Beyond the COVID-obvious pivot, early careers soar at NAS

The offsite-onsite nature of their studio practice in 2020 has armed students with the reality of professional practice – and the results are unveiled at the National Art School’s Grad Show.

No one would call 2020 normal. So the celebration of getting through this year is no greater felt than by graduating students.

On Friday, 11 December the National Art School in Darlinghurst, Sydney, will present the work of 115 Bachelor of Fine Art (BFA) students – work created during the pandemic in their final year.

Director and CEO of NAS, Steven Alderton told ArtsHub that last year the graduating exhibition attracted a crowd of 5,000 people.

‘That is a lot of students and their families and friends, but it is also a lot of general public keen to see what contemporary emerging practice is at the moment,’ he said, adding that COVID is expected to heighten that curiosity.

And with a green light from the Department of Health, and a more dispersed exhibition across the campus, Alderton said they were ready for ‘their usual large opening’, albeit socially distanced and with visitor registrations.

‘We have students showing work in our galleries, in the studios, outside and even in the old tunnel – they have embraced this as an opportunity to expand beyond the gallery and push the work,’ said Alderton.


With COVID has come a whole new swag of language use, from pivot and online learning, to reposition and resilience.

But for an art school where visual language is the modus operandi, what people will see also captures this unique moment. Alderton explained: ‘It is currently assessment time at NAS, and I am seeing a lot more sculptural work across the campus.

‘As we are moving to outside spaces again, and aware of our social distance, it is interesting to see how sculpture has occupied this year’s exhibition,’ he continued, adding that it makes for a dynamic and COVID-safe exhibition this year.

‘With studio time interrupted, students have spent months this year working from home, everywhere from their own home studio, to the lounge room, the bedroom, coffee table and even roof tops. They have really had to push the space they work in, and that has provided its own challenges, particularly when living in a shared environment,’ said Alderton.

But it has also led to greater spatial awareness and  prepared this year’s graduates for life after art school.

Alderton continued: ‘Students have had a glimpse of the reality of when they graduate and do not have the school’s facilities – so it’s been very beneficial.’

Alderton said that he had ‘absolutely’ seen optimism in the work produced this year.

‘I have seen students really challenge themselves, and to be introspective and searching, and looking for and positing self-difference.’ He added that the work even looked different this year.


NAS’s graduating exhibitions have garnered a bit of a reputation, attracting gallerists and private art buyers. Over the last few years, on average $200,000 of artwork has been sold, offering a great catapult for these early career artists.

‘The graduating exhibition has a two-pronged function: it provides that professional development opportunity for students as they embark on their careers as exhibiting artists, and it also allows those interested in studying at NAS to take a closer look at the field, and to consider where they might fit in,’ said Alderton. ‘If you are thinking of studying it is a great way to position your ideas in the broader sense of making now.’

Training as a professional artist is not just all about fun in the studio, he added. ‘It requires the consideration of a body of work, and how it might be presented in an exhibition environment. It really is the culminating of three years of shaping their skills and ideas. It finishes off their practice.

‘It is about consolidating that practice and making those connections across the work in the space. It’s is hugely important for a student.’

Professional practice is about growing over time, and so is exhibiting.

‘We have a student gallery and the Hoff Space at NAS, so our students can show anytime and do one-day shows. So whether a one-day, or a longer exhibition like the Grad Show, these opportunities allow students to work out a lot of things.

‘I am so impressed and proud of the students, of how they have committed, endured and succeeded through COVID this year,’ Alderton concluded.

The National Art School’s 2020 BFA Graduating Exhibition opens on Friday, 11 December and runs until 20 December. Visitors must register to attend, see

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