The Art Schools of North West England, at Bluecoat

I don’t remember the days when there was an art school in every town, I can barely even imagine what that would be like, living in a world where art was delivered as an opportunity for social mobility.

Today, Arts Council England have a specific fund set aside for communities that used to be supported by these institutions, its called Creative People and Places. Today, unless you live in a city or are lucky enough to have a college with foundation provision, you’re unlikely to have access to the arts without travelling to a city centre more defined by retail and leisure than by culture.

And to have the national funding body for the arts acknowledge the lack of provision so blatantly is no laughing matter. The lack of provision now not only means that creative minds are being starved of appropriate education, but that those living in cities miss the perspective of those outside.

images courtesy of Bluecoat

So much of the history of art is based in rural and untouched space, or diverse communities that could enlighten the city elite. The Arts & Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th Century put such stock in landscape that it was probably harder to be a respected artist if you didn’t have a direct relationship with nature. Writers like John Ruskin ensured a true understanding of nature and subject was met by any artist he gave his respect to – largely why the Pre-Raphaelites were so hounded by him as they set out a path that eventually led to the centralisation fine art.

Today, we learn to understand the world from classrooms, and city centres far away from how art was ever intended to be taught.

And it’s not even that big of a jump to look back to a time when art school was available in towns all over the North West.

The Art Schools of North West England at Bluecoat is a matter of fact exhibition that highlights thirty art schools which made up a large portion of the 150 art schools in the country in the 1960s. Today there are around 40 in the UK as a whole.

Alongside incredible photographs of the schools in the present day – some demolished, some repurposed, some standing empty – are stories of what happened to them. One of the sadder stories is Rochdale, which is remembered by its original terracotta frieze, which now stands in the middle of a car park, on the demolished site of the school.

What has come from this though, in the bigger picture is a new outward searching set of programmes, with galleries like Bluecoat working with groups outside the city to create new opportunities, or Biennial’s touring programme which was announced to be returning in 2019, that takes internationally leading programme sof art to places like Rochdale. The impact is that these towns become a part of the conversation, and the residents join in.

Sadly, other than looking back longingly for a time many artists won’t even remember, the exhibition is just an archive. It can’t revive these art schools, and is unlikely to rev up any campaigns or policy that would change that. What it does do is nudge other groups, artists and organisations to think about the importance of exploring their surroundings and their history, and accepting their privilege in having access to the arts at all.


The Art Schools of North West England runs until 31st March at Bluecoat
Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith