Against the grain: the art school that’s expanding careers

The National Art School is fully independent and puts hands-on studio practice first. Their annual Open Day allows you to imagine your future career.

Every tertiary learning institution offers an Open Day, but few offer one like National Art School (NAS), located in a 200-year old gaol in the inner Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst.

Steven Alderton, NAS Director and CEO, said Open Days are important because they ‘provide an opportunity for prospective students to see where they could spend the next three to five years – to see the environment, the student facilities, the classes, and get a feel what it is like to become a professional practicing  artist.’

NAS is Australia’s leading fine art school, providing a progressive and holistic art education, featuring an unrivalled studio-based teaching model and boasting generations of world-renowned alumni. It offers majors in ceramics, drawing, painting, photomedia, printmaking, sculpture, as well as a thorough grounding in art history and theory.

‘The best thing is we are a broad church – we encourage diversity of practice; we encourage our students to come up with their own ideas and new ideas,’ explained Alderton.

This year due to lockdown in Sydney and NSW, NAS has rescheduled its annual Open Day to Saturday 13 November 2021 from 10am-4pm.

The School is pleased to welcome visitors on campus – in line with government regulations, proof of double vaccination and registration are essential.

Anyone interested in what NAS offers can also access Open Day Online, which includes information sessions about the Bachelor of Fine Art, Master of Fine Art and Doctor of Fine Art degree programs, how to apply to study at NAS, the opportunity to chat to staff, seeing what current students are working on, and getting a taste of life on campus with Art Forum talks, the weekly lecture program for students featuring invited guests speaking about their curatorial, artistic and research projects.

‘We have a team of artist-lecturers who are very broad in their own diverse practices, so if you are interested in resin casting, Head of Sculpture Hany Armanious is your man. If it’s video then it’s Head of Painting Stephen Little, or drawing it’s Maryanne Coutts – they are not only highly skilled educators but wonderful artists in their own right. They get it. They know what is needed to be a professional artist today.’

‘Yes, you learn skills in art making, but you also learn the industry knowledge to become an artist.’

Steven Alderton, NAS CEO

Alderton explained that the foundation of the NAS teaching model is ‘built out of drawing and a strong art history foundation to help develop and support ideas and concepts’. The opportunities offered by Open Day at NAS are especially important, he added. ‘Because we use a studio-based teaching model, it is important to turn up and look and understand exactly what that means.’

NAS ceramics student Casey Chen. Photo: Peter Morgan


Open Days are a unique opportunity to meet NAS faculty and current students, get advice about study options and the application process, and explore the campus.

‘Quite a lot of our students arrive determined to pursue a particular style or practice, and that changes over the course of their degree. The NAS Open Day gives visitors their first understanding of what that gamut can be,’ Alderton told ArtsHub.

‘It is hard to quantify what being an art student is unless you see it in action – the studio you will have, the galleries, the library that contributes so greatly to the learning environment on campus, and the amazing, heritage-listed sandstone campus itself. Open Day is also learning about all those other parts of studying here that you don’t know about,’ he added.


Alderton recognises that dreams must also meet certain realities. ‘We are here to provide the best training for an artist in the Asia-Pacific. Yes, you learn skills in art making, but you also learn the industry knowledge to become an artist.’

This is done in several ways, Alderton explained. In 2022 students are offered a Professional Practice Program, an extensive workshop series with industry leaders where NAS students are presented with the ‘facts of industry and a platform to debate new ideas’. It is supported by philanthropist and patron Gene Sherman, with other programs led by critic Andrew Frost.

Secondly, NAS has established partnerships to embed students in industry, such as NAS presenting a stand at the major annual art fair Sydney Contemporary, hosting the Biennale of Sydney at NAS, and presenting ground-breaking exhibitions in our gallery spaces such as John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, currently showing.


This past year, the sector has witnessed the destruction and downgrading of humanities programs across the university sector, resulting in a reduction of arts courses.

Alderton assured: ‘We are an independent art school; we have fought for that independence over many years. We are not a university, which have their funding requirements set by Federal Government. Rather we are funded by State Government, and as an independent art school, our board is at arm’s length from any jurisdiction.’

He continued: ‘We have a 45-year lease on this incredible heritage site, and recently received an injection of $18 million to upgrade the site in the next year. So, our future is very secure, and allows us to concentrate on the best outcomes for our students.’

Consequently, while some art schools are winding back, NAS is expanding, opening new studios and offering new capabilities on site, including refitting the Cell Block Theatre.

‘The heritage elements of the site are amazing – it was built as a goal 200 years ago, and became an art school 100 years ago – but the $18 million funding for restoration and upgrades brings it up to the standard of a 21st century art school and all its offerings,’ Alderton said.

NAS painting student Sara Mugnes. Photo: Peter Morgan


Simply, anyone. ‘You just need to pass our interview – which really is not as frightful as it may seem, but more an opportunity to talk about practice, what you do and where you want to take it.’

Alderton said the NAS student cohort each year is intergenerational, with a mix of school leavers, mature age students, post-graduate students, and people who have done a NAS short course and are hungry for more.

‘It doesn’t matter what you want to do – architecture, banking or be an artist – you have to do what you love. It should not be about how much you get paid. If it is your destiny then do it,’ Alderton encouraged.

‘These are exciting times to become an artist; the world needs more artists to help us make sense of things. There is a lot going on in the world and we can train you to bring new ideas to the fore. You also join an incredible creative community that you will always be a part of, long after you have graduated.’

Learn more about the NAS Open Day on Saturday 13 November.

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