances, it isn’t even about the physical artefacts put out there. Many of the outputs cannot be quantified into products and some of the best people I know have gone on to work in institutions all over the world, utilising the skills they learned from the process they underwent to create new projects. People have gone into jobs globally that are at the forefront of innovation and in many cases, innovation that makes people’s lives better.

Many of my friends have gone into the public sector and government to try and un-do some of the more top down ways of governing society (community planning and education sectors to name but a few) to introduce more fluid and co-creative forms of building a society together.

Some work in social care re-designing pathways to make integration back into housing and work easier.  A girl I know set up a cafe that employs older people to run a cafe, making sure they’re out of the house and living life to the full.

One friend has been re-designing new digital platforms to support young people in Glasgow to stay mentally well. Another group running a community initiative in the West of Glasgow to increase community activities since their local centre closed down. The list goes on.

Coming back to perhaps the ‘artist’ debate and the artefact element of this.  Artists over the years have historically embedded themselves into communities and places all over Scotland, many training and producing art works with people in these communities. This not only produces end products but also an experience for the people working with them that I am sure, will not be forgotten.

In fact, when I was at GSA, my best friend, a painter and printmaker of 4 years partnered up with me and we taught twenty 10 years old about art and design in Springburn.

I will never forget some of them who came running back into our class having gone home and schemed up new designs for their fireplaces, homes, communities – homework we’d never asked them to do but they were so enthralled by the tools and skills we’d shown them, they took it upon themselves to start dreaming what their place could look like. I only hope ten years later some of them are now enrolled in art school to learn the skills and tools that allows them to craft their future.  I had a similar experience at the age of 10 being inspired by an art school student who provided me with the ability to recognise I could make ideas a reality.

And lets just get down to some figures. The art school gave me (and my business partner from Duncan of Jordanstone, another fine institution) the passion to set up a company in Scotland. We now work internationally and have created 15 jobs in this country.  That came out of the art school. That is social value.

The reason we mourn, over and above the artefacts lost inside the building was that the Mack is a symbol of acceptance and ultimately a home for many of us who didn’t know who we were at a tender age of 18 or indeed coming back later on in life for a change of direction.

The building has meaning beyond artefact, beyond stone, beyond art work.

The Mackintosh and the larger Glasgow Art School is a place where dreams are made. Where people like myself are welcomed, accepted for whatever difference we may have and taught how to apply creativity back out into the world. Innovation was conceived here through new relationships, products, programmes, networks inside beautifully crafted corridors of mahogany wood, artworks of ex-students and small magical touches of Rennie Mackintosh.

The outpouring of grief, I believe goes over and above the beauty of the Mackintosh library and building. It is felt from a deep connection with a place, from walking through a set of double doors to enroll into an institution that will prime and prepare people to go out and question why we live the way we do.  It is a beating heart of social value for people all across Scotland and the world who had the honour of being educated in such a marvelous institution.

That is why the community is reaching out to restore. And in particular, to rebuild and support the final year of students who had, like many of us experienced, poured every last bit of their soul into producing an extension of themselves. That art work will be lost forever, but their education will not and they will go on to challenge society just like the rest of us did.

The Glasgow School of Art’s social value was to educate me to only hope that I could change and challenge the historical way Scotland has done things.

Loki, as I have said, I believe we are on the same page and I merely want to address your comment about the social value. It is important we rebuild the art school. The community may not be geographically connected in the sense some of the areas you reflect on are but we are still a community, a transient one that is connected globally. On Friday we felt grief, a sense of loss of a place that meant so much to so many of us.  I stood watching the fire just as it had broken out.  The outpouring of grief came through a belief we had lost everything – not just a building but a symbol for so many of us who had worked and studied there. Thankfully the reports are pointing out that not all is as bad as it seems.

We are on the same page and fighting the same fight but before stating that the art school has no social value please read the history, understand the outcomes of the wider impact of the art and design world.  Not only from Glasgow School of Art, but from art institutions across Scotland and the world.

With all our skills sets and passion to improve Scotland and society, we should join together. We can only truly make a difference if we work together.

Sarah Drummond

Glasgow School of Art graduate 2009


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