A co-operative art school? Flyer collage with plans of Conway Hall by Frederick Herbert Mansford, Conway Hall Humanist Library and Archives Digital Collections.

Co-operative Art Education

A co-operative art school?

A co-operative art school? is a research project on co-operative education, alternative art education, radical pedagogy, self-organisation and other dimensions of a co-operative learning environment. The project is supported by an Artquest Research Residency award at the Conway Hall Humanist Library.

What would a co-operative art school look like? Who is it for and what would the benefits be? How would it work? These are some of the questions that this research project will address. If you would like to contribute please come along to the workshops or fill in the survey and scroll down for more ways of getting involved. Please check back soon, this page will be updated regularly with more information and resources.

Higher education is in crisis. Ideologically driven neoliberal reforms, implemented gradually since the late 1980s and consolidated by the coalition government in 2010, have accelerated and deepened the crisis. Whereas more people than ever before enter into higher education, students are now customers accumulating debt, education is linked to employment and “student experience” is measured in numbers. At the same time, as campaigns for state funded higher education continue, universities become more entrenched in the private model, while fulfilling policy objectives through research funding. The world is changing at an accelerated pace and the impasse in the debate between public and private higher education indicates that we need to rethink the role of education in society.

Alternative art schools address the crisis in art education by offering free or affordable art education, developing diverse curricula and models of organisation, collaborating with each other to form a network that intersects, opens communication channels, exchanges resources and organises gatherings. Yet these schools are precarious, apart from notable examples like AltMFA, Open School East, TOMA and School of the Damned, most alternative art schools disappear as quickly as they appear.

A co-operative art school could provide one answer among others, by circumventing both the profit-driven private sector and the policy-driven public sector to create a democratic form of education, subject to collective decision-making and control. Co-operative art education could reconfigure our understanding of education as a public good not through redistribution but as common ownership, and our concept of knowledge not as a product but as a social process. By considering diverse forms of structural organisation and income generation, a co-operative art school could provide a working model of an alternative economy in art education, with consequences for higher education and the art world more broadly.

A co-operative art school? is an extended call for collaborators who are committed to addressing the problems of art education and working together to find solutions to unaffordable fees, underfunded courses, aging facilities and bleak prospects in the job market, and to establish an alternative model to the corporatised, marketised and financialised capitalist university.

We will crowdsource a strategy to set up a co-operative art school through interviews, workshops, surveys and a festival on alternative art education in Spring 2020. The process will be documented in pamphlets, zines and blogs and it will culminate in a meeting for all those interested to help develop and establish a co-operative art school.  

How to get involved

Come along or get in touch if you’d like to get involved and help develop a model for a co-operative art school. This is a participatory, inclusive and collaborative research project.  There are many different ways of getting involved, you can come along to a workshop, participate in an interview, submit work for publication in the zine, or fill out the survey. If you want to have a chat about getting involved please get in touch.

  • Workshops co-operative art education, from Sat, 23 Nov until Tue, 3 Dec 2019 at Conway Hall.
  • Survey on co-operative art education, please follow the link to complete the survey.
  • Pamphlets on co-operative art education, work in progress.
  • Zine on co-operative art education, compiled with contributions gathered through an open call. More info coming soon.
  • Interviews with activists, campaigners and participants with experience in co-ops and alternative art education on their insights, questions and advice on the potential structure and organisation of a co-operative art school, the future of alternative art education and higher education more broadly, working methods in group environments, discoveries and challenges they have encountered.
  • Festival of Alternative Art Education March 2020, more info coming soon.
  • Meeting for everyone who interested to help develop and establish a co-operative art school, more info coming soon.

What is a co-operative?

A co-operative is defined as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”. Co-operatives are enterprises that are owned and run by their workers and stakeholders.

Co-operatives are constituted on the values of autonomy, democracy, equality, equity, self-help and solidarity, and they put these values into practice with a set of seven principles: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, co-operation among co-operatives and concern for community. There are different types of co-ops which can be constituted in a variety of legal formats. These include workers’ co-ops, multi-stakeholder co-ops, platform co-ops, open co-ops, societies, community interest companies, limited companies and charities.

Significant developments in co-operative education in the UK include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and Free University Brighton, providing free accredited and non-accredited courses, organising events, debates, workshops and generating research and resources.


FAQ / Research Questions

This list of research questions and answers are part of an ongoing inquiry, they will be revised and updated with new information and feedback. The answers are exploratory, discursive and suggestive, and they bring up further lines of inquiry. They are provided here to open up the discussion and to inform the research survey with background information and suggestions.

1. Why a co-operative art school? What would the benefits of membership be?

A co-operative art school would give us the opportunity to build from scratch a democratic form of art education, a co-operative learning environment subject to the collective decision-making and control of its members. It would give us the opportunity to address all the problems that we encounter as learners, teachers, researchers and producers, to build an alternative based on our values.

By bringing together individuals, alternative art schools, peers support groups and maker spaces, co-operative art education could provide affordable, specialised training, support and mutual aid to the alternative art education movement, matching individuals with peer groups, learners with teachers and researchers with collaborators.

A co-operative art school would be a public resource, not through state redistribution by way of taxes and subsidies, but through common ownership subject to collective decision-making. Co-operatives are non-profit organisations and any surplus income can be  distributed according to the wishes of its members. It can be invested back into the co-op in a way that benefits its members and the co-operative as a whole, or distributed to its members in the form of dividends.

Chief among the benefits of a co-operative art school is the power of each member to have a say in the organisation, structure, values and practices of the co-op. Every member can propose and effect changes and introduce new practices within the organisation.

A co-operative art school would provide independence and self-determination in a supportive community of peers. It would foster collaboration and solidarity, alleviating anxiety and isolation.  It would provide access to shared resources, expertise, training, skill-sharing, and collaborative curriculum design.

A co-operative school would prioritise alternatives to competitive and individualist study and work environments, to address the economic pressures of time and space and encourage trust, long-term commitment and enhance our knowledge and experience in self-organisation and collectivity.

Through its horizontal structure a co-operative art school would start from the principle of equality between learners and teachers; teachers are involved in an ongoing learning process after all, and learners make the best teachers. The co-operative art school would foreground the pedagogical value of teaching, encouraging learners to teach and eradicating the inequality between teacher and student.

In a co-operative art school we can design our own training and because our peers are not competitors but collaborators the interaction is healthier and more beneficial to everyone.

2. What would a co-operative art school look like? How would it work?

A co-operative art school could take many different forms. It could be a multi-stakeholder co-operative, bringing together different stakeholders on an equal basis, including individuals, art schools, peer-support groups, maker-spaces and other organisations. It could be a network or federated or platform co-op, bringing together freelance tutors, art schools, peer support groups and other organisations on a shared online platform. It could be a distributed workers’ co-op, with plans to acquire a physical space in common ownership over time.

It could be a combination of these models. What are the distinctive features of each model and how could each of these facilitate the requirements of an art school? What legal format would fit the co-operative art school? Would it be a society or a limited company? What are the distinctive features of these frameworks?

How can a federated co-operative art school support and compliment the activities of alternative art schools like AltMFA, TOMA, School of the Damned, Evening Class, Feral Art School, and other schools and peer support networks, which have all developed very different models?

3. How would someone become a member? What would the membership criteria be?

What would the responsibilities of membership be? Would membership be open to everyone or would it be subject to criteria? Would it involve some form of commitment?

4. How could co-operative art education address the structural inequality between learners and teachers?

Would we have a multi-stakeholder co-op for students and tutors, which would maintain the inequalities of these distinctions, or would all members have an equal stake and equal voting rights, with no role distinctions between student and teacher, provider and customer?

Does it make sense to have a multi-stakeholder co-op, or would it be better to have a workers’ co-op or a federated co-op? If learners and teachers have equal membership rights, this would remove the distinction between students and tutors, to make way for the development of collaborative learning formats. For example, members of the Social Science Centre co-operative were referred to as ‘scholars’ and there was no formal distinction between teachers and students. They had a workshop each year to decide the taught programmes, and these were regularly reviewed and updated (Neary and Winn, 2015).

We could develop a similar way of co-developing curricula and collaborating to facilitate the sessions. Members of the co-op would have the equal right to propose, undertake and deliver courses, training and research in collaborative environments. These could be organised in working groups or affinity groups in specific areas of activity, proposals can be fielded, modified and developed by the group and once a proposal is accepted the working group would put their energy into realising it.

5. What pedagogical models and practices would you to like to see in a co-operative art school?

What theories and pedagogies should inform the school’s practice and how can these be exchanged and circulated among members? Pedagogy would play a central role in the structure and function of a co-operative art school. We could have regular meetings, symposia and workshops on critical pedagogies, a working group devoted to research and circulation of information.

6. What would the role of the educator be in a co-operative art school?

How would tutors be appointed? What about “quality control”? Who will train the educators? Would prospective tutors have to demonstrate qualifications or would the tutors be self selected, supported and trained? After all the best way to learn something is to teach. The co-operative art school would provide opportunities for training and experience in facilitation, creating a community of co-learners and co-researchers.

A co-operative art school could be a more than just an education institution, it would be a space of dialogue, exchange and support for artists, designers, tutors, researchers and other creative producers, who tend to be self-employed.  Some of the drawbacks that self-employed artists experience is loneliness, lack of training and opportunities for collaboration. A co-operative art school could provide opportunities for collaboration and brainstorming or feedback from peers. It would provide bespoke training and support as needs arise. This training could be provided by members of the co-op who have the relevant experience and expertise. This process would involve a redefinition of art education, it would reconfigure the role of education in relation to work and it would create new dynamics in the relationship between education and society more broadly.

7. Would a co-operative art school issue qualifications and accreditation?

If the co-operative school was to issue accreditation then it would also have to fulfil state policy objectives. It would also have to establish “learning outcomes” and forms of assessment.

Rather than “learning outcomes”, members of the co-operative could set their own objectives, and assessment could take the form of constructive feedback and peer review.

What are the benefits of accredited art education? Do artists need university degrees?

8. Should a co-operative art school maintain or redefine artistic disciplines?

Should a co-operative art school broaden the definition of art education? Should it be interdisciplinary? Should it be entirely open to redefinition according to its membership? How can this be facilitated?

The co-operative could be a school of art in the broadest possible sense, we could have courses in permaculture and hacking alongside illustration and set design, history and anthropology, games design and coding, economics and law, journalism and pedagogy. There does not have to be a limit on the disciplines, subjects, topics and practices that will be part of this school. It could and perhaps should be cross-disciplinary, extra-disciplinary, in-disciplinary, anti-disciplinary.

9. How would a co-operative art school be organised and structured?

Should it be self-organised and inclusive or hierarchical and structured? How would the members communicate and make decisions? Would we have regular meetings and work collaboratively through an online forum? Or would we vote for a board of directors and entrust them with decision-making?

How would we take care of the practical and banal task of sustaining an organisation on a daily basis? How would the art school be administrated and co-ordinated? Would we have a volunteer administrative working group? Or would we appoint coordinators in paid roles to carry out admin duties and raise money through member fees to pay their salaries?

10. How would a co-operative art school be funded?

How would a co-operative art school have access to resources and facilities? What would it require to become sustainable? A co-operative art school could generate income from membership fees to set up a website and provide free workshops and inductions for new members. The school could organise affordable courses and pay salaries from this income.  Individual tutors, workshop facilitators, researchers and art schools could each have a section on the website to promote their own events, activities and courses. The co-operative would also connect members who live locally to each other, and they can pool their resources to hire, rent or buy equipment, work spaces and even permanent premises. A co-operative art school could experiment with various forms of income generation to provide a working model of an alternative economy in art education, with consequences for education and the art world more broadly.

11. Would the institutionalisation of co-operative art education destroy the freedom, and counter-institutional character of alternative art education?

Would the formal structure of a co-operative close off the possibilities of alternative art education? Or would the co-operative organisation undergird the existing structures? Could it accommodate and support the diverse formats of alterative art education with better communication, co-ordination and training, less volunteer labour and burn out. A degree of structure prevents the problems that befall the open structure of informal groups.


Pamphlets

Research on this project will be documented in a series of pamphlets on co-operative education, funding, knowledge and the politics of education.

Manifesto of Alternative Art Education

Our practical conclusion is the following: we are abandoning all efforts at pedagogical action and moving toward experimental activity. (Asger Jorn, 1995/1957, p. 24)

Student protests that have rocked universities since the 2008 financial crisis have generated a great deal of discussion, debate and research. Apart from notable exceptions, the liberal/left-wing critique of radical neoliberal reforms in education simultaneously valorises public education and a nostalgic vision of the role of education in society. While it may be socially progressive, the liberal agenda comes across as reactionary because it does not account for changes in society, the workplace, the role of government and global finance. It does not account for ongoing problems in education, such as the managerial culture of auditing, monitoring, assessment and surveillance, discrimination and elitism, wage inequality and corporate exploitation of publicly funded research.

Any vision for the future of education must include a vision of the future of society on a global scale. Education plays a crucial and inextricable part in the formation of social and cultural values, in material practices and state policies. But such totalising or utopian visions cannot account for the rate of change in contemporary society. What we need instead is a multitude of small institutions, each experimenting in different ways, flexible to changes and creating subtle but significant shifts in the practice of education and the ways in which it influences and is influenced by social change.

Alienation, isolation and exploitation can only be countered by social, collective and co-operative practices that foster community, equality, inclusivity and mutual aid.

Art education is an ideal sphere to experiment with new educational and pedagogical structures. Unlike nurses or engineers, artists do not need a degree to practice. According to a recent study, most practicing artists in England do not have a Bachelor’s degree (TBR etal., 2018). Neither does a degree guarantee employment for artists, all but a few of whom earn their living in low paid or precarious employment. The same study shows that two-thirds of artists earn £5,000 or less from their work, while a 2016 study shows that creative arts graduates are the lowest paid, earning no more on average than non-graduates (Britton etal., 2016).

Art education lends itself to experimentation with new structures, funding models and ways of working. Alternative art schools like AltMFA, TOMA and School of Damned, have all developed unique alternatives to traditional models of art education, addressing the unique needs and learning styles of individual learners, unfettered by rigid ties to research, funding, policy and industry.