Donald Smith

Donald Smith is a quiet but keen observer of detail. He notices things and listens attentively like the major-domo of an influential household. But get him talking and he can be enjoyably enthusiastic, especially on the topic of ‘Chelsea,’ with this spanning his responsibilities as both Director of Exhibitions for CHELSEA space (Chelsea College of Arts) and Chairman of the Trustees of the Chelsea Arts Club Trust. Donald’s knowledge of the London art scene is well known, as is his commitment to art education as a gateway to practicing art as a career.

The following is based on an interview with Donald at Chelsea College of Arts.

‘You know, students often say that in the end they learned the most from the technicians. That’s where they really got some support, in the workshops. So it’s right and proper that the technicians should be acknowledged more as part of the academic community.’

What, in your view, is preventing emerging sculptors from realising ambitious artworks and having sustainable careers?

The most obvious first things to talk about are studio space, workshops and money. These are areas that I’ve tried to shore up in certain respects through my work as the Chair of Trustees of Chelsea Arts Club Trust. Having witnessed artists getting to the end of the educational process, I can see there’s a huge void between the kind of professional facilities available to high-end, commercially viable, gallery-represented artists and those people who are just leaving school. Hence why Chelsea Arts Club Trust has supported London Sculpture Workshop, which Giles Corby has set up. It offers provision to bridge this gap. Year on year I see people leave art school, and then they try and come back and butter up the technicians to help them out. But that’s an impossible task because the technicians have the next wave of students to support. They can’t really spare the space, time or facilities to have alumni working there.

Speaking of change, and based on your long and distinguished career as part of Chelsea College of Arts, what developments in art education have you observed here?

One of the things that happened with this art school was the change in its organisational structure when we moved in 2004 from Manresa Rd in Chelsea to our current location in Millbank. Chelsea had initially been set up in 1964 very much around its previous building. Sculpture studios were on the ground floor, painting studios on the third and fourth floors, printmaking on the second floor and the library was on the first floor. So there was an architectural topography that determined the departments in some ways, including their spatial relations, and this made their distinctions quite difficult to unpick.

But with the move to Millbank the distinct departments gave way to an overarching Fine Art one, which was based more on a Goldsmith’s model. So there was no differentiation between the different activities; in the studios it was everyone in it together. It sounds like a sensible thing to do because people doing really well in painting weren’t necessary working with oil on canvas and people doing well in sculpture weren’t necessarily making bronzes. You can see a kind of logic there. But what disappeared along with the departments was the studio tutor and so under the Fine Art model, you don’t get specialist teachers. I’m not saying it’s right to follow a master, which is how it works in the German structure. But if you look to the Manresa Rd setup, you had someone like Matt Rugg there in sculpture and he’d been a student under Pasmore and Hamilton at Newcastle. And there was Gerard Wilson and Darrell Viner, who was very much interested in both electronics and kinetic, movable things. This meant that there were specialisms within sculpture, within the departments. So if a student was having a particular issue, you could pass them along to a colleague with specific knowledge. There was a support system among the staff in that way.

It’s our understanding that there was a time when sculpture produced at Chelsea had a particular presence, it had a strong sense of commitment. Maybe it was more cohesive? Could you say something about this and the conditions that distinguished it?

Sculpture at Chelsea has always been an important department.

It always had quite a conceptual edge to it; it was a very thoughtful department. Painting was historically divided between the third floor and the fourth. There was more division in the painting areas because there were more rooms that were divided off. Whereas sculpture was a bit more fluid in terms of space on the ground floor. It wasn’t quite so self-contained. One of the interesting things about the sculpture department was that it was run by a woman, Shelagh Cluett.

She has a great reputation. Studied at Hornsey School of Art, was the first woman to hold the position of Principal Lecturer in Sculpture at Chelsea and then gained recognition for her metal sculptures in the 1980s and later her digital work.

Well she came from a generation of sculptors in the early 70s when, you know, it was quite hard to be a female sculptor. There were certain challenges that people like Shelagh faced. She was very tough. Shelagh was a very, very strong willed character who fought her corner for the sculpture department in the bigger college meetings. But those were also the sort of people she brought in: they had a certain take on things. Helen Chadwick was around and later Cornelia Parker. But her core team was Darrell Viner, Gerard Wilson and Matt Rugg.

Rugg isn’t someone who is especially high profile, despite being esteemed by his peers and students. For instance he taught Richard Deacon at Chelsea.

Matt studied under Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton on the Basic Design course at Newcastle. Lawrence Gowing, who was Head of Fine Art there, brought Matt Rugg down with him, when Chelsea opened on Manresa Road in 1964 and he took a position in the sculpture department in 1965. So Matt had come out of the Basic Design school; he’d been exposed to Pasmore and Hamilton’s questioning of what sculpture was. But this was different from what was going on at St Martins, where you had Antony Caro bringing back David Smith—the ‘heavy metal’ point of view. And of course there was a reaction to that at St. Martins with Barry Flanagan, Bruce McLean, Gilbert and George, Roger Ackling, Richard Long. That generation rebelled against the heavy metal. There is always that thing in art school: The students either respond positively or negatively to what the staff are doing.

We’ve been thinking about trends in education, including deskilling—or maybe ‘differently skilling’ is a better way to put it. I’m wondering what consequences you’ve observed as a result of this trend?

Something that’s happened is the professionalisation of the workshop technicians as teachers and demonstrators. They’ve all been encouraged to do their post-graduate certificates and have a teaching qualification themselves. Therefore, the way they’ve been encouraged to work is far more joined up. You know, students often say that in the end they learned the most from the technicians. That’s where they really got some support, in the workshops. So it’s right and proper that the technicians should be acknowledged more as part of the academic community.

But of course this all depends on the facility that’s available, including local expertise. What happened with Chelsea’s move to Milbank is that the person, Sally Tiffin, who was responsible for deciding what the facilities would be, she had a strong background in foundry. So if you look across the workshop, there’s an incredible foundry facility because someone who knew this very well was there on the ground and advising. But then again, for one of the first art schools of the twenty-first century, it’s quite a nineteenth-century model. It doesn’t, for instance, account for, say, chromium plating or spraying or other things that people might want to do with objects now. Of course there’s no way of entirely future proofing. Who, for instance, could have seen the rise of 3D printing and its potential for sculpture. That’s a very different set of kit.

Shifting our attention from workshop provisions to studios, have you any thoughts on the ways in which different production spaces allow different kinds of artworks and cultures to be produced?

Well something like Acme, they’re one of the biggest providers of artistic studios and offer some good space. But basically they give you an empty room and of course that’s not always what people need.

The original Cubitt Street was great. People like Chris Ofili, Peter Doig and others were there in the 1990s. What distinguished Cubitt was that while everyone had their own individual studios, in the middle there was this gallery space and they didn’t use it for themselves, really, as they invited external people to work there. But there was a sense that you could come out of your studio and be sociable and then you could go back into your space and close the door behind you and have some privacy. So Cubitt had this conduit between the outside world and the private world, the studio, and I thought that worked pretty well. That’s quite important because while when your paying studio rent you want to use your time wisely, sometimes you need to chew the fat and have a sense that at the end of the day, you may be able to go for a pint with someone. So this mix is quite important, beyond whether you’ve got a vice or other tools or whatever.

You’ve just mentioned Chris Ofili and Peter Doig, both of whom are Chelsea alumni. I’m wondering about the role that art schools play in helping artists to develop sustainable careers. Is this something you could demystify a bit based on what’s happened at Chelsea?

Obviously it happens differently in different generations. But if you look to what happened in the late 80s early 90s, when you had someone like Brian Chalkley who was working both in the BA Fine Art Painting area and also he was running the MA Painting, you see artists like Peter Doig and Chris Ofili emerging. Peter was on the MA 89 to 90 and Chris was on the BA around the same time. And the sort of people who Brian brought into the school at that time included Grenville Davey and Gilles Thomas. But he also brought in the critics, so you had Adrian Searle and Stuart Morgan around. This is pre-curator age, when critics were powerful figures who transformed people’s lives. And so it was people like Adrian and Stuart that knew their art history and knew their theory, and organised exhibitions and they were teaching—they wrote about people and got them out there.

Many of Brian’s peers in BA Fine Art Painting thought this was awful because they believe that art school was a unique period to discover yourself and develop a practice without the mediation or the criticism or all the downsides of the outside worlds. And so they saw it as a kind of polluting of the waters to have critics come in, as they had points of views that were expressed publicly. But this was disingenuous because these same tutors would also take one or two people aside and introduce them to their gallerist, or put them in you in a group show somewhere. My problem with that was that it wasn’t democratic enough. Of course that’s the way of the world. You have to have supporters and mentors and in the end you can’t give equally to everyone and people need different things. But it means that a few people were elevated and that the majority were left to sort themselves out. So they’d get, say, an Acme studio and because they hadn’t had any professional practice, they would go to a gallery and say, ‘Hi, I’m an artist. I’ve got some work. What do I do now?’ And the galleries would say, ‘Stop right there. We don’t need any more artists or art, we’ve got enough already’. And so the young artists didn’t know how to start. No wonder you hear all the statistics about the vast majority giving up after five years of having completed their training.

So if it’s the case today that people aren’t receiving that golden handshake from the critics, then how are artists becoming established?

This is the good bit, really. Look at Damien Hirst’s exhibition, Freeze, which was a show he organised in a warehouse in Wapping during a recession. Again, there was a professor involved, which was Michael Craig Martin, who was at Goldsmiths and was the YBA’s conduit. He was showing at Waddingtons at the time and there were other dealers that he had access too and so he told them, this was a good generation. But what Freeze tells you is that you can do it yourself. Certainly in the UK that’s the usual way any way, because Arts Council Funding is insufficient to be able to look after everybody. Whatever people say about Damien Hirst and his work, as a model, for pulling things together with your mates, it was perfect. And he was very good and worked very hard to support all the others.

We’ve talked before about Holly Willats who organises the Artlicks Weekend as someone else who has been very good at creating a network of peers, including Pangaea. Autumn 2015 will be the second time that we’ve been part of Artlicks. Could you say something about why people/the public? find initiatives like this so appealing?

Well what people want is to see what it’s like to be an artist and how an artist lives and works. So the idea of going to someone’s studio is fascinating for people who aren’t in it. So opportunities like the open studio or other invitations to see behind the scenes, in the workshop or whatever it is.

Museums are becoming more like that now. Partly, it’s because of pressure on the institutions to tell their own histories. So, for example, if you look over the road at Tate Britain, you may see an archive show of models of Naum Gabo. They’ll be on a plinth but they’ll also be in their specially made acid-free box or whatever. Everyone has got interested in how you keep stuff. How do you look after it? So the things that would historically have been hidden in the archive, like the archival box—and Tate got a lot of money to make those boxes for the Gabo pieces—storage is becoming more sophisticated. They showed this perspex and string pieces with the cases as part of the display.

And showing the behind-the-scenes as part of the display is something that CHELSEA space has done, quite a lot. And we were able to respond to this idea far quicker than Tate because they have to look after things on behalf of the nation and so therefore, their conservation rules are quite strict. Whereas we can be a bit freer with what we’re doing, as long as we have permission from the owner.

Most famously, I showed the Henry Moore, Two Piece Reclining Figure No.1 1959 on pallets with blankets around it and all the correspondence about the movements of the sculpture between 1963 and 1968 and beyond. This one is usually on display at Chelsea but its currently on loan to Yorkshire Sculpture Park for their major Moore exhibition, Back to Land.

Above Donald is referring to the exhibition, ‘Don’t Do Any More Henry Moore: Henry Moore and the Chelsea School of Art,’ which took place in 2010 at CHELSEA Space at Chelsea College of Arts, across from Tate Britain.

Keep Exploring

Join Mailing List