Deep cuts at ANU’s School of Art and Design

Australia's Craft and Design community will be severely impacted by the implementation of proposed cuts to the Australian National University's School of Art and Design rolling out in 2021.

With the recent shock news (2 November) that Griffith University would cut staff at Queensland College of Arts (QCA) ahead of the 2021 intake, the visual arts and design sector was dealt another “king punch” last week.

The Australian National University (ANU) tabled a similar plan for systemic change to its School of Art and Design (SoAD). In summary, the changes planned are:

  • Furniture, Jewellery and Object workshops will be cut (2), along with 2.5 academic level staff positions.
  • A “merger” of the internationally recognised Glass Workshop with Ceramics Workshop. (UPDATED 16.12.20: ANU has since noted that this was a poor use of language and a ‘merger’ of workshops will not happen, just co-joined administration. The report states:  ‘It is proposed for the glass practice and teaching and learning can be joined with that in Ceramics and it is proposed that a combined Glass and Ceramics Workshop is created’).
  • Animation and Video program would also be reduced with the loss academic staff positions.
  • Two other academics with convener roles are affected for Honours and Postgraduate coursework. It should be noted however that these are contract positions and often come to the School from other areas.
  • Art and Design Gallery would be scaled back (an important platform for student exhibitions), reducing staff from 2 to 1.5.
  • Loss of Technical officer professional positions, and a restructure of administrative staff.
  • Direct transfer of 31 academic staff positions into the new planned structure.

Affected staff were notified of the changes 17 November, with ANU publishing their plan online the following day.

The messages were mixed however.

The plan states that the College of Arts and Social Sciences is ‘one of the largest Colleges at ANU and ANU humanities and social sciences are consistently ranked No. 1 in Australia and in the top 20 in the world on the QS Index of universities.’

Despite that strong reputation, the tabled plan says, ‘The College needs to position itself to emerge strongly after the current global pandemic,’ and pits a future path by diluting the School’s very structure and capacity to deliver.

It is a plan that has several critics. ‘This is a short-sighted and disproportional plan which will have a detrimental impact to both the number and quality of artists in Australia,’ said Penelope Benton, Acting CEO, National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA).

Ashley Eriksmoen, who has been Head of Furniture Workshop since 2012, added: ‘This a tragedy for the entire art, design and craft sector of Canberra and Australia as we are the only university program able to offer such a spectrum of disciplines under one roof, and therefore to foster interdisciplinary thinking and transferable skills that benefit our sector.’

Part of the plan also proposes a single administration model that will service the SoAD and the School of Music (SoM).

The merger was hardly a new idea, recommended both by an external review of the SoAD (2017) and an external review of SoM (2012). One wonders if it was such a good idea, why wasn’t it implement then, rather than dusted off now.

The core outcome of the ANU Recovery Plan is that the university has to close a financial gap of $103 million per annum from 2021.

That pressure for change at that price tag would come from the top, and at a School level, means there is little hope of pushing back.

Former Head, School of Art (2006-2013) and Senior Lecturer for over 25-years, Gordon Bull told ArtsHub: ‘The ANU has been a strong and generous supporter of the visual arts, crafts and design for decades. These proposals signal a huge change in that support.’

He continued: ‘The likely impact of the proposals will be to sorely diminish the cultural infrastructure of Canberra and the region, and in Australia nationally.’

Read: Cuts to photography, design and fine arts at Queensland College of Art


The School of Art was established as a standalone organisation in 1976 and was incorporated into the ANU in 1992.

Given the success and strength of the National Art School’s independence in NSW, these recent changes to QCA and SoAD support the idea that the broader university system is less able to accommodate the arts.

The ANU glass workshop put Australian glass on the map and this short-sighted plan has the potential to wipe us off it. 

Kate Nixon, President Ausglass.

‘The School has, since 2014, operated with an annual operating budget deficit of $2 million. This deficit is after inclusion of a direct subsidy from the University of over $1 million per annum. Without this subsidy, the recurrent operating deficit of the School is $3-3.5 million,’ the ANU plan notes.

It continues, that the School’s salary cost sits at $7.5 million, which is over $2 million in total current revenue earnings of $5.2 million.

Head of SoAD, Denise Ferris said in a formal letter this week responding to the plan: ‘The College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS) change management document identifies the huge adaptations we’ve made as a School to continually innovate and positively position ourselves. However it acknowledges a risk to our sustainability across the School.’

Ferris has been Head of the School since 2013, where she has lectured in photography since 1987.

While the numbers are clear and up front, there is a lot of fuzzy detail in certain areas of the proposal – and most certainly, not enough detail to respond to within a quick two-week period for public comment.

Feedback has been invited before Thursday, 3 December.


Q1. Small thinking; big impact

The proposal to cut the gallery staff is minor – just a 0.5. The argument raised has been to question the validity of such a small financial saving, in terms of a university wide deficit of $103 million, while the impact on the capacity to exhibit in all disciplines will be dramatic.

The gallery is vital for student exhibitions and a key part of their professional practice learning.

Q2. Mystery Merger

The plan says the change would support ‘a more broadly-based cross-disciplinary teaching and learning model in the School’.

President of Ausglass, Kate Nixon commented to ArtsHub: ‘It includes much unclear language, notably around a merger of Glass and Ceramics in a restructured interdisciplinary SoAD landscape, acknowledging the international reputation of the ANU glass workshop. Commitment to facilities is not discussed.’

Nixon continued: ‘The ANU glass workshop has been globally acknowledged for almost 40 years for the standard of its teaching programs and quality of its graduates, producing some of the most innovative and technically skilled glass artists in the world.’

‘What is proposed in the current plan for the School of Art and Design represents a devastating loss for glass and contemporary craft both nationally, and internationally,’ she added. 

‘To jeopardise quality education with the removal and amalgamation of workshops, specifically within the crafts, is to rob generations of students to come of the opportunity to develop into valuable members of the arts community locally and within the national and international arts arena,’ ANU Student, Bronwyn Sargeson, Student, told ArtsHub.

Q3. Cutting digital in a digital spike

While on the one hand, the University is prepared to compromise legacy with these more craft based workshop, the flipside is that it seems equally prepared to compromise its future.

‘The Animation and Video major is a huge investment opportunity for the School of Art and Design,’ artist and current ANU student, Aloisia Cudmore told NAVA.

The Animation and Video major is considered to be too costly and will need to go, according to the plan. And yet all research during the pandemic has shown that it is the highest growing area in the arts, design and creative industries sectors.

‘The current transition to online art exhibitions has only highlighted the need for video makers and animators in our constantly changing world. The big money that is made out of art school is hugely in technological based industries – video and animation is one of these,’ Cudmore continued. 

Q4. The building itself

The plan states that due to the Furniture, Jewellery and Object Workshops operating in a heritage building, larger student loads are not possible, and that the small classes can no longer justify the cost of salaries, maintenance and consumables.

On the one hand it acknowledges the international reputation of the Glass Workshop, but the inability to grow student numbers (which are low) is hindered by WHS compliance and infrastructure restrictions.

Yet in September last year, ANU announced the university would spend $80 million in infrastructure upgrades for the school that will see an extensive refurbishment, along with an additional two-storey building take shape next door by 2025. ANU also invested back into the building earlier this year to refurbish and repair damage in the wake of hail.

That is a big turnaround in just over 14 months.

But Ferris assured in her letter last week: ‘We remain committed to studio practice and will continue to deliver a high-quality studio-based teaching and learning experience and “make things” … We have proposed a new maker space to the university that will support interdisciplinary making practices while the proposed renovation and new building extension remain on the university’s infrastructure schedule.’

Those ‘proposals’ were not addressed in the plan.

Q5. This is not a budget emergency; it’s a planned restructure

The figures quoted in the report demonstrate the School is running at a hefty deficit – both in terms of staffing and operating costs. These don’t happen overnight.

It says that despite eight years of reform, the SoAD’s position is ‘unsustainable’. Presenting the studio changes and disestablishments as an impact of COVID is mincing language. For many, the changes are viewed as a long-awaited excuse for a major restructure.

‘Despite the framing of the change proposals, these cuts are not equitable in terms of the staff and the studios they affect. They cannot therefore be touted as simple economic solutions to a budget emergency, but rather a major restructuring of the SoAD,’ Nixon told ArtsHub.

The question is, at what point is the studio workshop model so eroded that it is no longer financially viable?

Q6. It’s a Federal question, not an arts and design sector one

ANU points the finger at the Federal Government, saying ‘The Commonwealth funding model for creative arts teaching does not cover the real costs of quality teaching in these disciplines.’

‘The underlying problem is that the funding per student that all universities receive from the Federal Government is inadequate, and has been known to be inadequate for many years,’ said Bull.

Bull co-authored the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools submission to the Base Funding Review in 2011. ‘We’d argued to move funding from ‘Cluster 5’ (this year worth about $13,308 to the University per student) to ‘Cluster 7’ (this year $18.902 per student). Over 500 students, that would deliver $2 million a year. To the best of my knowledge this review was the last opportunity to have the funding problem addressed.’

He makes the point that in nearly a decade since that national review, nothing has changed.

Read: ‘I feel like I’ve been cheated’: proposed axing of Monash courses provokes dismay

Q7. Unique Bauhaus model

‘The ANU is one of the last bastions of the celebrated Bauhaus model, a point of difference that makes it unique on a world stage,’ Nixon told ArtsHub.

It was echoed by Benton: ‘ANU’s School of Art & Design is one of the last schools in Australia that offers a full suite of workshops. The scale of proposed cuts to these studio disciplines is devastating.’

But it was Craft ACT, a 50-year old organisation that supports craftspeople, designers and makers at every stage of practice, which captured the loss to the school’s legacy and influence.

‘The craft workshops at the school of art are respected internationally and have created a global identity for Canberra as a city of making and design excellence.  This is a welcome dimension to a city which is known for roundabouts and politicians,’ Craft ACT said in a statement.

Adding that these changes ‘will negatively impact our city and the national craft and design community.’ 


Sadly, this is an escalating narrative nationally.

Benton said: ‘Australia’s university sector has been hit especially hard by the pandemic this year without access to any of the Federal Government’s income support including JobKeeper. The sweeping cuts that are currently being made at all universities, targeting the arts and studio-based learning in particular, only exacerbate the impacts on students and staff.’

‘The key impacts of these proposals will be to diminish the capacity to teach, practice and research in key craft and design disciplines. In a very distinctive way, these impacts will be felt across the arts industry and community, across professional and amateur practices,’ added Bull.

He concluded: ‘I think it may be very difficult to modify the proposed changes given the extreme circumstances at present, but I couldn’t stay silent.’

To give your feedback to the Australian National University’s Managing Change Document for ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Research School of Humanities and the Arts. You can email directly to

Feedback is not limited to ANU students and staff.

An Implementation Plan will be published in regard to staff cuts and studio closures by 14 December 2020, ahead of the 2021 academic year. All changes implemented by 11 January.

* Article amended late 2 and 15 December to correct quotations.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina