The National Art School is on Gadigal land in Darlinghurst, Sydney, with its inner-city campus on the heritage-listed site of the former Darlinghurst Gaol.
In 2022 NAS celebrates 100 years teaching art at this location, but its history dates back to 1843, when regular art classes were held by John Skinner Prout at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts in Pitt Street, Sydney.
Forty years and several re-organisations later, in 1883 the Technical and Working Men’s College became known as the Sydney Technical College, which included the Department of Art. This department was relocated to the former Darlinghurst Gaol in 1922, and was then part of East Sydney Technical College.
The 1920s saw the development of NAS’s distinctive studio model of teaching, offering its first five-year Diploma in Art in1926 under Lecturer-in-Charge Samuel Rowe and the English sculptor G Rayner Hoff.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the size and reputation of the Department of Art expanded. Renowned artists such as Colin Lanceley, Ann Thomson, Elisabeth Cummings, Peter Powditch, Ken Unsworth, Martin Sharp, Garry Shead, Janet Mansfield, Tim Storrier and Vivienne Binns graduated from the Diploma Course. At this time, NAS was part of the NSW Government’s Department of Technical Education.
From 1974, NAS went through a long period of upheaval and uncertainty, with a proposal to move the art school out of the Darlinghurst Gaol campus. The decision was fought and protest marches were held but in 1975 the School of Fine Art was transferred to a new institution that would evolve into today’s UNSW Art and Design in Paddington, formerly the College of Fine Arts (COFA).
A much-diminished School of Art and Design remained at the Darlinghurst Gaol site as part of the Department of Technical and Further Education (TAFE), offering short certificate courses. Through the efforts of art staff members, and with the support of the newly formed Friends of the National Art School (FoNAS), the visual art program was slowly rebuilt.
In 1996, after much lobbying, NAS gained independence from TAFE. In 1999 it first offered an accredited Bachelor of Fine Art degree, and a Master of Fine Art in 2001.
At this time NAS still sat within the Department of Education and Training (DET), and in 2006 it was under threat of being incorporated into one of NSW’s existing universities.
After more lobbying and activity by FoNAS and other NAS supporters, in 2009 the School moved out of DET management and became a fully independent tertiary education provider. Since then NAS has expanded its degrees, short courses and public programs, including offering a Doctor of Fine Art from 2019.
In 2019, NAS was designated a State Significant Organisation by the NSW State Government (on par with Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks), which secured ongoing funding for the School and recognised its important role as a leading tertiary education institution. NAS was also granted a 45-year lease on the former Darlinghurst Gaol site, providing crucial stability for the future.
In 2020 NAS received a significant grant from the NSW State Government for restoration and upgrading of the campus’s historic buildings and structures, with the works being undertaken in 2021. The site was also listed on the NSW State Heritage Register in 2021.
The original sandstone gaol complex, which was built on a unique panopticon design, contained prisoners from 1841 to 1914 including poet Henry Lawson; newspaper editor JF Archibald; murderer and accomplished artist Henry Louis Bertrand; bushranger Captain Moonlite; Aboriginal outlaw Jimmy Governor; female bushranger Jessie Hickman; Kate Leigh, who became Sydney’s famous razor gang madam; and Louisa Collins, the last woman to be hanged in NSW.
In 2022 NAS will mark 100 years since moving into this site, and 200 years since convicts first began building the Darlinghurst Gaol walls in 1822.