Sarah Teasley on the Role of Art Schools and their Future

175 Years of Design at the RCA

With the role and value of the art college under media spotlight (from Start the Week to The Independent), design historian and RCA tutor Sarah Teasley discusses how art colleges might prove their worth in times of cuts to funding, and recounts some of the more unusual careers RCA graduates have embarked on. Part four of our 175th anniversary interview series with Gina Lovett.

The Synthetic Kingdom, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Film still
The Synthetic Kingdom, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Film still

In your essay in the book, The Perfect Place to Grow, you refer to the constant 'big' questions that art colleges grapple with from what their purpose should be to how to measure output, or whether conceptual thinking over practical skills should be taught. Where does the RCA stand on these issues?

The RCA started out as a design training school and has been known more for fine art at other times. With current Government discussions around STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, there’s a tendency to say that design [and engaging with pressing environmental or social issues] is the route that we should be going down, but the RCA’s School of Fine Art is still globally recognised as one of the best places in the world to study, and is one of the hottest places for emerging artists.

We’re always facing such challenges and asking what direction should we go in. Of course, art schools are for professional training. Of course, they’re spaces for intellectual freedom, experimentation and development. Of course, we need to teach both skills and conceptual development. Smart art schools know that just going down one of these routes is not possible. The best approach is what philosophers call ‘and both’. An art school needs to be a place for all of these approaches. That’s why we have multiple tutors and different projects to take on all of these perspectives. 

Do you think there is an increase in the number of specialisms at art colleges? What sort of impact might this be having on the divisions between disciplines?

There are certainly more specialisms than there used to be. At the College, for example, there are new programmes in Service Design and Information Experience Design. But, you could say that this is more about redirecting existing types of skills to new design challenges – areas where we’re now realising that design can make a difference. It’s not necessarily a new way of working, or new specialist skills, as much as it is about applying design to areas where it hasn’t been applied before. It’s also about combining specialist approaches through collaborative thinking.

Collaboration can be tricky: disciplines speak differently, use different language and terms, think differently, and differ on what the aims of projects are and how to get there. It may be uncomfortable but we need to do it. The RCA’s interdisciplinary week, AcrossRCA, where students from all programmes come together to work on collaborative projects, addresses this. It’s about communication skills and students learning what they can bring to a project. It’s also about self-confidence. 

You foresee more collaboration with African students. What's currently going on in this area?

This really is an emerging area, though the RCA’s Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) has been leading the way. IDE ran a project with a design school in Accra, Ghana, a few years ago. These projects can really teach us about working with fewer resources and how we might get past the loop of planned obsolescence and disposable products, or designing just for consumption. Some of the projects in Africa, just because of the conditions, have students thinking in a way they wouldn’t do here in London.

For the IDE trip, there were students from India, Bangladesh, America, the UK, Europe – each with very different experiences of growing up and what design is, which meant their experiences in Ghana were also very different. Some felt very close to the students in Ghana and what they were trying to do, but for others, it was a real shock. It means there was a very strong, and very rich mix of experiences. I think we will see more projects like this in Nigeria, or South Africa.

How can art schools prove their worth at a time when STEM subjects are being held up as a beacon for the economy?

There’s an argument that we should talk about what is called ‘STEM-D’, or ‘D-STEM’. This is the idea that design can be a quantifiable, problem-solving, challenge-oriented discipline. I think it’s true, but it’s also a dangerous argument to make because design – and the arts – is not entirely rational. And that’s what makes it so strong – it’s the sideways jump, the creativity, the unobvious, the willingness to go out on a limb, make suggestions, speculate and then apply the answers. The magic of the arts and design is that you have to be more open and that this ability to be unsure gives it power.

There’s also an economic argument, which I don’t like to make as I think it’s a bit short-sighted, but we tend to overlook how much the fine arts bring to the British economy every year. There are amazing stats on the actual amount of pounds that museums and art fairs like Frieze bring to the economy. We like what’s quantifiable, and when there’s a limited amount to go round, we tend to give funding to things that have more ‘guarantee’, things that we can then justify, and things that we don’t have to take a risk on. Any funding strategy or policy absolutely needs to include the arts. And that includes seriously reconsidering the idea not to include the arts in the Baccalaureate.

RCA graduates have embarked on some unexpected careers over the years. What are the most unusual you've come across?

The RCA has a great history of people who changed the music industry – think about Ian Dury – but more recently, one of the Design Interactions graduates from two years ago, Hiromi Ozaki, springs to mind. She started off as a mechanical engineer and did an MA in robotics before coming to the College to do a gender critique of technology through performance art. She was torn about doing this in an academic realm or taking it public. She ended up opting for the latter and is now a bit of a household name in Japan, with a stage name of Sputniko.

The last time I was in Tokyo, I was surprised at the numbers of people who have nothing to do with art or design, who know her work. She’s shown this same work across Hong Kong and South East Asia, and at the Talk to Me exhibition at MoMA last year. She’s doing a really interesting job. This is something you can do at the RCA – and at art schools more generally – develop a practice that is critical and, at the same time, speak to a wide audience.

I’d also mention Daisy Ginsberg, another Design Interactions graduate, who comes from a fine art background. She’s now consulting on large-scale, government-funded biology projects, bringing her critical design methodology and fine arts background into science projects – fully-funded and part of the team. It’s a different career to Hiromi, but shows how the College facilitates such a mix of art and design, and the ability to experiment with critical discourse.

Read the other interviews in our series:

Buy The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art 
"Design – and the arts – is not entirely rational. And that’s what makes it so strong – it’s the sideways jump, the creativity, the unobvious, the willingness to go out on a limb... The magic of the arts and design is that you have to be more open and that this ability to be unsure gives it power." Sarah Teasley