Growth and diversity

The importance of Britain's commitment to the enhancement of its manufactures was confirmed by the Great Exhibition and, despite competition from the new medium of photography, the number of schools of drawing grew rapidly.  A century later more than a hundred schools of art had an output of more than a thousand diploma holders across the art and design fields [2].  By 1981 there were 45 institutions offering fine art courses at degree level, with a total enrolment of 4,900 [3].  The number of higher education institutions teaching fine art practices rose sharply through the 1990s to more than 75 and the number of undergraduate students of fine art to more than 14,000 in 2000-2001[4].  In 1998 the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, questioned assumptions about the need to devote attention to halting the long decline in agriculture and manufacturing and instead drew attention to a group of "creative industries" - the fine arts prominent among them - that had been booming.  They had, he suggested, generated 50,000 jobs and £60bn in revenues during 1997-98 [5]. 

Meanwhile, over the same one hundred and fifty year period, the number of artists to achieve recognition and exercise influence on the international stage has also grown - in proportion to the increase in the scale of global interest in fine art.  Those who believe in the spontaneous eruption of ‘talent’ might view this as no more than coincidental, but it seems reasonable to suggest that Britain's achievements on the international art stage point to the outstanding quality of our higher education in fine art practice.  British artists have wielded extraordinary influence within the rarefied atmosphere of the art world, have been greeted with popular acclaim and exhibitions such as ‘Sensation’ and the rise of the Young British Artists have brought the British art world notoriety.

Such claims are of course predicated on the idea of a national dimension to art education.  It may be argued that this perspective on art practice is threatened by globalisation.  It is certainly true that the character of art education has been changed by the increasing volume of student exchanges and by the fact that institutions have been recruiting overseas for many years.  More important is the profound change in the makeup of the population and an accompanying cultural shift.

The term "multicultural" began to enter the vocabulary of the art schools in the early 1980s, some time after the ethnic mix of the art school intake began to change; by the early 1990s the character of the degree shows and courses also began to reflect increased cultural diversity.

[2]  In 1959 114 art schools submitted candidates in all of the subjects forming the curriculum of the National Design Diploma.  The output of fine art diplomates stood at 1,085.

[3] CNAA, Special Statement No. 1 - Art and Design (paper drafted by Registrar for Art, Design and the Performing Arts), 15 September 1983.

[4] HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency).

[5] Creative Britain, Chris Smith, Faber & Faber, London 1998.