10 Aug 2023
John Beck and Matthew Cornford
The Art Schools of the East Midlands
22 September – 2 December 2023
Exhibition preview: Thursday 21 September 6-8pm
This autumn Bonington Gallery presents The Art Schools of the East Midlands, the latest iteration of John Beck’s and Matthew Cornford’s ambitious Art School Project to locate and document the nation’s art school buildings or the sites upon which they once stood. The project combines photography, text, and archival materials to explore the histories and legacies of Britain’s art schools, and examine the vital role art schools have played, and continue to play, in the cultural and economic life of our towns and cities.
The twin Victorian engines of industrial ambition and social reform powered the British art school system, set up to deliver a skilled labour force for local industry – such as lace manufacture in Nottingham – and much needed educational opportunities to the newly enfranchised working class. Art schools combined practical training and exposure to culture, turning out skilled producers and discerning consumers well into the twentieth century.
By the mid-1960s there were still over 150 art schools in the UK, and ‘art school’ became a journalistic shorthand for creative innovation across arts, design, music and advertising. Yet at the peak of their influence on British cultural life, art schools in many towns and cities were already being amalgamated, reorganised and rebranded as part of a drive to reshape education in the arts. Most art schools have long since been absorbed into larger institutions or faded away.
Bonington Gallery’s presentation focuses on the art schools of the East Midlands and features original photographic images of all the region’s art school buildings alongside displays of archival material. The striking grandeur of Derby School of Art’s Gothic Revival building currently stands empty, whilst the Waverley Building built in 1865 for Nottingham School of Art remains one of the few Victorian built art school buildings still actively used for teaching art – as part of Nottingham Trent University. The project is also, importantly, an investigation of our present moment, documenting the sites of former art schools which have been redeveloped or reused.
The exhibition and the accompanying series of talks and events aim to create a space for dialogue and debate, raising questions about the role of the arts and art education in relation to community, history, and identity, and the shifting complex role of cultural production and cultural labour in the contemporary environment.
The Art School Project was prompted by the discovery that the college both Beck and Cornford attended in the early 1980s, Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design, was disused and up for sale. Evolving over 15 years the project takes the form of a series of regionally focused exhibitions. Their work on the West Midlands was recently shown at the New Gallery Walsall, and the North West iteration of the project was exhibited in Liverpool, Bury and Rochdale. The project is documented on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/theartschoolproject/
John Beck and Matthew Cornford studied at Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design (now social housing) in the early 1980s and have served time, as students and members of staff, in colleges and universities across the country. John currently teaches literature and visual culture at the University of Westminster (incorporating what was once Harrow School of Art), and Matthew teaches fine art the University of Brighton (formerly Brighton School of Art).
Please contact Sarah Ragsdale firstname.lastname@example.org