It saddens me to hear of the plans to axe the teaching of A-level Art History. To me, it is not so much a ‘soft’ subject, contrary to what Michael Gove might believe, as a tool for understanding the visual culture in which we live and the history of our societies. My school did not offer Art History as an option, and so, inspired by a trip around Italy, I enrolled onto an evening class at an adult education centre and set about undertaking an A-level in a year. It was a tough call – the course tutor didn’t have time to teach us our ‘special subject’ in just two hours a week and so, somewhat ambitiously, I taught myself about the High Renaissance and Mannerism in my school library. Predictably, my school teachers were not at all happy, believing that it distracted me from my ‘real’ subjects: Geography, History and English Literature. But as a 16-year-old, those discussions about the history of art with a group of adults of all ages changed the course of my life, leading me to study it at the University of Warwick and subsequently the Courtauld Institute, and ultimately to pursue it as a career as a museum curator.
I didn’t go into it for the promise of a well-paid career: I knew I wanted to work in public museums, and have only worked in the charity sector during my career. Yet, in an era of substantial tuition fees it seems that students from less privileged backgrounds will understandably be pushed to study ‘hard’ subjects at university with clear career paths to well-paid and established professions, which may be worthy and valuable, but I believe a rounded society also needs artists, academics, writers, museums curators and what we might call ‘servants of culture’. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for my elder sister studying to be a doctor, my parents might have pushed me towards law or another equivalent area. I was fortunate to have parents that supported my wish to study Art History as they recognised my passion and knew that I would work hard.
Ending the A-level in Art History removes yet another entry point for students from different cultural and less affluent economic backgrounds to study it in higher education, and it will inevitably become an increasingly elite subject, as it was in the past. Of course, most Art History departments accept students without a previous A-level in the subject, but the reality for me is that if I didn’t have that pre-understanding of the subject, I might not have made that leap to a completely unknown discipline and I would have probably studied something else instead and my life would probably have been quite different.
Furthermore, I worry that as the details of Brexit are negotiated the uncertainty for international students and instability of the pound will inevitably affect both the finances and teaching mix of our university courses, particularly those with international programmes that benefit from schemes such as Erasmus, as I did when I studied Renaissance art for a term in Venice as part of my degree at the University of Warwick.
The axing of the Art History A-level signals a marginalisation of the subject, and in such times it is increasingly important for museums and galleries to find ways around curriculum relevance and enabling access. Although as an independent charitable museum Pallant House Gallery is dependent on ticketed entry, this autumn we have introduced free entry for all students as a way to enable art to be an important part of students’ life whatever they study. It’s a small thing, but in such times, museums need to do what we can to increase access for students.
Simon Martin, Artistic Director Pallant House Gallery