The Ruskin School of Art celebrated its first Master of Fine Arts (MFA) cohort with a degree show in its new state-of-the-art Bullingdon Road studios. John Ruskin opened his School of Drawing in 1871, planning to develop a course for Oxford University leading to a degree. His plans for a Bachelor of Fine Art degree were finally achieved in 1981.
The leader of the Ruskin's new MFA course, Dr. John Cussans
By Olivia Gordon
The Ruskin's private view this month saw Oxford’s most creative students gather to show their work, ranging from portraits to installations, video art and sculpture, to hundreds of visitors.
The purpose-built new building, opened in October 2015, is a second home for the Ruskin, a 20-minute walk from the school’s base on the High Street established in 1975. Its light-filled, airy studios and facilities were designed by Spratley Studios Architects and the building has won a RIBA South Award. In October, the Ruskin opened a second Fine Art building - to augment its High Street premises - in Bullingdon Road, East Oxford
The location on ‘Bully Road’ seems appropriate for the art school. It's in the thick of Oxford’s cutting-edge, leftfield Cowley Road scene, slightly apart from the academic departments in the centre.
Historically, the study of Art at Oxford has been somewhat sidelined. John Ruskin opened his School of Drawing here in 1871, but degrees in Fine Art have only been awarded by the University since 1981.
Today, though, Art degrees in Oxford are flourishing. At their degree show, Ruskin students celebrated the expansion of their department buildings and the introduction, this past academic year, of an MFA degree in addition to the school’s existing undergraduate and DPhil programmes.
The Ruskin’s Art undergraduate cohorts are unique, said the leader of the new MFA course, Dr. John Cussans. ‘Unlike any other Art school, here, BFA students have to have three or four As at A level. The kind of student who comes on the BFA is conscientious and academic.’
But the new MFA students often have a different background, Cussans said. ‘We don’t care if they have A levels – they have to have artistic experience and know about contemporary art.’
It’s competitive to get onto the MFA - in this first year there were 60 applicants for 15 places. Cussans doesn’t recommend Oxford BFA graduates to move straight onto the MFA degree; he thinks they need to go away and get some life experience after graduating. ‘Oxford is a very comfortable place and people want to stay here,’ he said, ‘but we don’t necessarily think that’s best – it can be a bit too comfortable.’
Some spoke at the show of Oxford’s Art students still being somehow separate from the rest of the University. Ruth Spencer Jolly (Lady Margaret Hall 2013), a finalist on the Ruskin’s undergraduate course, and coordinator of the undergraduate degree exhibition, said: ‘We get a lot of stick. Oxford is very academically driven; but rather than lab and library, we’re doing a practical course. We’re seen as slightly unintellectual.’
The perception of Art not being a ‘proper’ subject at Oxford comes mainly from students doing other subjects, Jolly said, who ask: “What’ve you been doing all day if you’re not in the library?”
‘This exhibition is our chance to prove to the University that we’ve worked so hard,’ said Jolly. The Ruskin, she says, ‘has had to define itself in relation to other subjects and the historic structure of Oxford University. In other universities, it’s normal to do Art; you don’t have to fight for support. We have to shout to explain to the University why we’re important.’
The students have made their voices loud and clear. They raised a total of £14,000 to fund the show by selling art and fundraising, and built the exhibition spaces themselves using drills and paint.The new Ruskin School of art building at Bullingdon Road in Cowley
There were no academic gowns at the exhibition, no formality, none of the restrained, dignified chit-chat that characterises other Oxford events. Instead it felt like an underground party, a gathering of people who celebrate weirdness and originality. All surrounded, of course, by boundary-stretching, thought-provoking works of art.
This is one discipline at Oxford where rebelliousness and self-expression are truly celebrated. One suspects the ‘otherness’ of being an Art student at Oxford is something the Art students themselves also relish.