John Beck and Matthew Cornford have been tracking down and photographing the sites of British art schools for around five years. While many towns in the UK used to have a dedicated art school, now there are only a handful left; most of the buildings have been repurposed or, in some cases, demolished. While there is a historical side to these investigations that seeks to situate the history of art education in the UK within a broader cultural history (the massive impact of art school education on postwar British culture, for example), there is also a contemporary relevance to seeking out old art school buildings. Instead of educational institutions dedicated to the study of art and design, British towns are now more likely to contain signature gallery and museum buildings intended, in part, to contribute to local regeneration, heritage, and/or tourist agendas. Furthermore, as many of the new galleries are plugged in to the international circuit of what has become a globalised art world, how can we connect the local circumstances that contribute to art school closures and gallery openings to broader transformations in the relation between art and society? As successive waves of increasingly revanchist gentrification converts what were once low rent enclaves of creative activity into repurposed, high-end cultural quarters and securitised luxury residences, what can old art school buildings tell us about the ramifications of a globally hollowed out but persistently marketable bohemian imaginary?
John Beck is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Westminster. Matthew Cornford is Professor of Fine Art at the University of Brighton and has worked collaboratively with David Cross since the 1980s.