I recently left academia after a decade in part-time fine art lecturing. Like many life-long art lecturers slash artists who use their teaching to pay the bills, I had thought at best I'd last seven and was surprised to make it past this itch.
In fact I changed jobs after seven years, and left UCE Birmingham to work closer to home at St Martin's College (SMC) in Lancaster. The move was a wrench - I had made great friends at UCE, had - in some ways - grown up there. But in the last few years, a number of colleagues had died prematurely, after long illnesses, and in some ways the time felt right to move on. My new job promised a new course, built to the specifications that myself and another newly appointed colleague then spent several years crafting. There were many good times earlier on, and I learnt - at first anyway - to work a comfortable 8 hour day instead of UCE's unusual 11 hour one.
On my interview day, I toured the archaic and empty Apple Mac Suite and viewed the grimey Uglow-esque paintings in the Art studios with a band of fellow interviewees (one of whom described the job as a 'poisoned chalice' I recall). I wondered if there were any young people even on the course, it all seemed to careful and polite. But I really liked the staff I met, and I was excited about moving away from the safe haven of UCE and its largely middle-class intake. I remember now how long I took to accept the post when I was offered it - something in me knew I was in for a steep uphill climb. To cut a very long and arduous story short, the institution - very sadly - proved to be as backward as it had first appeared. Tens of thousands of pounds were wasted by the college fulfilling half our list of IT prerequisites, which would not function without the other half. The one half languished inoperative in cupboards and my angry and unreplied to emails built up.
Our course was finally aborted at a very late stage, with very little warning and no debriefing from management. I was disgusted, and no matter how fond I was of my colleagues by then, and how much good I felt sure I was doing the students, I could not remain working for management I had so little respect for. It's a very ordinary tale in academia....
Fast-forward then, till Friday night, when a small, diverse group of my favourite ex-students (I can say that now I'm not their lecturer any more!) hold a show 'The 9lb project' in the College gallery which I had helped design as part of my job at SMC. They had had the gumption to turnaround their usually lacklustre work placement module and organise the first real gallery show SMC had had outside of degree show every June. As I drove there, I had the usual mixed expectations of a student show. And I still was feeling considerable guilt for leaving them - as I saw it - at the mercy of a largely unsympathetic (or maybe uncomprehending) course team. I knew I had probably been the only lecturer who had really pushed their buttons, and that I had left them now. This probably sounds like I'm taking it all to seriously, but hey - this is how it goes in the post-partum mind.
These students were an almost crazily diverse group, but they'd put on - with our very committed technician Stephen Bentley as their institutional support - an incredibly fresh exhibition of energetic, articulate work. I loved it. It wasn't the best-installed show on earth, but I was just thrilled to see a decent turnout of young gallery-goers, some fine skate-boarding, some Paul McCarthy-seque gutsy performance (see image) and no politeness on the walls. It was as if finally some young artists had entered the building. Predictably there were no senior SMC staff in attendance (in some way just as well seeing as how hazardous the pissed skateboarding was getting) but I'm certain the exhibitors didn't give a shit. They all seemed elated, and I remembered how exciting shows are when you start out. I even remember Nina throwing up regularly before them - that's how exciting they were.
As I was getting ready to leave some of my former students began to lament my departure. One of the exhibitors challenged me "You said in drawing class you'd be really impressed if someone did a full-length self portrait - I did! You said you'd be impressed if someone did a bit of performance - tonight I did! What's you're next challenge !? - Bring it on!!!"
I sped home on the M6, the route suffused by warm early summer light and skipping through my iPod. I realised that for the first time in a long time I felt good about what I had left, and certain that they'd all be absolutely fine without me.