Flyer for A co-operative art school: workshop series

A co-operative art school?

A co-operative art school?

A co-operative art school? is a research project on co-operative education, alternative art education, radical pedagogy and self-organisation, with the ultimate aim of raising awareness about cooperative art education and starting a co-operative art school. The project is supported by an Artquest Research Residency 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 you can fill in the survey or scroll down for more ways of getting involved. Please check back soon, this page will be updated regularly with more information and resources. To receive updates please join the mailing list.

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 they fulfil 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, co-operating to form a network that intersects, opens communication channels, exchanges resources and organises regular gatherings. Yet these schools are precarious, apart from notable exceptions like Feral Art School, Open School East, The Other MA and School of the Damned (SOTD), most alternative art schools are unsustainable because they rely on volunteer labour. They enjoy a rush of momentum before work and family commitments, lack of space and resources lead to dwindling energy,  participation and commitment.

A co-operative art school is one potential solution among others, by circumventing both the profit-driven private sector and the policy-driven public sector to create an independent and democratic form of education, subject to collective decision-making. 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 embracing diverse forms of structural organisation and income generation, a co-operative art school would 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 want to address the problems of art education and work together to establish an alternative model to the corporatised, marketised and financialised capitalist university. Providing solutions to the current state of higher education, which comes with unaffordable fees, underfunded courses, aging facilities and bleak prospects in the job market.

This project 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.  You can still get involved by filling out the survey, coming along to the festival and exhibition and the meeting at the end of this process. If you want to receive updates please join the mailing list or if you want to have a chat please get in touch.

  • SURVEY on co-operative art education, please follow the link to complete the survey
  • URgh!#1 on alternative art education with contributions collected via open call will be launched at the Festival of Alternative Art Education 2020 on Saturday, 25 July 2020
  • FESTIVAL of Alternative Art Education on Saturday, 25 July 2020 at Conway Hall
  • EXHIBITION The Secret is Out: on cooperation 25 July – 5 September 2020 10am-5pm at Conway Hall
  • MAILING LIST Please subscribe to receive updates
  • WORKSHOPS co-operative art education took place from 23 Nov – 3 Dec 2019. Summary of these events coming soon
  • PAMPHLETS on co-operative art education, work in progress
  • INTERVIEWS with activists, practitioners and researchers in alternative art education and co-operative art organisations on their insights, questions and advice on the potential structure and organisation of a co-operative art school, their collaborative or collective working methods, the discoveries and challenges they have encountered and the future of alternative art education and higher education more broadly
  • MEETING for everyone who interested to help develop and establish a co-operative art school, please join the mailing list for updates

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 is part of the ongoing inquiry, it will be revised and updated with new data. If you would like to contribute your ideas please complete to the online survey. The answers below expand on the survey questions with background info 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, and to build an alternative based on our own values.

Additionally, and by uniting a network of alternative art schools, peer support groups, maker spaces and individuals, a federated co-operative can provide affordable education, training, shared resources, support and mutual aid, matching individuals with peer groups, learners with teachers, researchers with collaborators and so on.

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 is 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 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 develop our understanding and practice of self-organisation and collectivity.

In a co-operative art school we can design our own training because our peers are collaborators not competitors; the interaction is 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 workers’ co-op, a multi-stakeholder co-op, or a federated platform co-op. As a multi-stakeholder co-op it would bring together different stakeholders on an equal basis, including individual learners and teachers, art schools, peer-support groups, maker-spaces and other organisations. As a workers’ co-op it could be local or distributed, with plans to acquire a physical space in common ownership over time. As a federated platform co-op it would bring together art schools, individual learners, freelance tutors, peer support groups and other organisations on a shared online platform.

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? A co-operative can be constituted as a society, a charity or a limited company. What are the distinctive features of these frameworks and which legal format would fit the co-operative art school?

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?

Democratic structures are often undermined because voters are not active participants involved in the daily practice, obstacles and decision-making that sustains an organisation. They do not have access to the embodied knowledge, information and understanding acquired in this active participation. This doesn’t just happen in large organisations such as Coops UK, where the active participation of thousands of members is physically impossible. It also happens in small organisations, which are often plagued by informal hierarchies because they are built, developed and run by a clique. This is not the result of an intention to exclude the other members, it happens inadvertently in the struggle to build and sustain an organisation. In the process, this steering group will develop their own working methods, language and history, which effectively excludes other members from the discussion. In unsustainable conditions there is often not enough time to address structural inequalities, and provide equal access to all members.

A co-operative art school would require a structure designed to involve its members in core responsibilities, empowering them to make informed decisions. Members would have personal responsibilities within the art school and they would also be part of working groups, research groups, committees and other group formats with specific responsibilities within the school.

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

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 and encourage learners to teach, thereby eliminating the inequality between teacher and student.

A multi-stakeholder co-op would bring together different stakeholders on an equal basis, including individuals, art schools, peer-support groups, maker-spaces and other organisations.

A multi-stakeholder co-op with different types of memberships for students and tutors would maintain the inequalities of these distinctions. We could develop a model where all members would have an equal stake and equal voting rights, with no distinctions between learners and teachers. This would create opportunities 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 held a workshop every year to make decisions on the curriculum, and these decisions were regularly reviewed and updated (Neary and Winn, 2015).

We could develop a similar way of co-developing curricula, assessment criteria and training across the co-op. Members of the co-op would collaborate to propose, develop and deliver courses, training and research. These could be developed by working groups or affinity groups with specific areas of activity, where proposals would be fielded, modified and developed and put into practice.

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

Pedagogy would play a central role in the structure and function of 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? We could have regular meetings, symposia and workshops on critical pedagogies, as well as working groups devoted to areas of research, development and dissemination.

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?

A co-operative art school could provide opportunities for training and experience in facilitation within a community of co-learners and co-researchers. It could be a more than an educational institution, it could be a space of dialogue, practice, 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 and lack of opportunities for ongoing training, research and collaboration within a community of peers. A co-operative art school could provide opportunities for collaboration, feedback from peers, bespoke training and support as needs arise. Training could be provided by members of the co-op who have the relevant experience and expertise. This process would redefine art education, reconfigure the role of education in relation to labour and create new dynamics in the relationship between education, art practice and society.

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

What are the benefits of accreditation in art education? Do artists need university degrees? If the co-operative art school acquired the license to issue state accredited qualifications 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. Alternatively, the co-op could appoint a committee or working group composed of members from various organisations within the network with the expertise and experience to develop its own set of criteria for assessment and qualification.

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 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 tasks that sustain 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 in a sustainable way? The school could generate income from membership fees and affordable courses to pay for salaries and other expenses. Individual art schools, peer groups, tutors, workshop facilitators and researchers would feature their own events, activities and courses on the platform website. 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, workspace or 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 limit the freedom and possibilities inherent in the informal activities of alternative art schools? Could a federated co-operative structure support and accommodate the open structures and diverse formats of alternative art education? Could the improved communication, decision-making, distribution of labour, co-ordination, training and sustainable economic practices of a formal but flexible co-operative structure offset the volunteer burn out, informal hierarchies, miscommunication and unsustainable economies that characterise many alternative art schools and peer support groups?


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 research, discussion and debate. 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; shrinking contact hours, the managerial culture of auditing, monitoring, assessment and surveillance, discrimination and elitism, outsourcing, casualisation, zero hours, wage inequality and corporate exploitation of publicly funded research.

Any vision for the future of education must include a vision 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 et al., 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 et al., 2016).

Art education lends itself to experimentation with new structures, funding models and ways of working. Alternative art schools like TOMA, School of Damned and Feral Art School are developing diverse 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.