Saving the VCA ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Saving the VCA

Update: more info on VCA action - tent cities! flash mobs! sing outs! - and links to more info at Twitter and Facebook.

This week, SaveVCA is organising a last-ditch round of protests against the changes to the college, culminating in a march to Parliament House on Friday August 21.

For the past few years, along with most Melbourne arts observers, I have been glumly following the continuing story of Melbourne University's predatory absorption of the Victorian College of the Arts (now known as VCAM). It's a complex story - detailed at length, with useful media links, on the informative Save VCA website - which boils down to a battle about the philosophy of arts education, between a generalised, more academic approach, as promoted by the new regime under VCA Dean Sharman Pretty, or the extraordinarily successful practice-based teaching that the VCA has refined over the past three decades.

Although the battle seems all but won, with the winning hand being the one with all the money, a number of alumni, students and interested arts affiliates are leading a growing protest against the changes. All power to their arms, I say: it's difficult to see how the proposed changes, which include savage redundancies, reduced teaching hours and axing of courses (so far, in Puppetry, Music Theatre, Music Repertoire and Music Composition) will benefit students or the wider culture.

Friday's protest march begins at 10am at the St Kilda Rd entrance, VCA Campus, 234 St Kilda Rd, Southbank. It will feature prominent industry speakers, MC'd by Julia Zemiro. And there will also be "after-event details revealed on the day".


Anonymous said...

depends in the end whether you think it is a good thing or a bad thing that people study for a degree in acting. I mean, a bachelor of acting. Is that either sensible in this climate, or necessary (given the enormous number of untrained 'actors' working versus the enormous number of trained 'actors' not working)?

Replace actor for writer/puppeteer/dancer/musician/painter and the only thing apparent in this argument is that those who work hard, persist and attack their desires with enormous amounts of courage and determination ultimately prevail. Any number of successful artists who graduated from a fine arts college will be met in at least equal numbers by successful plactising artists who never 'trained'.

The sheer numbers of destitute artists who ultimately walk away from an arts career is staggering. Should we be encouraging the training of huge numbers of highly skilled yet unemployable professionals?

At the end of the day the average wage for a professional artist is a pittance, is the money spent training artists worth it?

This argument could also be put forward however for scientists, sportspeople...

Is the VCA worth saving? Because I am not entirely sure that the arguments proposed for saving it in its current form hold much weight.

Apart from a bias, what else do you have in your defence of the VCA? Please state how your argument(s) cannot be countered with another equal or greater argument (for instance, you need that training to be professional and its not available elsewhere - both rubbish).

Go on, get hot under the collar the lot of you. Then tell me the ability to write a funding application isn't absolutely more important than learning how to play an instrument. Then tell me you got that acting role in that tv show/film/mainstream theatre production because you are talented and a good actor and not just because you look right for the part.

Making a living in Australia as an artist is an incredibly hard job and it is ultimately about hard work and persistence. To carry on about losing something special is in many ways a poor argument. The website mentioned has not really got much in the way of what is actually proposed. Does the new course structure include how to write a business plan? How to approach funding opportunities?

If the current model doesn't include practical measures to increase the work prospects of graduates, then it is simply a TAFE course with higher standards.

That is the problem with the arts, we're all so irrelevant. Ooh, no, lets not change the VCA. It's working perfectly well as it is.

Well my question to you is simply this: Is the VCA working as well as it could be and is there anything in the new plan that is being proposed that is of some merit?

To simply cry foul over this situation and list fifty or so artists (and not the other few thousand who are now teachers) as evidence of the success of the college seems to be lacking something in the way of credibility. This sort of weeping will not win the fight.

It hasn't won me, and I went there.

Mitchell Reese said...

You seem very bitter. Your last statement 'It hasn't won me, and I went there.' seems clear on that. The point of the VCA isn't about how many highly trained artists are out of work, but the cultural value it gives to Australian society. In the end this could be said to be less about the VCA, but how we as a culture of Australians value art, and the teaching of it.

To have been trained as an artist, in whatever form, and bemoan the fate of the arts in Australia, ignores the fact that for anything to change we need to do something about it. Each one of us, individually. The issue isn't so much about artist training, but the profile of the arts within our community.

I believe that art needs as high a regard in our culture as sports, science, and popular culture. I believe art CAN be popular culture. But it can't get there if we don't help it. Letting an icon for the arts like the VCA be destroyed further degrades the arts in the public image. Perhaps the NGV could go next?

I have not studied at the VCA. I'm a Deakin graduate. There are less Deakin Arts Graduates working professionally than the VCA. I got there because I pushed it, like every other working artist in Australia. Whether we save the VCA or not isn't only about how artists are trained in Australia, but whether we as individuals value 'art' enough to continue fighting for a higher profile.

I haven't given up that fight, and I don't intend to.

Mitchell Reese,
Creative Director,
Curious Legends Theatre Company

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Mitchell. Yes, that's the real battle. And it is up to artists, if not wholly. A culture is a complex thing full of all sorts of interests. Yet if we don't take responsibility, who will?

Hi Anon - there is quite a lot of detail on that site about the proposed changes, some of which are already being implemented. And there's more detail on the VCAM site. And links to newspaper articles which detail yet more.

I'm not sure the argument about practice-based arts education is the same as whether there ought to be an education at all. Yes, there's a stunning rate of attrition in the arts, and it's a punishing vocation. And I've wondered myself about the huge number of graduates from WAAPA and VCA and NIDA and everywhere else who head into a culture where what they've been trained for isn't especially valued. It's a question worth asking. Does the VCA - as seems to be the case when you look at Stuck Pigs or Black Lung or Uncle Semolina & Friends or countless others - teach people to be self-motivated, self generating artists, or are they taught to be cogs in the cultural machine, fodder for an employment market? Maybe that's the real question that needs teasing out.

It's pretty unarguable that VCA grads have been a major engine engine behind so much of the independent scene around Melbourne for the past two decades, and make a good deal of the most interesting theatre. What I wonder is whether a three year non-specialist undergraduate degree will attract and generate the same kind of energy. If I were a vocational artist, or someone who wanted to be a lighting designer, I wouldn't go want to do a course where I couldn't learn those skills until I was a post-graduate. I'd go elsewhere. The VCA is also cutting down on the intake of mature age students and - or so I've been told - doing admission based on ENTER scores rather than audition. None of these decisions seem to me to be positive ideas, and they certainly devalue the idea of practising art within the institution.

Tom C said...

First up I will say that I am a student at the VCA, and therefore have a particular bias towards what is happening at the VCA.

Essentially what is at stake here is much larger than the VCA. Ultimately, as Alison and Mitchell stated, this is more about how the arts culture is valued in Australia. The devaluing of the arts due to the belief that things like sport deserve more funding is certainly apparent. However, it is not about 'us and them' in terms of sport and the arts. Rather, wouldn't it be spectacular if the arts could be as widely celebrated in Australia as sport is? Of course, we then begin to argue about whether contemporary art is accessible, or relevant, to the 'general public', an argument that is certainly pertinent, but perhaps not the road I want to travel down in this comment...

Anon, no one at the VCA is stating that artists have to be trained at an institution to be (or fail to be) a practicing artist. That is somewhat irrelevant. Of course people learn in different ways. Some people want to learn to be able to write about theatre. Great. Then there are plenty of generalised Arts degrees out there to do that. Many practicing artists also gain their skills by 'learning on the job'. However, we should not prevent aspiring artists to have the opportunity to have rigorous, hands-on training by industry professionals.

Just because the industry that I am about to enter could very well not be able to provide me with any paid work or a way to make a living off it, that does not mean that I should therefore only be entitled to education that is predominantly theory. We should not change the education system to make it in line with the (sub-standard) job opportunities available in Australia for artists.

By having a rigorous, practical learning experience at the VCA I feel empowered as an artist to leave. I have no illusions that attending the VCA will automatically result in becoming a paid artist. But I am certainly much better off than I was when I left the crumbling Theatre Nepean, University of Western Sydney, to study at the VCA. I know that I will have to make my own work. Great. Being at the VCA has enabled me to forge many great artistic relationships that I want to continue into the future.

Of course it is important to reflect on the training that occurs at the VCA, and to make sure that it is up to standard. However, the protests this week are arising from a fear, brought about the changes already mentioned by Alison, that the 'reviews' are really decisions based on economic greed masked as progressive education reforms. So far, the new Dean, Sharman Pretty, has failed to prove anything otherwise.

I hope that as many people as possible are able to attend the protest on Friday. It is an opportunity for the Arts community to gather and think about what is important to the future of Melbourne/Australia's arts culture.

Anonymous said...

Chris Kohn was trained firstly in WA. Christian Leavesley was trained at Monash. The other part of the Stuck Pigs equation Lally Katz received her degree at the sixth school of the VCA - school of studies in creative arts - which had as its foundation 50% practical and 50% theory...much like the model being proposed for the VCAM (3 years academic and 2 years practical).

The fact is organisations have to change, especially in a climate of artistic expungency such as we have in Australia. To carry on and hold protests about 'losing' the vca is to miss the point. That point is that the vca is not being lost, it is being absorbed into its mother.

Now you can complain all you like about the arts not being recognised on a plane similar to how sport is recognised in Australia, but that is neither this argument nor true.

If there was no music in pubs, or fim in cinema, if there were no books in libraries or pictures on walls in peoples houses then you could say that the arts are not appreciated in Australia.
The fact is over 80% of Victorians visited some form of arts events in the last year (figures available from Arts Victoria), and this number far exceeds that for live sporting events, or sports on television for instance.

Now you can say that the arts as an entity are not valued (which by the above numbers is proven incorrect), or you can say they are the poor cousin of sport (true, just look at us), but the fact is that this is because we create work that is not selling beer, selling cars or selling anything much usually but ideas.

The fact is that we do not have a culture such as USA where private philanthropy supports the arts (and very very little public funding) and we do not have a culture such as Europe (where huge levels of public funding support the arts), but neither do we have a culture such as Afghanistan (where this week a law was looking like being passed allowing a husband to withold money and food from his wife if she refused sex). Nor do we have a culture such as the Pacific Islands where culture is embedded so strongly in the daily rituals of life that it is inseperable. We do have an indigenous culture, where all facets of existence are examined through storytelling...but to my knowledge some 40,000 years of existence plus never had either private or public money and the 'arts' weren't something unusual.

This argument that we must 'save' the vca, in order to maintain the rage, is just simply small mindedness.

Yes we live in Australia and yes sport seems to be screamed about, but there's a reason we are in the arts and not in football. If the VCA changes the way it teaches it will still be a far greater college than any other in Australia.

The VCA will go through many changes in its life span, but it will never die. It simply cannot. The reason is simple: the education that will be offered will still be a far sight better than anything else on offer. Either in Australia or elsewhere on earth.

And in a culture that has a preoccupation with sport, for there to exist a small place, in the middle of a larger place (but still small), that nurtures artists (and now with an even better education) is a misnomer and one that will continue to provide the very best fine arts degree Australia has to offer.

Again, where are the arguments against what the changes at the VCA mean? There seem to be none.

In short, how is a three year wider arts education followed by a two year practical education a bad thing?

(depends on whether you think learning about theatre rather than making it is a good thing I suppose).

This doesn't at all stop individual practitioners making their own work at the same time as they are writing essays. It doesn't do anything but add to that education. A wider, more encompassing knowledge base from which to draw.

No practising artist in the world is that way because of their formal education. Not one.

Alison Croggon said...

What documents are you reading, Anon, out of interest? I've read lots of arguments. Yes, such institutions should always be open to change and questioning. I don't think anybody is simple knee jerking here. In the case of a place like VCA, which has a proud record of impressive outcomes, the onus surely is on those who make the changes to argue that they are a good idea.

It looks to me like financial reform - ie, an attempt to turn the VCA into a profit-making business - smuggled in underneath vague and, to be kind, deceitful and misleading statements about pedagogical worthiness. It should not be forgotten also that the reason the VCA (sorry, VCAM) is in this position is because it lost state and federal government funding when the government reformed the tertiary funding structure, excluding smaller institutions. That's the major problem, and that's why it merged with Melbourne University in the first place. It brought with it $109million of prime real estate, for which now the Uni is charging very high commercial rentals. Those rentals are a huge part of its current financial travails. (I can't quite work that one out, but to the casual eye it looks as if Melbourne Uni is milking it as a cash cow).

The primary reason people are concerned is that the Dean, Ms Pretty, has said on several occasions that the hands on, specialist, intensive training that the VCA has provided up to now is old fashioned, elitist and on its way out. The leaked business plan for the VCA (which you can read for yourself here) makes this very clear. Among other things, it means cutting staff ratios from 7.4 students to 1 teacher to 12 to 1. Sessional teaching, casual positions etc are to go altogether, and a lot of permanent positions will be cit. Among other things, this means that the people who go in there and work with students (Brian Lipson, Daniel Schlusser, etc) - producing some of the most exciting theatre I've seen in this town over the years - won't be doing that any more. (If it doesn't mean that, can somebody explain how it doesn't?) There will be drastically reduced contact hours with students per week, and shorter terms, to fit in with Melbourne Uni. In short, a corporate model is being jammed on top of an arts school, with no discussion - rather, the active repression of discussion - of whether this is actually a good thing. Aside from the question of making money, which is the only unqualified good permitted in the argument.

You say, with admirable sanguinity, that "education that will be offered will still be a far sight better than anything else on offer. Either in Australia or elsewhere on earth." But given the above, how does it mean that? I'm pretty sure if I were a young artist, I'd be looking at other institutions. They've already lost one potential pupil: my son, who wanted to study musical composition there, has found the course he was interested in is now suspended, and now has to think about other options. It all seems pretty short-sighted to me. And in the ruthlessness of its application, it reminds me rather of when the Australia Council simply erased all the mid-size theatre companies in Australia, an act of cultural vandalism from which theatre took years to recover.

And what's this about Afghanistan? No, we don't boil people alive here, like happens in Uzbekistan. That doesn't mean we can sit down and say things are brilliant here. The many reports of staff being gagged, the plain dishonesty of Pretty's statements that there are no decisions about the Melbourne Model being forced on VCA (despite it being there loud and clear in the business plan) and the lack of consultation with "key stakeholders" (meaning students and staff) should be cause for concern, even if nothing else is. These reforms are being slammed through, whether people like it or not, whether it's a positive thing for students or not. I smell thousands of rats. .../mtc

Alison Croggon said...

In any case, I'm heartened by the protests, whatever their outcome. Too often things like this go through in Australia without a whisper of protest (in France, students would have been out on the streets for months - when the government wanted to change the itinerant laws, the entire theatre industry went on strike, and the major arts festival in Europe, Avignon, had to be cancelled. Imagine!) The real question, aside from the immediate one of the future of the VCA, is whether this anger will amount to anything substantial.

lolo said...

Not every student who comes out of an institution has the same experience - some people can have a crap time due to the course, the teachers, the classmates, themselves. That is a reality. I worked at VCA for 8 years and watched some students blossom and some students wriggle to get far away from their time there. But it goes beyond the individual experience and comes back to the overall evaluation of a place's merits - and the wider artistic (and even educational)community, as well as I would argue the majority of existing and past students, value the VCA for its unique and successful approach. The VCA's model promotes active links with practising artists and encourages each student to develop their own artistic voice, within the context of theoretical and practical knowledge. When I was at the VCA, it felt like an artists colony, with singers dancers and painters all sparking off each other as a community of emerging practitioners. My final argument - if we all have to pay for our tertiary education now, why should it matter what we study? And if there's a place like the VCA which is doing something well, why not support it - study there if it appeals to you, do an MBA if it doesn't?

Anonymous said...

Disregard for a moment any speculation on the benefits of the Melbourne Model being implemented at VCA...
How could any person of sound mind claim that cutting courses and degrees from an institution would result in a higher standard of education? Even if you truly believe that an artistic education would benefit from "breadth" of study, you can't possibly argue that students would be better off without the ability to undertake a full-time degree in Music Theatre or Puppetry.

Anonymous said...

Where is Kristy Edmunds in all this debate? Has she been silenced? Surely she would not remain under such conditions?

Anonymous said...

For those of you who doubt current arguments that are being put forward by the Save the VCA group, consider what has happened to the diverse and once thriving courses at institutions such as Burnley which amalgamated with the University in the late 1990s. All the specialist courses that offered practical horticultural training are gone. All that's left is a watered down major within the Bachelor of Environments.

Alison Croggon said...

I haven't seen any statement by Kristy Edmunds. I assume she's bound by the staff gag. But it would certainly be interesting to know what she thinks.

Thanks for the other observations. Especially the (depressing) one about Burnley.

Unknown said...

I think it is depressing the VCA has been sucked into the failed Melbourne Model. Melbourne Uni's persistence with it, despite its unquestionable failure is astounding.
To see forced changes on a school unlike any in the country in the name of financial gain is sad. Aren't schools meant to be empowering the students with the skills they need to be employable in the industry?

3 years of theory, then 2 years of practical is all well and good for those school-leavers who are unsure as to what they really want to do or specialise in. But, to design your whole curriculum around that..
The VCA has never been meant for people who want to do a bit of business, or a bit of Media Communication, or a bit of Law, or a bit of Arts (writing about it) on the side. The VCA has always specialised in producing extremely well-trained people who are readily employable in their chosen industry.

The Melbourne Model inclusion into the VCA just leaves students with an incomplete knowledge at the end of their study time, perhaps forcing them to come back for extra post-graduate qualifications.
Extra 'breadth' subjects may be appealing to some, but those who go to the VCA go there to get professional training in becoming a musician, or an actor, or a director etc.
If they wanted to learn about how to set up a business in the media industry, they'd go do a business course elsewhere. If they wanted to learn how to write about the Arts and Theatre, they'd go do a course somewhere else. To argue that an extra 2 years onto your degree is a good idea is a notion that will have student numbers drop significantly. Why would you not go elsewhere where you can finish your degree in three years, still have the 2 years of practical experience, but only spend one year on the theory and essay writing that you will never need as a director - when's the last time you heard of a film director writing an essay about theatre and the arts?

If those who haven't been officially trained and have learnt 'on-the-job' are just as skilled as those who have gone to institutions such as the VCA, then why should they bother with an extra 2 years of theory? In essence, hasn't the VCA in the past been more of a controlled version of learning 'on-the-job'? Does the extra 2 years of theory make you more employable in the industry? I tend to think not...

Anonymous said...

The first poster mentioned that the cream will always come to the top, no matter how the system looks. Succeeding at an instrument needs time and space, (the same as athletic training), as well as opportunities for playing with other people. Unless you are very lucky with your living arrangements, this will probably no be possible. These are the three things most music students crave - surely it doesn't have to be THAT expensive?

I for one completed a music degree at the VCA and never worked as a practising artist. I went in and absolutely gave it my best shot but by the end of it I knew that I was probably not going to cut it as a performer. So was my degree a waste of time? Definitely not. I went on to do a post-graduate diploma and now in my working life I use skills every day which were honed at the VCA.

Ok, at times I have felt like I missed out on 'going to uni', and I would have liked more academic work, but otherwise, in terms of preparation for REAL world (which I've been doing for some time), I think the practical VCA degree was better than a general arts degree.

So what does my VCA degree show? Firstly, serious self-discipline and maturity, secondly, the ability to give and receive criticism, thirdly the ability to complete significant collaborative projects with a group of peers (sorry, I don't think doing a couple of group assignments really compare to the skills and issues-management that go into running an ensemble)

Academic students: can you imagine not just handing in assignments, but reading out every word of every essay to your peer group and having them critique it? Or, in fact, everyone being able to 'hear' every word you tap in as you sit in your pyjamas composing drafts on your laptop?

Cos that's basically the experience of a music student (who uses the college practice rooms).This type of education is about much more than passing or failing getting a piece of paper.

My point is that while plenty of people might be graduating without working in the arts, chances are they will still be strong, resilient 'performers' in any workplace they choose to go in to. And the key word is choose. Once you have tested your mettle as a performer and have some perspective in the industry, that is the time to be thinking about further study in Arts admin, teaching, management, journalism...