150-year history of the south australian school of art



When speaking at the School’s 150th birthday celebrations, artist and former Head of School, Professor Ian North asked: How old, really, is the South Australian School of Art? We might agree that it has lasted 150 years, but the narrative pattern of an institution’s biography, unlike the typical arc of an individual’s, is unpredictable. So is the school young, middle-aged, or geriatric? Only history can tell. If Adelaide is inundated, as Al Gore warns us, there might be no-one around to celebrate the school’s 300th birthday, bar the odd pelican. A bigger question: would this matter? Do we need schools of art? I passionately believe that we do, and are likely to for a long time, as agents for cohesion and renewal in our fractured, non-consensual society.

The South Australian School of Art is the oldest continuously operating art school in Australia. Established in 1861 as Adelaide’s School of Design, the school was a product of concerned South Australians who wanted to better develop taste and an appreciation of beauty as civilizing activities with moral, social and behavioural dimensions. Now part of the University of South Australia’s School of Art, Architecture & Design, the school has a long and distinguished history which has been closely entwined with major political, social and cultural events – local and international – as an influence on, as much as a mirror of society.

Over the more than 150 years of its existence, the School has educated, graduated and employed thousands of artists, designers, teachers, curators, critics, scholars and others pursuing significant creative careers. Importantly and for the first time, this history profiles many of these individuals as they actively participated in South Australian and wider Australian society through countless exhibitions and cultural events, launched new galleries and public forums, guided government polity and nurtured creativity across many generations. Significantly, these profiles are not presented in isolation, rather they are set against a context of Australian, particularly South Australian, artistic, social, political and cultural life.

South Australian School of Art: 150 years shaping South Australian Visual Arts & Culture provides a glimpse across time of the School’s changing environment: from the Institute and Exhibition Buildings on Adelaide’s North Terrace cultural precinct, to a purpose-built site in North Adelaide, then to suburban Adelaide until its final return to Adelaide city in award-winning buildings as part of the University of South Australia’s City West Campus. It also tells us about the ways in which the School adopted and adapted from current trends in visual art education. For example, in the early to mid 1880s the school’s focus was on teaching the art of representational drawing followed by that of training artisans for industry and commerce as opposed to a ‘fine art’ or ‘beaux arts’ approach. In the new century it adopted an arts and crafts approach and on training teachers in drawing. Post World War 1, this focus continued even into the 1930s and 1940s with an added emphasis on Australiana. A developing interest in Modernism, particularly by South Australia’s art teachers, led to the formation in 1942 of South Australia’s Contemporary Art Society. In 1963, a move to a purpose-built building in North Adelaide and the addition of new staff with international experience as artists, led to a much changed school ethos. Here, its reputation soared such that it led to common perception that the School was ‘arguably the best art school in the country’. The highly prestigious Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship, first introduced in 1993, comes as a legacy from this time period.

Although a move to suburban Adelaide to become part of the South Australian College of Advanced Education provided the School with much larger and better equipped artform studios, the collective feeling of isolation led eventually to a return to the heart of the city’s cultural precinct. Here, the fractured School finally came together in purpose-built, award winning buildings at the University of South Australia’s City West campus where it offers unique opportunities for study in and across the disciplines of art, architecture, planning and design.

The individual contributions made by historically significant graduates has been acknowledged by the University of South Australia in the naming of the Sir Hans Heysen, Barbara Hanrahan, Dorrit Black and Jeffrey Smart buildings. The work of more contemporary graduates from the School and the ever-growing list of Samstag Alumni continue to add to the reputation of the South Australian School of Art as one of the foremost art schools in Australia.