‘The buildings were a sign of civic pride’: anger as art colleges around the UK close their doors

On a trip to Norfolk back in 2009, artist and academic Matthew Cornford decided to take a nostalgic look at his old art school. Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design may not have been an elite establishment – one of its best known alumni is Keith Chapman, creator of Bob the Builder – but the grand building with its terracotta roof, turrets and art deco flourishes meant a lot to Cornford, and to the other generations of students educated there.

Cornford discovered, though, that the place was deserted and derelict. “I found it really moving,” he says. “You think of somewhere you study as being permanent; this place I had a qualification from was now just a piece of real estate.”

He started investigating the history of UK arts education with an old friend from the Great Yarmouth college, John Beck, who is now professor of modern literature at the University of Westminster. The pair found the locations of art schools around the country, and began visiting the sites if they happened to be in the area – it was very much a side project.

“We quickly found that many had disappeared,” says Cornford. “Most have amalgamated into larger institutions but some have closed altogether. Although there are histories written about famous schools, little attention has been paid to these modest regional institutions which are vanishing.

“But these places are where people begin their art careers. No one starts at the RCA [Royal College of Art] – you go to your local site of entry. That’s where you first think, ‘Maybe I could do art’.”

Academic Nigel Llewellyn oversaw a study of London’s art schools for the Tate in 2015. “The history of UK art schools has been largely overlooked, as indeed has been the wider topic of the history of art education,” he says. “It should be an important contextual topic for the wider history of British art.”

Beck and Cornford started the Art School Project, an ambitious attempt to identify and document all the old buildings around the country and create an archive. So far, they have looked at institutions in the north-west and the West Midlands. Next, they are exhibiting their work on the East Midlands at the Bonington Gallery at Nottingham Trent University. The show includes their research into Derby Art School – currently empty – and the Northampton Art School, which has now been demolished.

While cuts to the education budget are hardly news, the Art School Project is creating a national record of places that were once an important part of British life and are now largely forgotten.

Sidcup has what looked like a wonderful 1930s modernist art school. Now it’s a supermarket car park

Matthew Cornford, artist

“Histories of these individual art schools tend to be local history projects, without a broader context,” says Beck. “Our interest is the place of the art school in the community and what that meant. One of the reasons I went to art school was because there was one nearby. In my teenage imagination, it was where art was. They used to be in towns where you wouldn’t expect them.”

Many of Britain’s local art schools were founded during the industrial revolution to teach relevant creative skills. Stoke-on-Trent was the heart of the potteries industry, so local art schools specialised in ceramics. Stourbridge offered excellent glass-making courses. These purpose-built academies tended to be in town centres so that everyone could visit; and anyone could enrol for evening classes and Saturday lessons.

“The buildings were a sign of civic pride,” says Cornford. “They were modestly grand, typically with ‘art school’ carved in stone over the door. They were part of the town infrastructure along with the police station and the library.”

Britain once had more art schools per capita than any other country in Europe, says Cornford. Even when manufacturing started to decline, the schools adapted. There was a major syllabus overhaul in the early 1960s that brought arts education in line with a degree, even though academic qualifications were not as important as artistic promise. This meant more young, full-time students applied.

In the 60s and 70s, art schools became incubators for the pop stars, film directors and fashion designers who kickstarted British popular culture.

“Art schools provided a space for people who were not academically inclined but wanted to do something other than full-time employment in a factory,” says Cornford. “They also provided work for local poets, painters and artists who taught there. Part-time jobs meant they could sustain their own practice.”

Both Beck and Cornford are clear that the Art School Project is not sentimental; they are not simplistically suggesting that the old days were better, just different. We can learn from that, they believe, because understanding the past can point the best way forward.

Cornford is professor of fine art at Brighton University and sees the many positive ways that arts education has changed. “But our project focuses on state-funded arts education for those aged 16 or over. That used to be an option for young people who were wondering what to do after their GCSEs, and now it isn’t.”

Rising British artist Lydia Blakeley studied at Leeds College of Art in 2013. “Regional art schools are so important for people from lower-income backgrounds to be able to access arts education,” she says.

“The year before I started my BA, the tuition fee cap had risen from £3,225 to £9,000 a year. The year above me was around 50 students but our year was around 80, so there was an acceleration of the marketisation of higher education during that time. I was a student representative and was extremely vocal about the changes. I felt that they were treating us like consumers.”

Related: Huge decline of working class people in the arts reflects fall in wider society

Beck says: “What’s becoming clear through our research is that the art education system is constantly in flux. Nothing stays the same for more than about 20 years. When you track the history of an institution, you find it probably didn’t even have the same name for more than a decade. But there are continuities, and one of those is the tension between practical vocational education and more academic pursuits; of what is seen as valuable.”

Rishi Sunak admitted in June this year that the UK’s creative industries had been “underappreciated”, when the government’s vision for the sector was published. These industries generate £108bn a year and employ more than 2.3 million people nationwide. The creative sector has grown at 1.5 times the rate of the wider economy over the past decade. Recent research by the Office for National Statistics found that fewer than 8% of creative workers come from working-class backgrounds.

Beck and Cornford have a long way to go with their survey. Beck looks forward to investigating Yorkshire – “rich for exploration” – but Cornford feels wistful about what they’ve already missed. “Sidcup has what looked like a wonderful 1930s modernist art school. Now it’s a supermarket car park. This is a history that’s rapidly disappearing.”