Alternative art education: The Syllabus – rethinking educational strategies for artists

The Syllabus is a nomadic artist development programme billed as an alternative to formal art education. At its half-way stage, Anneka French speaks to the project’s organisers, artist Andy Holden and Wysing Arts Centre, and to two of the ten participating artists.


The Syllabus, courtesy Wysing Arts Centre, photograph Chelsea Pettitt

“I’m very interested in alternative models of art education,” says Andy Holden, the artist commissioned to develop The Syllabus, a one-year, multi-sited development programme led by Wysing Arts Centre in partnership with five other visual arts organisations across England.

“I didn’t study for an MA but I now teach at the Royal College of Art, a postgraduate-only school. An institutional MA is a highly pressured, professionalised environment that’s not suitable for all artists. As so many can’t afford to do an MA, I think it’s becoming increasingly urgent to consider alternatives.”

The impetus for The Syllabus is a rethinking of educational strategies for artists. “The premise arose from difficulties, as I see them, in teaching art and in being taught by artists,” says Holden. “I’m interested in how artists pass on information and how artists learn from each other.”

Its educational approach lies somewhere in the overlap between postgraduate programmes and artist residencies – a model without the strictures of learning objectives and assessment criteria. Wysing director, Donna Lynas, explains: “We wanted to grow a bigger support network in collaboration with the project partners, with the potential to offer a genuine alternative to an MA.”

The Syllabus participants at Spike Island, courtesy Wysing Arts Centre, photograph Chelsea Pettitt

Short retreats

Since June 2015, ten artists selected from an open call have been taking part in The Syllabus. They have been on short retreats to Wysing in Cambridge, Spike Island in Bristol, New Contemporaries in London, and Eastside Projects, Birmingham. Workshops, discussions, readings, crits and social activities are spread across several days.

The participating artists – Simon Bayliss, Noel Clueit, Susie Green, Mathew Parkin, Rory Pilgrim, Jessica Sarah Rinland, Tom Salt, Lucy Steggals, Tom Varley and Rafal Zajko – will next travel to S1 Artspace in Sheffield and Studio Voltaire, London.

The artists are based in Cornwall, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Leeds, rural Surrey and London, and their geographical spread is by design. The selection process also factored in educational background; a number of the participants have never studied on a formal MA programme or have been outside education for some time.

Simon Bayliss graduated from his MA five years ago. “I wanted to be part of a learning environment again,” he says, “but I also wanted to get out of Cornwall – to meet artists working elsewhere and visit venues I’ve never been to.”

Tom Varley, meanwhile, is simultaneously studying MFA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, for which he relocated from Glasgow. “I was attracted to The Syllabus’ list of partnership organisations – they’ve worked with lots of artists I really like. I applied for both programmes at the same time; I felt I needed to do something different and was looking to be part of a structured framework.”

Ongoing evaluation of The Syllabus through survey, discussion and observation is allowing organisers to react directly to artist feedback – something postgraduate programmes are often criticised for not doing. This flexible approach is refreshing, says Bayliss. “I don’t feel as though we’re students. We’re all treated as individual professional artists and I don’t think this happens on an MA.”

Published by a-n 11 February 2016. Continue reading the full article on a-n


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