by Laura Potts

Education is amazing. It encourages the growth of passion for any number of subjects, and opens doors for many to enter into the field that that passion leads them towards, where their research work is often vital to the discovery of all sorts of new and exciting things.

However, the modern system that has emerged as society has ‘advanced’ does not always prioritise the curiosity and growth that education cultivates over more material concerns such as financial gain. The increases in the various fees and costs associated with higher educational institutions and the shrinking of the creative curriculum at earlier levels often means that a passion for a subject is no longer enough. But as with any monolithic trend, alternatives have sprung up down the years.

One early vision of an alternative art education was Black Mountain College, which ran from 1933-1957. Its founder, John Rice, built the school with the intention that art, music and drama would hold the same importance as any other subject on the curriculum. This, paired with informal teaching and a focus on outdoor activity and communal interaction, made the school a bastion of alternative culture, which continues to fascinate many to this day.


Students outside Black Mountain College. Credit: Hazel Archer

Other, more modern alternatives are gaining greater prominence lately. Many of them have been around for a while, but their popularity is growing in proportion to the tightening of the neoliberal grasp on the education system and rising fears of government policy undercutting the broader creative community.

In November 2016, a group of 46 organisations held an alternative art school fair in Brooklyn, New York. The fair was organised by Catherine Despont, Alexandre Gurita and Dylan Gauthier through Pioneer Works in an attempt to start tackling the growing issues with education from a range of angles, raising new questions and finding common ground. They offered a glimpse of what education could be if it wasn’t hindered by huge costs and the ever growing weight of government’s institutional involvement. In their words, “The impetus to create an alternative art school is rooted not only in a desire to create “better” art, but to create the conditions for greater freedom of expression.” An alternative art school might consist of workshops, discussions and presentations, of free lecture programmes and artist-led sessions, of experimental and accessible spaces, all recognising that the building of an educational institution is responsive to cultural growth. The fair acted as a way for existing alternative schools to gain recognition and for individuals to gain access to them, and as part of a greater vision of evolving and adapting school systems.

The need for change, development and progression within the system is at the heart of their initiatives

The Alternative Art College (AAC) is a UK initiative rooted in the same values. They believe that you can gain as good or better an education from alternative sources than by paying £9,000 a year to a major institution. The notion that ‘knowledge is priceless’ and that government should not be allowed to put a price tag on it is something that resonates with me. This is a very progressive outlook on the education system and it is inspiring to know there is a growing resistance taking shape to the neoliberal trends in education. The AAC investigates different ways of offering free education, such as offering student artists free studio space in return for the cleaning of the building. They run a ‘retrospective’ initiative analysing the progress and setbacks of the organisation to ensure it continues to grow and change in line with its aims and the needs of its participants. They also maintain a list of resources on other projects with similar goals and artist-lead organisations concerned with social change.

These alternative education organisations recognise the frustrations so many of us have with the education system as it stands. The need for change, development and progression within the system is at the heart of their initiatives. They refocus education away from financial gain and empower students to take back the right to knowledge. Experimental by nature, they will encounter obstacles along the way, but they are all making steps in the right direction – towards returning control of education to the teachers and students, empowering them to shape the future, no matter their wealth.

Featured image credit: Alternative Art College

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