City Art Reader 28: Oh to be an artist, a real artist!

2nd Mar 2020

As the academic year gets underway, arts students around the country are venturing down a tertiary path that might, just might, be the visual arts version of Katherine Mansfield’s much-quoted dream to be “a real writer”. What are their chances? The City Art Reader talks to Christchurch’s two main art schools to see how this year’s batch of students is shaping up.


The Ara Institute of Canterbury offers a range of arts-related tertiary courses, most well-known being the Bachelor of Design with specialisations in Applied Visual Art, Visual Communication Design, Fashion Technology and Design, Motion Design, Photography and Visual Communication Design. While the details around Government plans to merge 16 vocational institutions into into a single, yet to be named institute of skills and technology are still uncertain – the bill orchestrating this change passed its third and final reading last month – Bruce Russell, manager of Art and Design at Ara, says this year is already running on full.

Bruce Russell, manager of Art and Design at Ara Institute of Canterbury

How are enrolments this year?

We have exceeded our targets. The Bachelor of Design, which is our main qualification, has enrolled strongly this year and for the Applied Visual Art specialisation – printing, drawing, sculpture – we have more first year enrolments than in any time in the last seven years.

Are they mainly school leavers?

It’s a mixture – about 80% of them are school leavers or have come to us from a year doing a level 4 qualification. They might have needed a year to complete a lower level qualification to enable them access to a degree. We have some mature students but not many.

Have they enrolled across all disciplines?

We are the mirror image of the University (of Canterbury). They have an art school with a design programme embedded in it; we have a design programme with an arts school embedded in it. In our visual arts we teach printmaking, drawing – lots of drawing – and small object sculpture. While we have a painting elective, we don’t have a full course of study in painting. That is the university’s business.

What are the expectations of students when they arrive?

They know what they want to do – they want to make art – but they don’t necessarily have a long term goal. I always say if you apply for Applied Visual Art it might not necessarily lead you to a job. I give them examples of things our graduates from that specialisation have done for work, not just teaching, but it is up to them. I do say, if your primary focus is to get paid employment we have other specialisations in the Bachelor of Design programme that will suit you better but that will not enable you to make art all the time. If Applied Visual Art is what you really want to do, if that is your focus, then that is what you should do.

How much engagement do students have with what is going on in the arts in the city?

We really try to drive that. We’ve created a shell course, a group of academic credits which is not about teaching in the classroom but it incentivises them to do stuff to gain those credits. If they go to every exhibition opening in town and write a brief reflection, we will give them credits because that gets them engaging with the art world and understanding who does what, where and how it works and that is what we want them to know at the end. We could tell them until we are in blue in the face that it is really good for them to do x, y and z and they’d go, why would I do that? Most of them come to us with an NCEA mindset which says if I’m not earning credits I am not going to do it, because everything in NCEA is about gaining credits and anything that doesn’t gain credits is not valued. We can enable learning to happen by incentivising them, enabling them to have learning in the real world. We see that as very valuable for all our students.

At the end of this year those completing their time at Ara’s art and design programme will be feeling… nervous? Or impatient to get out into the art-making world?

A lot of students are nervous – it doesn’t matter what specialisation they have enrolled in, they all feel diffident about having to go out there. There are some exceptions who are terribly self-confident and motivated and that is great and good on them, but they would be in the minority. Most young people find the world – and I can sympathise with them – quite a worrying prospect on lots of levels. But we do make an effort – the Bachelor of Design (programme) has five specialisations of which Applied Visual Art is just one. Because the main focus of our degree is probably more vocational than your average art school we require all our students including those doing Applied Visual Art to do what we call professional practice. This involves doing a course in the second year about the practicalities of employment, self-employment and what that involves – an introduction to copyright, invoicing, tax… all those sorts of things. Through professional practice they can earn credits by engaging with third parties. This could be client-based work in design; often our arts people might organise themselves an internship with an artist; they might help in an art education programme; or they might be an intern at CoCA. The last thing we want is for them to do three years here, become a crash-hot screen-print artist or intaglio printmaker, but have absolutely no idea what to do next, how to make it work, who to talk to or how to get a show – or even what is a show. In the third year we get them putting together their own shows – finding a space, putting on an exhibition. Recently we have found our graduates even in Applied Visual Art are much more likely to be self-starting – they will go and find places to show; they will make work and they will sell it – through a pop up shop for example, or illustrative drawings. That is a good vibe.



The Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) at the University of Canterbury Ilam School of Fine Arts is a four-year degree in visual arts and design subjects with specialisations in graphic design, film, painting, photography and sculpture – under recent changes the final year can now be split between the BFA and the Honours year, in line with other art schools around the country. Masters of Fine Arts and PhD programmes are also available. Head of Fine Arts Aaron Kreisler says enrolment numbers are now ahead of pre-quake enrolments.

Aaron Kreisler, head of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts

How are enrolments this year?

Talking to colleagues around the country there seems to have been a flattening out but that is not what we have found this year. We have had a rise in the number of students taking first year which is a real positive. We couldn’t take all the students – at least three couldn’t come here because they are stuck in China.

Are the first-year students mainly school leavers?

We get a few mature students but most are school leavers. Most are from a broader Canterbury catchment which is probably why numbers were down in that post-quake period because a lot of students from the Canterbury region went elsewhere. I think they are now wanting to stay. Looking at the competition, they don’t see a point of difference to make them want to leave and as a generation they are spending longer at home.

Have they enrolled across all disciplines?

Sometimes it comes down to personality. Like all art schools, you want a certain character to come through across the school in terms of people shaping what is coming through their studios but also you don’t want a practice that is reflective of the lecturers’ own interests. We are teaching a new degree programme that has come through in the last four years so the nuts and bolts across the studios are a lot more similar, even though it is nuanced around the practice. So having a graphic design studio in an art school is different from say, Massey (University) where there is an entire graphic design department. Here graphic design is still through the fine arts paradigm, so the lens is slightly different – that generates a different kind of practice. It relates to a conceptual underpinning and a relationship with materiality which goes back to that Bauhaus-type relationship. So the ‘industry’ is not the benchmark against which things are set.

What are the expectations of students when they arrive?

They are impressionable. If you talk to the younger ones who come straight through school, they might have been exposed to a lot of painting practice and that has coloured the direction they might want to go in. By having a foundation year, where they go into each studio, hopefully that becomes a trigger point to think about things that might not be along the lines of what they wanted to do when they first came through the door. Sometimes for more mature students who haven’t been in the education system and who have been doing one thing in terms of art practice and that is what they want to continue to do – it can be a shock when they might not get into this particular studio. We cap our numbers across all our studios so if you really want to get into that studio, it can be a battle. But if you look at our alumni and the people that are sometimes the pin ups of different periods of history – you might think of them as painter but they might have trained as a sculptor. The way their practice shifted over time is more about being informed by art and art practice. That is what I tell our students – you might not be remembered as that great painting student per se but you will be remembered for what you did beyond the arts school. You might get older students who come back, who have always had an interest in art but weren’t allowed to do it – they were told not to pursue that idea, to be pragmatic about their lives. So here is an opportunity to re-investigate that – there is a certain amount of loss from that but there is also a positive story. Having a sustainable career in anything takes a lot of time and a lot of reassessment. It is hard to explain that to a 17 or 18 year old sometimes, but the easiest thing to explain is, are you going to be sustaining an interest in this?

How much engagement do students have with what is going on in the arts in the city?

At the end of the first week this year we went into city and introduced our first-years to Blair Jackson, Felicity Milburn and Peter Vangioni at the Christchurch Art Gallery – they showed them around and talked about the shows and behind the scenes and what the public gallery does. Then we went across the road to the Physics Room then to CoCA. They are expected to write a short precis of the different spaces and what they do. We’ll take them around the art dealers – we tell them this is something they should become familiar with as part of their extended whanau, and as it becomes more familiar and less intimidating they will see themselves more and more in those spaces.

At the end of this year those completing their time at the Ilam School of Fine Arts will be feeling…. nervous? Or impatient to get out into art-making world?

I think it is both. Like a lot of students, you wake up the day after your exams and you think – what? It is like being orphaned. You can try to counsel that but it is like any stage – you can’t over-project what that will be like. Sometimes that is why people who finish their graduate degrees go on and do post-graduate studies because it is offsetting that inevitability. But I think we try and give a fair account of the world beyond.