Inside the radical Hackney art school that’s shaking up the fees culture

Open School East - Associate Artists - Mar 2016

As it enters its third year, Open School East,  Hackney art school,  continues to challenge the traditional education model through community-focused art.

Hackney art school Open School East
Rose Lipman Building – Open School East

Walk down the winding corridors of the Rose Lipman Building and you may cross paths with an experimental opera composer, a community activist studying ‘organic chaos’ or a philosophy graduate researching prehistoric culture.

Since 2013 the former home of the Hackney Archives has housed Open School East, a radical art school founded partly in response to the Coalition Government’s trebling of tuition fees three years earlier.

The founders wanted to create a free educational space that could support emerging artists and encourage them to open their work up to the local community.

Every year 12 associate artists are offered free studio space, workshops and tuition. In return, they are expected to design a public programme.

For OSE co-founder Laurence Taylor, the location was central to the school’s conception: “Hackney has had a lot of radical social and community spaces over the years that we are following in the footsteps of.”

According to Taylor, attracting artists from a variety of backgrounds is fundamental to the ethos of the school:

“We want good, interesting artists but we’re not just looking for excellence. We want to build a group that can inter-learn, that has different relationships with art forms and art practices,” he says.

“The idea is that through the year they collaborate, they exchange skills, they build a network and support each other.”

On a wall – next to where the group is building an improvised sound studio – is a sheet of paper where associates list the skills they bring, including everything from first aid training to dry stone walling.

Theo Shields, 23, describes himself as “probably the most object-making” artist in the group. Resting on his worktop is a collection of primitive tools made from TV screens – he is teaching himself the ancient flint-shaping skill of knapping.

A graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, Shields moved to London hoping to find his feet in the art scene. “I was looking for a peer group,” he explains, “The popular idea of an artist is of a lone figure who works in a studio by himself. But it’s kind of impossible because you have no one to bounce ideas off for support.”

His most recent work brought together his experience of working with a carpenter and a metalworker to produce sculptures that were exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy last month.

Shields says he was “dabbling with the idea of doing a Master’s” but had found that the university system was not conducive to creating art: “There are lots of hoops to jump through and unnecessary power structures.”

Taylor stresses the importance of finding ways of working collaboratively: “We design a first term that is largely about working together, collaborating, power, decision making,” he says.

Once the artists have found an effective working pattern, they are asked to produce a public programme. Past projects have included Open Cinema, a digital filmmaking project that offered free training and events and produced a community film event.

The collaborative and community-focused approach encouraged by the school’s founders appealed to Shields: “I’ve always drawn a division through my interest in community and my methodology. This place brings the two strands together.”

OSE sits between being an artistic utopia and a political statement; proving that education can be done differently and the traditional student-teacher dynamic can be challenged.

But the biggest question mark that hangs over the experiment is financial. Initially funded by Create London, the school is supported by a combination of grants and private donations.

“We won’t always be able to run how we run now. We are always looking at new ways to raise funds,” says Taylor.

“But at the heart of what we do is accessible stuff that needs to still be free. That won’t change.”

Images: Open School East