‘Art can be intimidating if you haven’t been cultured in it’: Artist Mark Leckey on launching a populist art school
Artists have inevitably been tempted to imagine alternatives to the formal training of art schools since it first appeared in the Renaissance in the form of academies, with their refined, traditional, and exclusive associations.
“An oasis of decency for artists outside the system,” promised a prospectus for the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, established in Suffolk, England, in 1937 by artists Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines. The mythical school will count Maggi Hambling and Lucian Freud among its students.
In recent years, YBA artist Marcus Harvey has founded the artist-run Turps Art School for painting in London. Described in the Guardian as a “renegade”, his stated aim is “to challenge the single, deep and broad approach to arts education”.
Earlier this year, Tracey Emin also announced plans to establish TKE Studios in Margate, with a focus on mixing different generations and encouraging critical rigor.
In an even more ambitious attempt to improve access to the arts, artist Mark Leckey piloted his Music and Video Lab this summer. The free one-month art course is intended to appeal to people between the ages of 18 and 25.
This first run took place in the former mining town of Redruth in Cornwall initiated by Teresa Gleadowe, curator of arts organization CAST, and Auction House, a project space run by artist Liam Jolly. The project cost £15,000 ($18,000), with support from Arts Council England.
The final works will be screened at CAST from August 5 to September 3. We caught up with Leckey to find out more about his reasons for starting the course and the complicated process of reaching new audiences.
What have been your own experiences with arts education?
I left school at 16 and was unemployed for about four years. It was in the early 1980s when there were things like the Youth Training Scheme and the Youth Opportunities Program, so I was doing that but I was in trouble and I had no direction. Because I could draw, someone suggested I go to art school. I’ve always loved music and I knew a lot of musicians and bands had gone to art school, so both an ability to draw and a romantic idea of being in a rock band got to me. made me interested in it.
At that time, I was a mature student, so I received a full scholarship and my housing allowances were paid. All of this made me financially better off going to college than staying at home. Those opportunities are now completely gone, along with other public services I used to enjoy, like youth clubs. One of the reasons for the course is this lack of opportunities, especially for people from backgrounds where university is unaffordable or not in their cultural visibility.
Why did you decide to start the course and call it Music and Video Lab?
It’s an idea I’ve had with me for a long time. The idea is to try to reach people who wouldn’t normally have that kind of access. Redruth is a disadvantaged area and we wanted to find young people where it is not already an inevitable development of their education to go to university.
We avoided referring to it as an art class because if you do that, all applicants are already thinking of going to art school. To try and expand this a bit more, we decided to just find people who would be interested in a creative editing course. If you can promote it more as a way to deepen your technical abilities or your network, it doesn’t seem as daunting as I think art can be if you haven’t been cultured in it.
What was difficult in finding candidates for the course?
I had made inroads on this idea before and the problem is always raising awareness and finding the right channels for these people. We applied to local community colleges and social groups around Cornwall. I don’t know Cornwall so couldn’t find my way around easily. If we do it again it will probably be in Blackpool or London.
My idea was to promote it through music and to appeal to well-known musicians. We made a publicity poster with their names to attract people’s attention. [Musician guests included Gazelle Twin, Patten, and Lee Gamble.] The problem was that we were trying to reach people in a physical domain, when their information is all in digital and I can’t access it.
How did you develop a program and how was the course structured?
I wouldn’t call it a program and it wasn’t very structured. There was a lot more play than that and there were aspects that were more like a youth club. We had no idea what stage they would be at, so we had to do it a bit on the fly and get to know them. I started by showing them stuff I had collected from YouTube and TikTok, then I mixed that with artist videos and film clips.
They would then go to their laptops and either me or Liam would talk to them individually. We would talk about whether something they had seen interested them or sparked an idea, and then I would show them devices – sound and visual tricks – that they could use. The program was simply trying to provide them with both the tools and the thinking to edit creatively.
Do you think artists create their own schools to try to improve the art education system?
I think university courses are under a lot of strain, but I don’t want them to be replaced. I went to art school 30 years ago, and in terms of the class I would say there was more mixing, but the art schools were also almost all white, so there was changes for the better.
My course would be more like a basic course, perhaps, but not necessarily with the objective of going to higher education afterwards. It could be just continuing to be a musician and making your own music videos or doing something on YouTube. My interests lie in both art and visual culture as it does in social media and I find them equally creative and productive.
Why did you decide to remove the critical aspects that would usually be a big part of art school?
I have ambivalence about it because you can’t do work without some critical knowledge, but at the same time that criticism can be inhibiting. I had read novels but I hadn’t really read as I had been asked when I arrived at the art school. I found it very difficult. This ability to read critical text without being intimidated or feeling like it wasn’t a language for me didn’t come until much, much later. But this critical path can also open things up and be transformative.
[At Music and Video Lab] you can start doing something without worrying about whether it’s art or part of speech. You can get to the questions later, going to a criticality but not starting there.
What kind of work was done in the course?
There was a variety. One singer made a music video for her songs, another kid made a techno track, and another put together all the videos he had on his phone into a grime track he wrote. Success for me was that everyone produced something and no one got stuck. Thinking back to my days in art school and teaching in art schools, that’s the biggest hurdle. The good thing about this course is that they all flowed and it was really rewarding to watch.
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive breaking news, revealing interviews and incisive reviews that move the conversation forward.