The RA’s President on the importance of arts education

Rebecca Salter PRA writes how we must value a rich arts education for all.

The Antique School of the Royal Academy at New Somerset House (1780/1783) by Johann Zoffany RA (attributed to)Royal Academy of Arts

The RA Schools opened for students more than 250 years ago in 1769 (learn more). We should acknowledge the vision of our founding Royal Academicians, who established an art school to pass knowledge from one generation of artists to the next. But at a time of unease about the state of art education in the country, particularly in schools, we should remember another lesson from the past.

Design (1778/1780) by Angelica KauffmanRoyal Academy of Arts

We are familiar with the educational mantra of the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), which is so often quoted to justify a narrow, rather utilitarian curriculum, especially with the current trend for a focus on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). If we are fighting to turn STEM into STEAM by reinstating the arts, then we should turn to the 18th-century version of the three Rs: reading, writing and ‘wroughting’ (making).

The Antique School at New Somerset House (ca.1780) by Edward Francis BurneyRoyal Academy of Arts

Our Academicians understood the profound importance of ‘wroughting’ as a form of creativity. Their values of independence, enquiry, curiosity and, above all, a method of learning through making, underpin the ethos of the RA Schools to this day.

Portrait of George Michael Moser, R.A. by George Dance RARoyal Academy of Arts

The first Keeper (the head of the RA Schools), George Michael Moser RA, didn’t want this to be like a European academy, with a powerful professor and students underneath him, all coming out the same. From the beginning they wanted a multiplicity of voices.

Humphrey Ocean RA gives a lecture on perspective for students, in the RA Library (2019)Royal Academy of Arts

The multiplicity of voices was originally provided by Academicians, but now it’s visiting artists from Britain and beyond.

Behind the scenes at the RA Schools (2019)Royal Academy of Arts

Much of the current debate about art education has a tendency to focus on outcomes and, in particular, to emphasise the contribution to the economy of the creative industries. This contribution should be celebrated, but it should not reduce the role of the arts in all our lives to lines on a spreadsheet, and risks leaving us with only those activities whose impacts are quantifiable. The RA was built on the unquantifiable.

Behind the scenes at the RA Schools (2017)Royal Academy of Arts

We should acknowledge the special qualities an education in art can bring to other areas. Learning through making encourages imaginative thinking and interpretation through experiment and analysis. In a data-driven world, this style of learning develops an ability to think about problems from a broad perspective. It enables us to make sense of the world, to manage risk, to learn from failure, and to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty.

Behind the scenes at the RA Schools (2019)Royal Academy of Arts

By denying children an arts education, we put in jeopardy the qualities of flexibility and enquiry that we need in order to flourish in a world of change. Britain’s disinvestment in art education coincides with an increasing interest from other countries in the kind of creative freedom that used to define our education system.

Students working from the life in the Ladys Painting School [sic] (From article published in The Lady’s Pictorial, 19 February 1916) by Unidentified photographerRoyal Academy of Arts

The benefits of creativity are universal and belong just as much to science as to the arts; this is not a time to build walls between the two. It is a time to be as bold as our founding Academicians and honour their vision by valuing a rich arts education for all.

Use the arrows to take a look around the historic Life Room in the RA Schools, where students from JMW Turner to John Everett Millais have learnt to draw.

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