Meet the Director: Steven Alderton

Meet the Director: Steven Alderton

NAS Director and CEO Steven Alderton in the 2nd year Painting Studios. Photo: Peter Morgan
NAS Director and CEO Steven Alderton in the 2nd year Painting Studios. Photo: Peter Morgan

The National Art School’s Director and CEO Steven Alderton has a lifetime’s experience in the arts, as a curator, gallery director, researcher, master planner and practicing artist who continues to wield a paintbrush in the studio.

He arrived at the National Art School in January 2017 after holding Director positions at the Australian Museum, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre and Lismore Regional Gallery.

As a curator, Steven has worked with some of Australia’s most notable artists including Margaret Olley, Ricky Swallow, Nicholas Harding, Janet Laurence and Tracey Moffatt. As head of NAS, he is supporting the next generation of artistic talent who will make names for themselves.

So far, 2019 has been a big year for NAS. In February, NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin announced a 45-year lease for the school at its historic Darlinghurst Gaol site, and NAS’s new status as a state significant organisation (equivalent to MCA and Carriageworks) with ongoing funding. This provides much-needed stability for the school’s staff, students and supporters into the 21st Century, after decades of fighting for survival.

In March the Margaret Olley Trust donated $500,000 to NAS, which also hosted the Dobell Drawing Prize for the first time since it began in 1993, re-establishing it with an exhibition of finalists in the NAS Gallery and a drawing symposium (the prize was won by NAS graduate Justine Varga).

In April the Cell Block Theatre hosted the launch of Nirin, the 2020 Sydney Biennale, with NAS as a an Exhibition Partner for the first time.

Steven has a strong, long-term vision for the school’s future, continuing to nurture and inspire students, support alumni at the different stages of their career, and forging new connections close to home and in the wider world.

What did you consider most important in your role when you started at NAS?

Securing our teaching model, our independence and our ongoing future – there were lots of other things but those were key. So that means working with government to secure funding and the lease, talking to private benefactors about other funding, and looking for other revenue sources so we can retain the teaching model without increasing class sizes or reducing the contact hours for teachers and students. The reason people come to NAS is the unique studio-based teaching model and that is core to our identity.

Why is the teaching model so important?

Students learn to become artists with expert tuition and leadership from our artist educators. We teach the skills and techniques you need to articulate your ideas and we have one of the best art history and theory schools in Australia. So you have the skills, you have the ideas, you bring the two together and away you go.

How did NAS’s new state significant organisation status come about this year?

NSW arts minister Don Harwin has brought visionary leadership and forsight to the arts in NSW and is a supporter of the National Art School. He’s very interested in supporting the arts and arts infrastructure in NSW. Since 2009 NAS has been on year-by-year 12 month funding. The state significant organisation funding is ongoing, we apply for a six year block, so we now have a lot more certainty and ability to plan strategically.

What difference does that make?

It’s an assurance for students that we’ll be here when they finish, and it’s important for our staff to know we have funding certainty. It’s also important for benefactors and corporate partners – when they think about supporting us, they know the funds will be utilised for a long time to come. No one, including the Margaret Olley Trust, was going to fund us until we had long term security. We have that now, so the Olley Trust donated half a million dollars and away we go, you’ll see more of that happening.

This school has been fighting for its independence for decades, what has kept it going?

Tenacity from our staff and students, and huge support across the arts for NAS. So many people have come through, thousands of students and alumni and their families who love what we do, and the inherent reason for this support comes back to the teaching model. Even though there’s been disquiet and questions about our funding for years, at the same time we’ve been graduating amazing artists. Many of Australia’s leading artists are still coming out of the National Art School. So what we do actually works.

Where do you see the school’s direction going in the future?

At the moment we are working on expanding our connections to other parts of Sydney and regional areas, and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island artists and students. We also want to be the leading art school in the Asia Pacific region. At the same time we want to celebrate our local community, working with organisations like Mardi Gras, and opening up the school to the public. We’ve got a lot of capability to present a story about the visual arts, to engage people, so let’s open the doors.

What are the challenges?

The biggest barrier is our four walls, they’re really good at keeping people in and keeping people out. For too long people just drive past and go, ‘There’s an old gaol art school thing in there’, you can’t see in so you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know if you’re welcome. Now we’re promoting our public programs to bring the wider community into the school, with short courses and school holiday programs for example. We also run gaol tours that are very popular. It’s quite sophisticated what we’re trying to do – continuing to run a thriving art school with considerable growth and also take on a public persona.

Students in the Dobell Drawing School for Year 11 students 2019. Photo: Nicole Anderson
Students in the Dobell Drawing School for Year 11 students 2019. Photo: Nicole Anderson
Dobell Drawing Prize #21 Winner Justine Varga with her winning work. Photo: Peter Morgan
Dobell Drawing Prize #21 Winner Justine Varga with her winning work. Photo: Peter Morgan

You have referred to NAS as an art oasis, what do you mean by that?

There is an aura here, you feel the history of the old gaol but also the original East Sydney Tech college that became the National Art School. So you had 100 years of internment and extinguishment of the human spirit as a gaol, then 100 years of flourishing, burgeoning creative thought, which is the art school. But more importantly it’s the coming together of like-minded creative people that are here to make art, to learn from teaching staff and from each other. There’s not many places in the inner city you can do that.

This is the dream factory. You can become an artist if you’re committed, we will give you the skills and knowledge, then you’re part of the National Art School family, you’re alumni like Margaret Olley, Tony Tuckson, Juz Kitson, Guido Maestri. So that’s the history and you can be part of the future, we’re giving you that platform to express your own ideas in the public domain. Not many people are given the skills and opportunity to make that happen.

What else do NAS graduates have that sets them apart?

They have our support. We are very much about placing NAS alumni and graduates in industry. This is our second year at Sydney Contemporary Art Fair – last year was hugely successful, the students and recent graduates on our stall were all unrepresented by galleries but people saw they are just as good, their work was critically acclaimed. We reach out and retain a relationship with our alumni, but you’re also getting the in-depth knowledge of art making embedded in you. Justine Varga who won this year’s Dobell Drawing Prize is a photographic artist but she did drawing here and you see how her drawing informs her practice.

What did you think of the claims her winning work did not represent drawing?

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of controversy. We need to add to the debate, to question people’s perceptions of what drawing is, what photography is, what portraiture is. She also won the Olive Cotton Photographic Portrait Prize – artists for generations have been pushing boundaries, and if we don’t do that you’ve got to wonder are we doing enough.

How does your experience as a curator and practicing artist inform your job here?

You have to understand an artist’s way of thinking when tackling ideas. It’s easy for that perception to get lost in administration and master plans and budgets and that kind of stuff, but within those conversations we need to maintain an artist perspective at all times.

What does experiencing art mean to you?

It’s not just the passive consumption of going to a gallery, walking around and walking out. Experience means you’re participating in it, that you’re actually making the art, or that the exhibitions we provide are participatory – you can hear the artists talk, ask them questions, engage in panel debates, take part in workshops, sign up for short courses, or do a degree. It’s like the idea of life-long learning, the art resonates with you and you continue the conversation afterwards, it’s part of your life, not just a one-stop thing.

What about art taught at primary and high school?

I’m interested in how we can increase art participation at school. School curriculums are very busy places nowadays, but those teachers are not just teaching you the role of art, but also creativity, innovation, ingenuity and thinking laterally. So if you’re doing physics and you’re doing art, art is broadening your perspective in physics. Every year we run an HSC drawing school for Year 11, 75 kids from across the state for eight days, which we started when three unit art stopped running. And then if you look at Art Express, way less than half those kids are studying art after the HSC because they are high achievers in art, physics, maths, chemistry, they do it all well. So then you start thinking, OK these kids are really good at art but aren’t taking up art, they want to be an architect or a software engineer. So where you practice art has changed, where you are able to be creative has changed, it’s not just in a gallery, they are taking that creativity elsewhere. But then later in life they might have an epiphany moment when they want to become an artist again. We have a lot of mature age students who have had their career but have come here because they’ve always had that yearning to be an artist.

School Holiday Programs at NAS. Photo: Peter Morgan
Students in the Dobell Drawing School for Year 11 students 2019. Photo: Nicole Anderson

When parents come to open day, how do you reassure them it’s a good idea for their kids to study art, given the difficulty of making a living as an artist in Australia?

It’s hard, but you could say the same with the Australian Institute of Sport. Again, it’s the dream factory – if you’re good enough, you’ve got everything there for you, you will get there. You can be the most talented swimmer, football player, artist or violin player in the world but if you’re not dedicated, you don’t train or practice hard, you’re not going to get there. And if you don’t have the emotional intelligence to accept when you lose, to bounce back and not be disheartened, again, you’re not going to get there. There are a lot of dimensions to being a successful artist, and there’s luck in there too. If you’ve got the dedication and commitment and talent and ability to communicate what you’re doing, then you will get there. Not everyone will be a Tim Maguire selling $200,000 paintings or Martine Emdur selling $100,000 paintings, there are other avenues in the arts industry, from public art to teaching. You could be selling $5000 paintings and you paint two days a week and have another job three days a week and be very happy. We have to also think about the new multi-dimensional way people can become artists nowadays, new opportunities and platforms are being created all the time. There are now, more than ever before, more opportunities for artists.

Sarah Goffman, one of our sculpture lecturers, gave a talk here last year and said you know what? Every day I walk into the studio I feel like a millionaire, because I do what I want to do. To a lot of artists, that’s their identity and how they survive, and it provides enormous personal fulfilment, which is ultimately what we are all yearning for.

Australia doesn’t have the arts funding models of Europe, the UK, US, or the art market of China, how do we compete?

Europe is very much weighed down by centuries of art history. That history is amazing but also a burden, you’ve got this incredible art history and now you’re making art, so what are you making art about? We’ve got an even longer artistic tradition with Aboriginal culture, but most of our non-indigenous artists are not working within that tradition. So I think not having that gives you the freedom and innovation to challenge tradition and create something unique.

What is the school’s relationship with Australian Indigenous artists?

We work very closely with the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Arts Centres and APY Gallery down the road from the School. I’ve been to the APY lands to meet Elders and artists and it’s great to see lots of APY artists coming to NAS to learn new art making skills. They don’t come here for ideas – they’ve got plenty of ideas – what they want is skills and knowledge in other art forms. So a lot of APY artists are coming to learn print making because they don’t have a press there, people want to learn plaster casting, bronze pouring or ceramics so they can translate their ideas to other art forms and mediums, that’s a very strong relationship.

What about the school’s connections to the Asia Pacific region?

What do we know about the culture of our closest neighbours in Indonesia, PNG, the Pacific Islands, Malaysia, Philippines, Hong Kong? I think Sydney is the art capital of the Asia Pacific, with Hong Kong and Auckland, but where do you see Asian or Pacific culture in this city? There should be a rich engagement between the cultures, so I’d like to see us encourage more students from the Asia Pacific to come here to learn more about Sydney but also for our students to learn more about the Asia Pacific by getting to know their fellow students. For me, that’s where you learn and develop the relationships, when you’re at art school.

Have you always been a practicing artist?

I graduated with a Fine Art BA in painting from the Queensland College of Art at Griffith University almost 30 years ago. I had already been in a lot of exhibitions by the time I was 20, then I started an artist-run gallery, so I did a lot of curatorial and arts practice, in painting, photography, installation and drawing. Around the mid-90s, I was too busy with curatorial work and running galleries, but I started practising again in 2010.

What was the impetus for that?

I never stopped thinking about it, it’s always part of me and continues to resonate, I have written thousands of words about practice in notes on my phone and still do. You travel and change cities but it’s constant, so in the last 10 years I have done a lot of photography and drawing, and in the last two years I have started painting again.

Where do you find the time?

You just make time. You can easily spend eight hours in the studio and it’s gone, you don’t even know what happened. I know what needs to be done – my daughter is nine and I spend a lot of time with her, she’s my number one priority, but I have time after she has gone to bed, or I do three or four hours in the studio Saturday afternoon, I just prioritise. It’s not like I’ve got a big lawn to mow, and I only wash the car twice a year.

What did it feel like to start painting again?

It felt great. The actual physical moment of painting is the greatest I have. I’m not working towards anything, I’m just painting because I enjoy it, and I think about it a lot. I think about  art-making when I’m walking around looking at the students’ work, or spending time at the Archibald. I look at Lucy Culliton’s painting over there in my office and see how she has put the paint down, I look at the layers Tim Maguire puts down, how he uses layers, and many other artists as well.

How does the fact everyone can claim to be an artist or curator now affect what you’re doing here?

A lot of people don’t understand the word curatorial. It means you’re gathering things or artworks that have relationships to other artworks and to art history and theory. When someone curates eight different kinds of muffins for breakfast, they’re not bringing the muffins together to talk about formalism or post-modernism. Then there’s this explosion that everyone’s an artist, which is ok, but let’s discuss the art that you are making.

But what is exciting is that art is dominating global conversations and pop culture and contemporary debate – and that’s a great thing. So every time Boy George says, ‘You’re a great artist’ on The Voice, people are hearing the word artist, or when people hear the word ‘creative’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘curator’, these are complex words coming out of our industry and influencing the everyday.

What’s even more interesting is watching singers like Beyonce doing film clips in The Louvre, how art history is infiltrating people’s consciousness and thinking. What we as artists represent is authenticity and ingenuity, we are this global platform that brings people together, that’s us in the 21st century. We resonate.

At a grassroots level, how are you developing markets for emerging artists?

You’ll see leadership this year from us on that. We will be working with our students, alumni and artists on industry-led professional development programs. I mentioned earlier there are multiple dimensions and possibilities for emerging artists nowadays; from working in an architecture firm providing an artist’s perspective to public art, art activism and environmental art, to online projects and gallery representation.

Once again, we are going to the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair and The Other Art Fair, and last year we sold over $250,000 of undergraduate and postgraduate art at our end-of-year exhibitions at NAS. It was all sold through an online platform, so we’ll be expanding this online capability to promote and sell the art of non-represented NAS artists. We want to make it easy for anyone looking for art, to come to us and find those artists. They know what they want but they can’t find it, or the connection to artists. For a lot of people out there, they like art but don’t know how to get in the front door. We want to be the front door. It will take time but we will get there.

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