How can art schools defend their mission when so few of the graduates become artists? Art Radar attended the Art Basel Hong Kong talk event that explored this question and more.

Perspectives from the highly selective Städelschule in Germany as well as Hong Kong’s first established art school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, contributed to a lively and detailed discussion moderated by Randian magazine’s Chris Moore and Thomas Eller. 

On Education screen capture

Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon: On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century. Image capture from video.

The Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon talk “On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century” featured speakers Philippe Pirotte, Director of the Städelschule in Frankfurt (Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main) and Kurt Chan Yuk Keung, Professor at the Department of Fine Arts, Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and was moderated by Chris Moore, publisher of Randian magazine, and Thomas Eller, artist and editor of the same publication.

Centring around the role and potential of art schools in the 21st century, the panel discussed how the modes of teaching art have changed in the past decades, and how the “purpose” of a fruitful art education could and should be measured beyond success in the art market.

Exchange between Artists and Professors

Moderator Eller briefly attended art school in Berlin in the 1980s. Reflecting on his own experience, he recalls the old-fashioned style of teaching by old male professors – many of whom, as he adds anecdotally, had prominent last names ending in “-mann” – who did not appreciate too many questions from students. With this as a point of departure, he asked the speakers about the way art professors nowadays approach and organise teaching.

Chan, who has been a professor at CUHK for 26 years, similarly questioned what his own professors, most of whom were trained in the 1950s, could impart to benefit him as an artist learning in the 1980s. As such, in the capacity of a teacher now, he tries to learn from students by positioning himself as their comrade and facilitating mutual exchanges.

Professor Kurt Chan Yuk Keung. Image courtesy Kurt Chan.

Professor Kurt Chan Yuk Keung. Image courtesy Kurt Chan.

Beyond the Art World

Of every cohort of 30 graduates from CUHK’s Fine Art Department, only around three students – 10 percent – become artists. As such, Chan thinks it is important for art schools and art professors to guide students, even if they do not become artists, to assume positions as important art mediators working in different sectors of society.

This role of art schools – to allow students to think in their own capacities about art – is especially important as the art market has a narrow entrance, and entering it takes much more than just talent and hard work. CUHK has a large alumni network with members working across the city’s museums, galleries and non-profits as curators and in other important capacities. Chan feels this network is a valuable resource for his school’s graduates seeking to contribute creatively to society beyond becoming artists.

Chris Moore in Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon: On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century. Image capture from video.

Chris Moore in Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon: On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century. Image capture from video.

Learning with Malerfürsten

The Städelschule still retains a traditional structure of art education built around classes offered by renowned professors – all well-established practicing artists known reverently as “Malerfürsten”, or “painter princes”. As these professors select the students who wish to enter their classes, the system sometimes seems stilted in its exclusiveness, but Pirotte says that once students enter their respective classes, the roles reverse, and the “Malerfürsten” are open to learning from students, echoing Chan’s view about the importance of mutual exchange.

As an example, Pirotte says Swiss artist and Städelschule professor Peter Fischli would take his students on hiking tours around the Frankfurt airport, carrying their grills. Different professors organise their classes differently and listen to students on their own terms.

As to whether an art school’s role should go beyond educating fine artists, Pirotte feels that Städelschule is a space for students to decide whether they want to be artists or not. The school does not provide students with the skills for something else, so he sees its role as letting them see whether the career and life of an artist is what they aspire to.

Click here to watch Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon: On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century on YouTube

Staying Small

As the most reputable art school in Europe, the Städelschule has a small campus and suboptimal infrastructure. Keeping the Städelschule small compared to other institutions in Germany is vital in cultivating its characteristic freedom needed to nurture artists. Currently, the school is run on a mere €5 million in endowments a year, a small sum for an internationally famous institution. “Success in capitalism forces entities to grow,” says Pirotte, “but we want to be under the radar and keep a low profile.”

In Germany, the higher institutions of fine art have a tendency to seek university status, but Pirotte says that if the Städelschule becomes a state institution, the students and faculty might foment a revolution and find their own money to continue running the school as it is. Their small endowment ensures that the school can afford to be more selective without the government holding them accountable every step of the way. As Pirotte puts it, “our success is all out there in the art world. We don’t need to write assessments.”

As a running joke throughout the discussion, Pirotte mentions how one of the things that sets the Städelschule apart is the school canteen with its superb food prepared by a chef, which is only possible because of the small scale and bureaucratic independence of the school.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon: On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century. Image capture from video.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon: On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century. Image capture from video.

Art Education in Numbers

At CUHK’s Fine Arts Department, the graduate school, with around 25 students enrolled in the MFA, MA and PhD programmes each year, is almost as big as the undergraduate department with 30 per cohort. This is because graduate students in research universities in Hong Kong receive tuition subsidies of HKD14,000 per month out of around HKD40,000 a year in school fees.

At Städelschule, which charges no school fees, 200 students are enrolled over five years of study. Similarly to CUHK, a cohort of around 30 fine art students graduate each year to earn their “Diplom”, along with other students studying curatorial studies and getting masters degrees in architecture. Within the curriculum structure, there are no mandatory classes, as students enroll in and get selected to attend classes offered by individual professors.

Student Profiles

In CUHK’s graduate art school, around 80 percent of the students are from mainland China, most of whom are enrolled in the art history programme. Local students usually study fine art. For undergraduate studies, CUHK is held strictly accountable to the government – prospective art students need to fulfill academic requirements to be considered for admission, but these are sometimes unattainable for certain talented students. In terms of progression form high school, Chan feels that the public examination system in Hong Kong also drives prospective art students in the wrong direction with its high-stress culture.

Because the masters programmes at CUHK are self-financed (costing HKD120,000), the school has more decision-making power on the selection criteria, and they can lower the academic requirements for students who show promise. Mature students enrolling in masters programmes bring expertise from other professions to enrich the diversity of the school. All in all, although CUHK is institutionalised, the Fine Art Department tries to find gaps in their requirements to fulfill their educational goals.

At the Städelschule, around 70 percent of students are non-German, but the school admits enough German students to maintain its German character amid the diverse and welcoming student body. In terms of attracting prospective students, every time the Städelschule’s professors and students venture out to the world for their projects, the school receives more applications from those places because of increased exposure. For example, many South Korean students apply because artist and Städelschule graduate Dirk Fleischmann founded the RAT School of ART in Seoul, an unofficial art “apartment” in constant exchange with the famous Frankfurt school.

In both CUHK’s Fine Art Department and the Städelschule, there is still a gender imbalance in the faculty which is increasingly being addressed, as in other academic fields.

Philippe Pirotte in Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon: On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century. Image capture from video.

Philippe Pirotte in Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon: On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century. Image capture from video.

Changing Modes of Teaching and Learning

In a world with easy access to information via the Internet, the skills that artists take home from art schools have also changed. Chan agrees that art students can easily find information on things their teachers cannot teach them. What he thinks is most important, therefore, is teaching methodology in understanding and producing art instead of instilling solid information.

As an example, he says that the internet provides countless images of final artworks along with full descriptions, but these tell students nothing about process. Even artist’s statements are not adequate, because verbal communication can be misleading and might not be the most genuine form of expression for artists. He feels learning about process through hands-on experience is still important in the 21st century and will continue to provide what the internet cannot.

At the Städelschule, students take much of the initiative in learning. When the school did not provide a fiction writer as a professor, for instance, students fundraised through the back door to open such a class. This class, called “Pure Fiction”, is now invited to Biennials. Every four months, there is an unofficial meeting in which professors and students debate everything and learn from each other. All the professors at Städelschule are practicing artists who can share the problems of working in the art world with students in open, osmotic exchanges.

Sometimes, not being fully accommodating can open up new learning opportunities for students. The traditional system of classes at Städelschule, for instance, could be seen as a strategy for alumni working in the art world to promote themselves by showing the renowned artists they have studied under. Rather than uproot the traditionally exclusive system, the school aims to make good use of it.

Thomas Eller in Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon: On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century. Image capture from video.

Thomas Eller in Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Salon: On Educating: Teaching Art in the 21st Century. Image capture from video.

Against the Odds

For Eller, art schools are a space for young people to have dialogues with like-minded people but also to be challenged, but the statistics are always against art students in that only a small fraction of graduates “succeed” as artists. As such, the moderator wondered how art schools legitimise an education that prepares students for a career they might not succeed in.

Chan reiterates that the “success” of art graduates should not just be measured in terms of the art market. Many CUHK graduates, for instance, engage in creative projects in different sectors of society. One CUHK graduate shown at Art Basel is a teacher and security guard in addition to being an artist. Chan thinks about the “purpose” of an art education should be to bring more meaning and change to society outside of the measures of the market.

Because the Städelschule is highly selective, their success rate in the art world is high, but for Pirotte, success in the market is a demand for art schools rather than a real achievement. Ethical questions that art schools should get students to think about include precisely how to live interesting lives even without market success. He wraps up the conversation with the thought that, in a future where robots take over much of the workforce – as Bertrand Russell envisioned – art education will be more important than ever.

Charlotte Chang


Related topics: art schools, art fairs, lectures and talks, events in Hong Kong, events in Germany

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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