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Where Are the French Art Schools Going?

  • The Palais des Études in École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris
March 26, 2018
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At a time when European tertiary education is undergoing reform, French art schools make a claim to certain specificities. Between standardization and identity, they need to evolve today while affirming their differences… So what’s the future of our public art schools?

Should public art schools be a place to train artists and citizens to experiment on their reflections? Or should they, above all, seek competitiveness on an international level? It all depends on your point of view…

The standardization of higher-education establishments in Europe, imposed by European ministers ever since the 1999 Bologna Process, using the university system as a basis, meets two major objectives: facilitating the mobility of students and promoting Europe’s renown internationally.

But any harmonization process requires adjustments that need to take into account the specificities of each player. This investigation aims to give a voice to those who contribute to reflection on French art schools: artists, teachers and directors of schools.

What are the unique features of these art schools? How can the reform be tweaked so that it can be incorporated into these schools?

Learning to Look at the World

The first specificity of art schools resides in the content of their teaching. They teach students to take a different approach, to unlearn.

“We teach a way of approaching the world, of creating an imaginary world, rather than technical knowledge,” explains artist Bruno Peinado. He describes his role as a teacher at the École Européenne Supérieure d’Art de Bretagne as the following:

Teaching students to look at the world and to create an imaginary realm from this impression. Teaching them to get rid of automatic responses and savoir-faire, in order to enrich their vocabulary. It’s a school for unlearning before recommitting to something else which would be based on the singularity of every student.

This view is quite similar to that of Christophe Kihm, art critic and teacher at the HEAD (Haute École d’Art et de Design) in Geneva. As a theoretician, he offers artists “very empirical approaches, comprehension and analysis tools for reflection”.

His lessons dissect words and notions such as immaturity or action arts, broaching fields as wide as philosophy, aesthetics, ethology or the social sciences.

I don’t have ready-formed knowledge to deliver. Depending on the study targets, I create links between literature, music and the visual arts. I look for meeting points between the sciences, the humanities and aesthetics.

This transversal vision draws inspiration from his encounters. “The artists with whom or on whom I’ve worked make objects from heterogeneous elements that they connect in specific ways: this is what makes their work interesting.” Decompartmentalization is a major element in artistic teaching, and schools gear themselves towards this spirit of openness.

These years of experimentation – up to five, in order to obtain a Diplôme National Supérieur d’Expression Plastique (DNSEP or National Higher Diploma of Artistic Expression), the equivalent of a master’s degree, or three years to obtain the bachelor-level Diplôme National d’Art (DNA or National Diploma of Art) – are stimulating for researchers, critics, exhibition curators and teacher-artists who rub shoulders with students.

“Every day, we pass from one mental universe to another,” observes Bruno Peinado. “We’re continually readjusting our culture, knowledge, doubts, in relation to each student. Teaching in this type of school still offers the possibility of an outlandish space where we can constantly reinvent things, push back the limits of imagination, of conventions… Working with students means doing research.”

Christophe Kihm confirms this view: “Being a teacher enables me to continually carry out research. I feel more like someone who’s studying than someone who’s teaching. This also allows me to have a certain type of reciprocal relationship with the students.”

According to Julien Sirjacq, artist and director of the serigraphy workshop at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, the creativity of the students is what invigorates him. Their youth means that they can live fully in sync with the contemporary world, its language, its tools and its images.

It’s fascinating to see how the young generations digest things and to observe the difference in how images are received. As a teacher and artist, I’m always on the lookout for new things.

Refusal of Competitiveness

Through these testimonies, another specificity of teaching in art schools emerges: the interweaving of theory and practice.

“It’s not just theoretical teaching, nor is it purely practical, but a mixture of the two,” explains Nicolas Bourriaud, director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 2011 to 2015, and currently director of the MoCo (MOntpellier COntemporain), a platform which gathers La Panacée, the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole and the future MoCo art centre.

“It’s the permanent to-and-fro between theoretical and practical knowhow which truly constitutes the content of transmission. This way, we exit the university context completely.”

Let’s remember at this point that the formatting of higher-education schools according to the university model was sought through the BMD (bachelor’s-masters-doctorate) reform following the Bologna agreements. As a result, art schools were obliged to assess themselves, to publish a student’s booklet, to carry out insertion surveys, and to develop research… In this way, this reform denies the spirit of openness in art schools, which largely refuse competitiveness.

The reform fails to take into account the complexity of evaluation and the difficulty in finding equivalences between university diplomas and those from art schools. In addition, students must write dissertations comprising 70,000 characters, overseen by a qualified PhD supervisor.

However, as PhDs are rare in the creative field, dissertation supervisors are primarily academics rather than artist-teachers. This requirement implies the need for new recruitments at a time when budgets are in crisis while also triggering a change in pedagogical approach, until now largely led by artists.

Certain establishments are therefore in the process of creating research doctorates for artists, such as the École Supérieure d’Art d’Aix-en-Provence in conjunction with the Université d’Aix-Marseille, Le Fresnoy with the Université de Montréal, or the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in partnership with the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. And school directors are loosening up a few rules, such as Nicolas Bourriaud who has authorized the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris to accept more adapted dissertation formats, such as videos.

On this issue, Christophe Kihm makes the following conclusion:

It’s an opportunity to be able to practice theory so openly. And this, in certain conditions, may drive towards the enrichment of forms. Artists are the first ones to have taught us how to use constraints and to take hold of them in order to develop new practices.

Regional Activity and Social Cohesion

Open to the world, art schools fully participate in the cultural life of their regions, and as a result, their social cohesion. According to Judith Quentel, new director of the Quimper site of the École Européenne Supérieure d’Art de Bretagne, “an art school brings young people to a region and they help bring life to it. Art also helps to generate creative centers that are worthwhile for communities.”

How? By setting up partnerships and exchanges with other bodies in the same city or region, in order to organize events, often public, thus creating a regional network. “When I was at the Beaux-Arts de Montpellier,” recalls Bruno Peinado, “collaborations were organized between the towns of Montpellier, Nîmes and Sète. There was a great deal of life and energy in terms of exhibitions, projects, exchanges between teachers, students and artists. Schools are catalysts of a territory’s cultural vivacity.”

Practical art lessons offered by schools to locals also contribute to social cohesion. They open up access to culture to everyone. The presence of schools throughout a territory also works in the same direction.

“Most students can’t afford studies in a big city and therefore in a national school,” explains Bruno Peinado. Closing such regional schools would be tantamout to closing access to art.

In addition, according to Nicolas Bourriaud, “regional art schools boost the development of artistic scenes. France suffers from its extreme centralization, which is a factor in cultural and economic dessication. It’s time that we thought about introducing a German-style organization, that is, by bringing an end to centralization. We need to create clusters that are factors in dynamization.”

While schools are already thinking about the issue of social diversity, fees policies also need to be adjusted – through an increase in scholarships, the exemption from enrollment fees of scholarship-holders in regional schools as is the case in national schools, the development of housing grants, and the creation of public (hence free) preparatory classes for the entrance examinations for art schools.

In order to promote social cohesion and a civic spirit, schools also need to encourage a return to collective values, after decades of individualism. “

For a long time now, pedagogy has been based on individual meetings, explains Christophe Kihm. There’s a contradiction between this actual individualization on the one hand, and the great narrative about collectivism in modern art that we tell students on the other hand. One question remains: in teaching, how do we make individual and collective work overlap, rather than having one distinct from the other?

Thinking collectively also means seeing higher-education art schools as a homogenous ensemble. But when the French State pulls away from regional schools (now called EPCCs or Public Establishments for Cultural Cooperation), when it focuses its attention on a single teaching status (that of teachers in national schools supervised by the French minister of culture, without launching negotiations on the status of teachers in regionally-supervised schools), it ends up causing division.

The State currently focuses on the eleven national establishments, said to be of higher quality, while relegating the 34 EPCCs to the back burner. “I find this separation dramatic, if only symbolically,” states Nicolas Bourriaud.

It is necessary, as all the interviewees suggest, to gather players rather than to divide them. Today, this can occur, first of all, by aligning the salaries of teachers who do the same work and deliver the same diplomas. Schools should also think about evolving as a network, as the EPCC status allows.

“What we need,” explains Emmanuel Tibloux, director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and president of the ANdEA (National Association of Higher-Education Art Schools), “is to develop logics for harmonising establishments. What I mean is to promote the notion of networks: to consider things in terms of general coherency, pooling, complementarity, association, as done by the ADÉRA regional association of art schools in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.”

Economic Players

Students, once trained, go on to participate in the local professional life. “Students who leave schools are very active. They set up associations or businesses in the region, such as the Gamerz festival,” illustrates François Lejault, artist and teacher at the École Supérieure d’Art d’Aix-en-Provence.

This notion is confirmed by Bruno Peinado: “Regional coverage has enabled the creation of more and more artist-run spaces, associative galleries and art centers.”

While art schools take part in a region’s cohesion and development, they also foster the emergence of artistic scenes and attractive cultural centres. And individual towns, as well as the country as a whole, can take advantage of this boost internationally. This, in any case, is what Nicolas Bourriaud hopes will be achieved by the setting up in Montpellier of a competitive cultural centre on an international scale.

Former art students, or “researchers into form” as Nicolas Nicolas Bourriaud calls them, have “a visual culture which is a strength for the image-focused society in which we live.”

And they don’t just take part in a region’s cultural life. Some former students at Quimper have opened up unique hybrid cafés.

It’s often said that fine-arts students manage to be creative by inventing their profession. Art school gives them a chance to gain self-confidence, namely through singular support.

Others have joined companies as graphic artists, artistic directors, scenographers, designers, photographers in advertising agencies. Art schools offer training in what everyone is looking for: open, creative, original minds… By inserting themselves in all branches of society, fine-arts students are modifying this society, and can play a major role in our perception of the world.

A Need for Political Courage

But companies are not the only ones looking for minds said to be “creative”. “Today, all political discourse, whether from the Left or the Right, values creation, innovation, experimentation, boldness, mobility, in the economic and social fields. Let’s not forget that all these values come to us from art! A fact that argues in favour of artistic and cultural education. This, incidentally, contradicts the weakening of art schools,” stated Emmanuel Tibloux to La Gazette des Communes in November 2016.

Territorial authorities don’t seem to take stock of the primordial role of public art schools. Budgets, mainly supported by municipal sources, are diminishing, or even vanishing. Some schools, like the one in Perpignan, are closing. Others are in the hot seat. Schools therefore need to prove their pedagogical worth by explaining, in political and economic terms, their roles in the regions.

“Art is not bankable on an electoral level,” points out Judith Quentel. “Political courage is needed to defend things that a priori don’t interest many people. Imagine André Malraux and the Maisons de la Culture, Jack Lang and the FRACs”… In this respect, Quimper’s town authorities are remarkable, for they have renewed and even slightly increased grants while committing to works to increase the art school’s accessibility.

But this is not the only case.

The State also needs to continue supporting regional schools in the same way that it supports national schools. François Lejault describes the French ministry of culture’s political disengagement with respect to regional schools.

“Before, seven or eight inspectors represented us at the ministry of culture. They’d visit the schools for discussions. Ever since we’ve become EPCCs, this link no longer exists.” Yet the ministry is supposed to advise regional and municipal authorities. If it no longer represents them, this disavowal will send out a clear signal to regional authorities which, in turn, may also withdraw.

The Bologna agreements entail a great deal of investment in administrative staff and an increased complexity of procedures for less autonomy. Ever since municipalities have started financing schools at a rate of 80 %, the boards which namely decide on budgets and appointments have majoritarily been composed of municipal elected officials.

In the face of this critical situation, Emmanuel Tibloux is calling for an estates general. “It’s urgent for the State to take the initiative to gather all stakeholders. We need to take stock of local situations and to set up a genuine national economic model. While youth, training, research and creation are, so it seems, issues for the French presidential candidates, the State needs to anticipate things by organizing consultation and finding a way to implement a real relaunch plan.”

May the professionals in question be heard, and may they participate in validating cultural policies.

School, A Place for Professionalization

“Art schools have perhaps taken their time to take into account the way in which the situations of young artists have changed,” notes Christophe Kihm. In concrete terms, a young artist’s first steps consist in writing applications in response to calls for projects, to obtain grants or residencies. These also necessarily require the setting up of new networks…

“Professionalization”, in this respect, means making sure that tools are available for understanding professional worlds, so that individuals can find their way through them, even if this means going against the current or looking elsewhere.

Julien Sirjacq testifies to the ivory tower that the art school was for him. “When I left the Beaux-Arts, I was a very good painter but I didn’t even know what an exhibition curator was. This was a shock.”

While certain schools organize meetings with professionals so that students can discover administrative aspects of the artist status, others prefer presenting this reality via other projects. In Quimper, Virginie Barré, Bruno Peinado and Antoine Dorotte have set up the Plateforme NDE within the school. NDE as in “Near Death Experience”, because “the after-school is a type of unknown chaos: those who have come back from it sometimes speak well of it, and sometimes speak about artistic vagueness,” smiles Bruno Peinado.

This class trains students in the type of projects that they may subsequently come across, such as public commissions. “For exhibition organization, we use our new space, the Fenêtre Fraîche. We tackle the first ways in which to earn money for students.”

Meanwhile, Julien Sirjacq speaks about the “economic prerogatives of production because during studies, materials are available as well as studios. But after, things are no longer the same.” Sirjacq also gets students to work with printing shops, and helps them to take part in exhibitions. “I get them to consider the issue of circulating work. This is what professionalization is about.”

Helping students face up to reality and exchange with professionals, namely artists, injects energy that, in Grenoble, as well as Nice in the 1980s, contributed to the emergence of a very strong local scene.

“An art centre was set up next to the school, at the Villa Arson in Nice in the 1980s, and work carried out there on exhibition has succeeded in promoting an artistic scene,” explains Christophe Kihm. “In this context, young artists have met and come into contact with older artists. The school practically lived according to the rhythm of the art centre for ten years.”

And its pedagogy urged reflection on exhibition. Artist Thomas Teurlai, formerly a student at the Villa Arson, confirms the importance of this rapprochement. On top of the quality of teachers, including Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux, this proximity enabled him to meet many artists exhibiting there, living close by.

While it’s important to prepare students before they finish school, some school directors also believe in the importance of following up graduates. This is another way to promote the establishment and to meet ministerial requirements for self-assessment. But above all, the objective is not to leave in isolation those students who lived as part of their community for five years while their purchasing power continues to diminish.

Nicolas Bourriaud wanted to set up, at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, “two funds enabling students to benefit from a scholarship following the DNSEP. Most students who leave the school find themselves submerged by the need to find a money-paying job and sometimes completely lose contact with their work. This privileges the wealthier students.”

Other solutions are being invented. The Beaux-Arts de Lyon, for example, has set up an extra professionalization training programme, aimed at graduates. The ADÉRA, the association of art schools in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, accompanies young graduates at the start of their careers. It offers grants for creating works and exhibitions, publishing monographs, and managing studios.

Some regional authorities or artists develop systems for circulating artists’ works, residencies or workshops. And the development of collective pedagogy in schools today allows young artists to jointly consider their after-school future.

To be stronger, we need to stick together, to pool resources.

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Featured image: The Palais des Études in École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, via Wikimedia Commons.