The Influencers: Sarah Rowles, Director of Q-Art

The Influencers: Sarah Rowles, Director of Q-Art An artist discusses their work during a Q-Art crit

The 'crit' is a mainstay of art school pedagogy. But how do you keep it going after graduation? Our latest “Influencer”, Sarah Rowles, tells Lesley Guy why she set up Q-Art

Sarah RowlesLesley Guy: What was the motivation behind setting up Q-Art?

Sarah Rowles: I set up Q-Art in 2008 when I was coming towards the end of my first year as a student at Goldsmiths. The idea was that each art school in London would host a monthly crit, where artists got together to present their work to their peers for feedback. We were also keen to include graduates and anyone who was self-taught or even just thinking about going to art school.

There was that intrigue to see what the other art colleges were actually like and what the students were making. Would you be a different artist if you’d gone somewhere else? Also, a lot of the third-years were complaining that once they graduated, they were essentially falling off the cliff. So it was a way of opening up that crit environment to them, so they had a place to carry on developing their practice.

LG: Are your crits different from art school crits?

SR: The model is similar. We offer 20 minutes for an artist to present work for feedback. It's really good for artists to get fresh perspectives on their work and for an audience to see lots of different types of practice and get experience of looking at and talking about art. You meet other artists from different backgrounds, at different stages in their career – people you might go on to meet socially or collaborate with. In other words, you build a network.

LG: Tell us about the books you publish

SR: I came into art education thinking ‘How on earth does someone make it as an artist?’, as it all seemed quite clique-y. In my first year I met loads of gallerists while interning at Zoo Art Fair and so I asked how they'd set up their space, how they find their artists, how they price their work, who they work with? Initially, this was for my own purposes. But when we set up Q-Art, we decided to publish the results, because a lot of students were interested. This became our first book, '12 Gallerists: 20 Questions’. Since then we've gone on to produce three other books on the topics of BA courses, crits, and foundation courses. All of these aim to provide prospective and current students with the kind of information I wish had been available when I started my degree.

LG: What is your background - how did you get into art?

SR: I always liked art at school, but my definition of art consisted of painting, drawing, and making life-like imitations. To put it in context, only about five people from my year at school ended up going to university! It was really difficult even to find out what university was, let alone how you choose a course or routes to doing an art degree.

I ended up going to Goldsmiths because my English teacher of all people said ‘I grew up in New Cross, where there's a place called Goldsmiths and I think they do art'. So I went along to an open day with my dad and that was the first time I’d ever seen contemporary art and I thought ‘What the hell is that?’. To be honest, it put me off. So I ended up studying art history for a year.

I realised through talking to other art students that they’d done a foundation course, which was something I’d never heard of before. So I did that over at Camberwell and then re-applied to Goldsmiths. This left me with a bit of a beef about the lack of guidance available to young people who want to study art.

An artist discusses their work at a Q-Art crit
An artist discusses their work during a Q-Art crit

LG: With the emergence of organisations such as Q-Art and alternative models that provide peer support, do you think it's worth paying to go to university to study art these days?

SR: One danger with a lot of these independent art schools is that if you're 16 years old and don’t have much of an idea what art is, the last thing you're going to do is apply to some independent school that doesn’t have any accreditation, reputation or history. So there's a danger of them becoming even more exclusive, because they’ll only attract people in the know.

Personally, I would say it's definitely worth doing a foundation course, because it gives you practical tools and insight into that way of doing things. Whether or not it’s worth doing a three-year art degree for the money it costs is something I’m still formulating my opinions about. What I think is essential, though, is that people are given good information, so they can make informed decisions.

LG: You’ve just started a PhD in Glasgow. Are you researching the same sort of things?

SR: Broadly, it’s about widening access to art education. I'm looking at how you can make the first year of a BA more inclusive and stop people pulling out. I’m investigating why that happens and what extra information or support people might need to help them succeed and stay the course.

LG: Have you managed to keep up your own art practice while all this is going on?

SR: I did for maybe the first year and then it kind of merged into my interest in interviewing people and producing content for our books. Whether or not that is a practice is for others to decide. Put it this way, I’m really happy doing it!

LG: Finally, what advice would you give to early career artists?

SR: Be yourself. Make work that's true to yourself and be clear about who you want your audience to be.

We asked Sarah to pick three artists from the directory and say a few words about her selection. See who she selected here >

Interview by Lesley Guy
Published December 2014

Further information about Q-Art

Q-Art is an organisation for current and prospective students, graduates, self-trained artists and all those with an interest in art. They aim to break down the barriers to art education and the contemporary art world and support the networking and development of early career artists. They run open crits, workshops, and produce books and videos.

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Read our previous interviews in our The Influencers series:

Tony Charles, Director of Platform A in Middlesborough >

Karen MacKinnon, Director and Curator of Artes Mundi >