Feral Art School: an interview with Jayne Jones and Jackie Goodman
Feral Art School is a Hull-based cooperative founded in 2018. The school offers courses in drawing, painting, printmaking and textiles, as well as day schools in fashion and documentary photography. They have a textiles studio and darkroom for Feral members to use as studio and teaching spaces on a cooperative and collective basis. They’ve organised exhibitions in pop up spaces and last summer they hosted the event What Artists Want: What Artists Need, to explore the future of art education, with contributors from organisations and alternative art schools from across the UK.
Jayne Jones is a painter and Jackie Goodman is a multi-disciplinary artist and writer. They are founding members and project managers of Feral Art School. I caught up with them to find out how they set up the co-operative and hear more about the programme, their working methods and expectations for the future. They shared fascinating insights about coops and the ambiguities of their structure, membership and constitution, and the challenges and debates around funding and accreditation.
How did the idea of starting a cooperative art school emerge?
JAYNE JONES After a number of tutors at Hull School of Art and Design were made redundant due to cuts there were no BA Art & Design courses in Hull and we wanted to find a way to fill that gap in provision but make high quality art experiences available to a wider audience. We received initial funding from the 2017 City of Culture Legacy Programme and subsequently received funding from the Arts Council for a pilot project. The Feral Art School was set up as a cooperative in June 2018. We had been interested in cooperative structures and pedagogy since working with Mike Neary and Joss Winn at the University of Lincoln.
Please tell us a bit about the programme, what courses does the school offer?
JJ We offer courses in drawing, painting, printmaking and textiles, as well as day schools in fashion and documentary photography. We are also working with HMP Humber to provide free courses for ex-offenders. We have developed a BA curriculum and an MA curriculum and we are currently working with the new Cooperative University, which is going through a process of approval enabling it to offer degree programmes.
Tell us how it works, for example you are not based at a single venue.
JACKIE GOODMAN The choice of not having a dedicated building was deliberate and we were lucky in that we have been able to use or hire specially equipped spaces for the various courses. We are also working with a local property developer who provides pop-up spaces for our student exhibitions. We are fortunate in having a considerable amount of equipment donated especially specialist equipment for textiles.
Were you inspired by other models of alternative art education?
JJ We have been researching other alternative art school models. But one of the things we were concerned about in Hull was providing basic art education, and also providing employment for this group of people who was suddenly made redundant. And we didn’t want to lose them from the city, because it’s about keeping that creative mass in the city as well. So I think there is a very particular context in Hull at this time, which meant that maybe the content of what we’re teaching is perhaps more traditional, because there’s nobody else teaching these skills, and this isn’t available anywhere else in the city.
JG But at the same time it’s interesting working through things with the Cooperative University, as the people involved in that are mostly not from arts backgrounds, but have experience of teaching on other sorts of courses, whether it’s counselling, or international development and we have found that our teaching strategies for creative subjects have an immediate fit with the principles of co-production and cooperation. The way we work is very student focussed with a co-production approach to learning and teaching. So it’s probably seen in the wider context of higher education as fairly alternative, but from our point of view, it’s fairly similar to the way that we’ve always operated as art tutors, but the organisational thing is the difference. One important difference is that we don’t have a building, but we find spaces through partnerships with individuals and organisations from artists to property developers. We want to remain flexible both financially and organisationally. And we’re very reluctant to get in the position where we’re having to be embedded in that existing HE model for accreditation. But it’s another issue about whether accreditation is worth it.
JJ We recently held a discussion day when that was one of the things that came up. We were talking about whether employers would be just as confident about employing people who had been through something like the Feral but without it being accredited, or something like School of the Damned, an experience like that, where organisations can have a positive reputation, but not necessarily have something that is validated through formal, institutional ways. So that is a discussion to be had.
JG If we’re looking at it entirely practically our reason for considering accreditation, albeit I don’t think we would go for anything that was through any other channel than the Co-operative University, because we know that they have a very similar mission and their values are very similar to ours, it is that it brings another funding stream as well. And also, because I’m not sure, at the moment, that students are sufficiently attracted by non-accredited courses. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. I’m sure if there were more of them, more really good quality, non-accredited courses, and they’d become accepted as an alternative, and just as valuable process of training, or experience, or whatever, then that would be great. But just at the moment, in terms of the survival of our particular organisation, we’re still looking for other funding streams and also ways of attracting more students.
JJ Because the validation makes the courses more accessible, because students can get loans.
Would you be able to continue your current practice in terms of, as you said, deliberately not having a specific building and having the students’ input, this kind of partnership with the students, would you be able to continue that with the accreditation?
JG Oh, yes. Because the way the degrees have been written, we’ve written a BA Art and Design Practice and an MA Art and Design Practice. Both part time. But the way they are written, that’s absolutely embedded in the structure and the practice of it. We’re not talking massive student numbers. So it’s still possible.
JJ Yes. And the other thing about Hull, the other specific context about Hull is that space is fairly easy to get in Hull, because space is still pretty cheap. And because the town centres are struggling, and there is a lot of good will about trying to support creative things. We make the point of developing partnerships with a number of different organisations including property developers and community organisations. So there is a feeling that if we needed space, for example, an MA base, we could find a space somewhere very close to the places that we’re already working in. So reasonably easily.
This question of space comes up a lot and the opinion is divided between the necessity of having a dedicated space, that you can meet in and have as an ongoing working space, and the possibility of being nomadic and using different spaces. What has your experience so far with that been?
JG We don’t find it a drawback not having a building. At some point we probably will have a small office in one or other place. We need a variety of different spaces, i.e., having one space wouldn’t be sufficient, because we do specialist courses in textiles, photography, prints. And we’re fortunate enough that some of our members run studios. We’ve recently taken a shared space for a textiles and fashion collective. And that, I mean, we’re lucky with that, because that also has a public space, so we can use that for meetings if we need to. So at the moment, the way that we’re operating in the spaces, we found pretty much satisfy our needs.
That’s excellent. And also, it’s much easier in terms of funding and the amount of staff you need to run a space.
JJ Yeah, exactly. And also replicating equipment. If there’s a well-equipped print studio that we can use to run our courses, we don’t have to replicate that.
JG We’ve been able to equip the textiles studio and rent out spaces to professional practitioners and the trade-off for that is that we can run courses in there.
The co-operative way of working where everybody pitches in what resources they have. Has that been an aspect of the way that you’ve brought your different skills in to create the co-operative?
JG I suppose because we’ve had a bit of a lead into it in that we all knew each other. I mean, we have brought in a number of artists who were not working at Hull School of Art and Design as well, because we wanted to make sure that it was representative of the city, rather than just that group from Hull School of Art and Design, who have come out and started something else. But so far, the skills that we have are fairly evenly spread. So it’s been sort of obvious in a way, I mean Jayne and I do the admin side of it, and because I’d done so much admin when I was at college, that’s sort of a natural role in some ways. And the tutors go on being tutors like they were before. I think we’ve been quite lucky because it’s not necessarily easy setting up a co-op. And there have been one or two occasions where people don’t quite get it, and they’re still thinking about as if they were being employed by an organisation. So we have had to say gently, “Actually, we’re okay at the minute because we’ve got the money, but if the time comes where we haven’t got funding to cover everything, then we’re going to have to sort of share that out a bit”. And there’s one or two people who also are very used to a hierarchical structure and like to manage things, and you have to keep saying, “Don’t forget, this isn’t a college. This is actually a co-operative”. And all those students that you’re working with, we’re all equal in this. So far it’s been okay.
JJ Two of us went to a really good co-operative directors’ training day, at the Co-operative UK. And one of the things they said there is people aren’t born co-operators, it’s an ongoing practice basically. So that was very empowering in that sense that it’s not all going to be straightforward, It’s going to be a constant practice of negotiating with the team. But I think one of the other things is that there is a close network in Hull, so we all know each other, even the people who we brought in who were practising artists and not from Hull School of Art and Design, we’ve had long relationships with them and have worked with each other before.
You mentioned the training day for co-operative directors, and about how the process is a negotiation. For many people who haven’t been involved in co-operatives, the whole process is unclear. You said that you got help from the Social Science Centre, the Co-operative University and Co-ops UK. Can you tell me a little bit more about the process of putting together the co-operative?
JJ We’d done a lot of the groundwork, hadn’t we? Before.
JG I’m not sure that we actually explored other alternatives apart from co-operatives because we had a number of sessions talking to Mike Neary and Joss Winn at Lincoln University. And because it so much reflected the way that we wanted to work, because it was so different from the context that we’d come out of, this traditional HE institution with all those layers of management. And because we knew that, really, we could only make this work if we were all sort of pitched in there. It seemed to be the obvious structure, and so we just went ahead and did that. Cilla Ross, who’s the Principal at Co-operative College, who’s leading the Co-operative University project, had also been over to talk to us. She gave us a pointer in terms of getting in touch with Co-op UK. And so, we just worked through that process, which turned out to be fairly straightforward. It’s set up as a Community Interest Company, that’s the legal bit of it. The company is set up with co-operative values, which is an existing framework. So they’re two slightly different things.
JJ We have a board of seven members who manage the day to day running of the School and we also have a membership who are entitled to vote at the AGM. So that’s our choice of internal structure but there are other models.
JG It is an interesting sort of struggle because you know that some control is needed. And that works better with a small number of people than a large number of people, which is why we went for the board model in the end. But on the other hand, you’re very aware that the co-operative principle is that everybody has a say, and so there are different ways for doing that. But we’ve opted for the one where there is a smaller number of people who are making things happen. So we’re trying to be cooperative, but we also are aware that we need to move things forward and make things happen.This can be quite a challenging balancing act.
JJ Going back to the co-operative training, they were stressing very much on that day that everybody involved has to have the organisation absolutely at the centre, that’s the important thing. We’ve all got that as our first responsibility. So I guess if something like that happened, then if someone was doing something which was jeopardising the organisation, then there’s ways of dealing with that. We have a book of rules that people are given when they join up, which is basically just a statement of co-operative ways of working. There is a lot of work done that isn’t acknowledged in a way, isn’t paid for.
JG You have to take that on with an organisation like this that is at the beginning of its life and the cooperative model helps to reinforce the importance of fair distribution of time and responsibilities.
You’ve mentioned a number of things that I’ve had on my mind, because on the one hand, the co-operative ideals are great, but on the other hand, as you said, having endless meetings and not being able to decide, can stall a project. So what’s really inspiring about your project is that you’ve put together a format that allows you to go ahead and actually go straight into practising the art school. And one of the things I realised along the way, as well, is that you have to do it in order to figure out how you need to do it, in a way.
JG Yeah, yeah.
JJ Yeah. Yes.
Is that something that you found? Do you have a story to illustrate that process of what you envisaged at first and then when you got to practise how your ideas changed?
JG Not so much that probably, but I think we’ve had to have a bit of courage and I mean, we’ve had to trust each other, but that hasn’t been that difficult in our particular context, because we did know each other well before. But we’ve just had to decide we’re going to do something and then go for it, and just trust that it’s going to work. Touch wood, so far it has, but I suppose that’s mainly because we’ve been setting up things that we feel fairly comfortable with managing. But we got the seed funding, and that covered setting up the company, and running our first training course. We didn’t know if we’d get any more money after that. So it may well not have happened, we’ve been very fortunate to have had two lots of Arts Council project funding. And I mean, with the degree, again, no idea whether that would work, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t. But there’s lots of steps on the way to that, that may or may not happen, and that’s not all down to us. I mean, that’s partly down to what happens with the Co-operative University.
JJ And I think one of the freeing things is that we’re employing tutors on an hourly basis, and we’re paying a good rate, but we’re not responsible for anybody’s employment. So if a course didn’t run, that tutor wouldn’t get that block of money, but all our tutors aren’t relying on the Feral. So in a way, at this point, that feels quite freeing. But all of our tutors are established in their own portfolio, they’re practitioners, and they have other teaching. So they’re very happy to do two hours a week with the Feral, but they’re not reliant on us.
JG Yeah. It only happens if we get students as well. I mean, it’s quite interesting because in having discussions with Co-operative University and other organisations about degrees, and employment, and so on, they’re obviously all concerned about terms of employment, and union reaction, and fair contracts, and not zero-hours. And so, it’s a bit of an odd situation that you’re actually arguing against the principles that you believe in. But in fact, in this context, it sort of turned upside down.
That’s why you were asking whether it was worth it in the end. What is the pay-off of accredited degrees? So and as you said, whether alternative art schools would become more popular, for example.
JG Yeah. Yes. I mean, we think that probably at MA level, as with School of the Damned, that postgrad level, there’s probably a stronger chance that people would be prepared to accept the experience without a qualification. That’s an unknown, but then we have to pay for it somehow. So that would either mean the students paying for it out of their own pockets, or if it’s accredited, they can have access to a grant or a loan. So it’s a financial debate in a way. And this is why we had the discussion with employers trying to find out actually whether the whole business about accreditation was a myth. Is that what they look at? Or do they actually look at the person and the experience that they’ve had? So that’s not resolved, really.
So you’re still looking at that together with the Co-operative University?
JG Yeah, yes. At the moment, just from the point of view of being able to offer the provision and also survive financially, if we can go through it with the Co-operative University and provide an accredited experience, then we probably will do. Well, because also we’ve got to attract students so I think it’s a debate at the moment.
JJ Yes. So being involved in that larger organisation will help us to attract students.
JG But I think that’s the real topic for debate between alternative art schools.
JJ As we said earlier, we’ve found the particular context within Hull to provide a BA honours degree, because there isn’t one. So it could be that in other places there is more space to explore the alternatives.
So is that your main aim at the moment, to establish that BA for Hull?
JG I suppose it’s our next big move. But that and the prison work is our next sort of move forward, I think.
JJ And I suppose our mission statement is to provide an art education for a wider group of people as possible. And so we’re also considering a studio-apprenticeship-type model. It feels like if we’re opening this up to as many people as possible. If you’ve not had access to education, to do a degree might be very important. It’s very easy if you’re in the privileged position of having a degree to say, “Ah, they’re not worth it”. But actually, for a lot of people they might be.
Yeah, you’re right about that.
JJ But as you develop these ideas, it’s the usual thing, it comes to the point where the funding becomes more complicated and you’re having to spend more time on it, and you’re having to look at a whole range of different… So that’s when it overtakes in a way. That hasn’t happened yet. But I can see that offering a degree is much more straightforward, because the funding comes along with that. But if we want to develop other provision, then we’re going to have to find ways of funding that, and that means looking beyond the obvious.
You mentioned voting, are the students and staff, are they all members?
JJ All the staff are members and we’re just at the point of inviting student membership as well. So not all the students are members at the moment. All of the degree students would be. If students come on two of our courses, then we will invite them for membership. So we’re waiting to build a community of students who are coming back, who have something invested in the organisation, and then we’ll invite them and we’re just at that point now. It won’t be everybody who comes on our courses, because some people might come and then we never see them again. But everybody involved with a degree would all be members of the co-op.
JG Because of the Co-operative University that has a very strongly co-operative flavour to it.
JJ A lot of collaborative working.
JG So co-operative practice and principles are woven into that degree. And there’s a certain amount of sharing or support by Co-op University on that element of co-operative practice.
What does membership entail? What are the benefits and what are the responsibilities of membership? You mentioned before that people become members and then you never see them again, that’s definitely a problem.
JG Yes. That was one of the reasons that we’ve got this system of having the board of directors who are managing. Those seven people come together and those are the business meetings, the ongoing meetings. We will be having an annual general meeting. All the members will be invited to that meeting and have a vote. So those are the two levels of membership. The founder members, and the wider membership, whose responsibility then would just be to come to that annual general meeting and contribute in any way they can.
Is it a multi-stakeholder model? With a two-tier membership.
JJ There are different models of cooperatives. We’ve chosen to have a smaller board of directors who are elected by the members every 3 years and a larger membership.
Because it’s a CIC with a board that’s run on co-operative principles, rather than a fully fledged co-operative?
JG We’ve had this discussion and actually, it’s really difficult to answer what a co-op is. It’s clear what co-operative principles are, it’s clear what the legal constitution of a CIC is, but a CIC with co-operative values, it does give you the option to run the company in a number of different ways, which is where Co-ops UK advised us on that. Didn’t they?
JJ Yes, and I don’t think that if something like a workers’ co-op, say something like Suma. I mean, I think it’s different if you’re making a profit, because then you have to make a decision about where that profit is spread. Whereas we are not making a profit. So when you talk about stakeholders, no one’s making a profit. Everything is going back into the co-operative. So people’s investment in it, it’s just through being employed by it, they’re not making a profit.
JG It’s not like a food co-op, where you order stuff in bulk for everybody, and people make things, and then sell things. It’s not that model really. So it’s a slightly different way of operating, but the principle’s the same, that we’re working for the benefit of that.
That’s also a good point, that you’re non-profit. So everything is just going back into keeping it going.
JG Yeah, the community interest company guarantees that. And also, in terms of applying for grants, you often need that legal status to be able to do that.
So at the moment the people who are making decisions are the board and the founder members.
JJ They’re the same thing.
JG They’re one and the same.
Oh, they’re the same thing. Okay. And you have regular meetings?
Hull seems to be at the centre of innovation in relation to art education. Were any of your members involved with Pippa Koszerek’s Independent Art School at the time?
JJ Yeah, well, I was involved in a gallery called RED Gallery, where the alternative art school was set up. They boycotted the Hull School of Art of Design at the point where the modularisation of the courses was coming in.
JG Pippa shared my studio at one point. This was many years ago. Yeah, and one of the reasons that we felt it was really important to try and keep something going in Hull, is because those sort of initiatives, and there’s been quite a number of them, have come out of people who’ve done art degrees. And if students are now going elsewhere to do degrees, we will lose that reputation and potential for those interesting critical developments.
Did some of those ideas come into the Feral?
JG Not directly from there.
JJ No. We’ve looked at other more recent models in other parts of the country. We’ve really acted very pragmatically, to be honest.
JG That was interesting because we did come to the conclusion that although there might be ideologies that you could take, the practical circumstances are so different from ours. It’s great to be in touch with these people, it’s lovely to have the network, and to know that people are doing very different things. But in terms of the practical, day to day organisation of Feral, we’ve sort of had to go our own way. And I think we all knew exactly the sort of opportunities and the sort of experience that we would want to offer people. So in terms of the ideologies, there wasn’t a lot of discussion.
JJ And we know what we didn’t want. Because most of us had come from that bad experience of neo-liberal marketisation, and been impacted by all of that. So we had a very strong sense of what we didn’t want. It wasn’t overt but we selected people, really, I guess, to work with that we knew we had a shared values with. One of the things now we’re looking at, is how to bring new people in. And then you’ve got the issue around quality, because as Jackie said, a lot of what we do is based on trust. We know that the tutors we’re employing are very skilled and experienced. But when you’re bringing in someone you don’t know and to some extent you’ve got to let them get on with it. So that’s going to be the next issue.
JG Yeah. So we will need to think about some sort of training, shadowing, mentoring process at some point in the future.
…of how to appoint new tutors or new staff members of the co-op? That’s a really crucial question. And also, what is the role of the educator in co-operative art education, when you want to create this kind of partnership and more equal relationships between the student and the tutor? Do you have any ideas about that and about how that relationship can evolve?
JG I think it’s a principle we’ve always worked on and would say that most tutors worked on that principle anyway. And that depends partly on personality, partly on your perception of what your role is, I guess. But that has always been the model that we’ve worked with. But on the whole, it’s the interpersonal skills, it’s the taking and giving of ideas, and it’s the helping people to shape those as a shared process, that is the way that we work.
Many thanks to Jayne Jones and Jackie Goodman. Interview carried out via Skype by Sophia Kosmaoglou on 8 January 2020. A short version will be published in the forthcoming issue of URgh! on alternative art education.