University of Sydney terminates art school merger with University of NSW

The University of Sydney has terminated the proposed merger of its art school with the University of NSW barely one month after it was announced.

However, the Sydney College of the Arts will still be forced to move out of its Callan Park campus and faces an uncertain future.

Read the full Sydney Morning Herald article here

The embarrassing backflip was announced on Thursday by University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence, who told students in an email that the two universities could not agree on the creation of a merged art school.

"It has always been our position that we ought not to proceed with the proposed merger unless we were clear that the vision for a centre of excellence was achievable, and would benefit both the University and visual arts teaching and research," he said. 

"However, as the process has continued, the University of Sydney has increasingly come to the view that, despite the best efforts of all involved, our two institutions have a different vision of what a centre of excellence in the visual arts might entail and the extent to which it is important to preserve the SCA's distinctive tradition."

Greens MP Jamie Parker said the merger had always been unfeasible because of different teaching philosophies at the two art schools.

"The University of Sydney clearly underestimated this incompatibility," Parker said. "If the University had properly consulted staff and students, they would have discovered the incompatibility of the arts practices at the two schools."

"By abandoning the merger they have finally acknowledged that it would have been folly to proceed."

Parker also said it was unlikely UNSW would have reviewed its curriculum to accommodate the merger.

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UNSW also would not provide sufficient studio space, according to Michael Thompson from the National Tertiary Education Union.

"We are pleased Sydney University backed down. We are not surprised UNSW would not commit to a studio-based teaching program." 

However, he said the fight was only half won as the SCA would no longer be a standalone faculty at Callan Park under the new plan outlined by Spence.

Parker called on Sydney University to provide proper studio space for students studying mediums such as glass blowing or sculpture.

"It would be very disappointing if the SCA was retained at the University of Sydney but studio based practice was abandoned," Parker said.

Fairfax Media has been told the University of NSW, whose chancellor is the influential arts and business figure David Gonski, appeared to back away from the deal as soon as it was struck, insisting to its staff, students and prospective students that nothing would change.

But UNSW's vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs said the UNSW had negotiated with the University of Sydney in good faith and "at no point did UNSW back away from any part of the agreement or from its strong commitment to making the agreement work".

Influential arts patrons have also expressed disquiet about the merger of Sydney's three art schools.

Prominent art collector and benefactor Sally Breen told Fairfax Media she was not prepared to pledge money towards the Art Gallery's of NSW's Sydney Modern building project when art schools were threatened with closure.

"Right now? No. I wouldn't, I would be far more swayed into putting money into art schools," she said.

Spence said merger talks could resume in the future between Sydney's three art schools.

He also blamed uncertainty about the future of the National Art School, which appointed influential arts figure Michael Lynch as its interim director following the resignation of Michael Snelling.

"[W]hen the university embarked on this process, we had hoped we would have had greater clarity around the future of the National Art School by this point," he said. "That is not the case, and we have become increasingly concerned about the adequacy of the facilities available to realise our vision of a centre of excellence."

The merger of SCA with UNSW Art and Design encountered opposition as soon as it was revealed last month.

SCA students, artists and alumni gathered outside the Art Gallery of NSW to protest the closure of the art school on the day the Archibald Prize was awarded.

Wearing red capes, the protesters held signs that read: "SOS SCA".  

Labor's Anthony Albanese attended the rally, saying, "I would have thought an institution as wealthy as Sydney University can afford to keep Sydney College of the Arts there." 

Spence said the SCA will instead become part of Sydney University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and will move to the main campus in Camperdown from the beginning of 2017.

"This will avoid the unnecessary costs of remaining at Rozelle for more than a transition period," he said.

However, no details of the art school's new location on the crowded campus were provided by Spence.

No new applicants for the Bachelor of Visual Arts will be accepted in 2017, but Spence said: "[O]ur aspiration is to create a re-imagined Bachelor of Visual Arts for commencement in 2018."

He also said events such as the Laneway Festival would proceed at the SCA's Rozelle campus.

Andrew Taylor

Sydney Morning Herald

28th July 2016


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