The Influencers: Andrew Brewerton, Principal & Chief Executive, Plymouth College of Art

The Influencers: Andrew Brewerton, Principal & Chief Executive, Plymouth College of Art Image courtesy of Andrew Brewerton

Why does making matter? Andrew Brewerton talks to Sheila McGregor about the impressive developments taking place at Plymouth College of Art

Sheila McGregor: You didn’t start out in art and design. How did your career begin?

Andrew Brewerton: At school I was torn. I had a place to study painting and art history at Leeds. But my English teacher, the poet R F Langley, was a huge formative influence and I ended up reading English at Cambridge. That interest in language and writing remains an unbroken thread – it’s my practice, if you like.

SM: Leading an art school these days must be an enormous challenge.

AB: You have to accept that, all-told, the job is undo-able. Once you’ve grasped that, you prioritise the things that really matter to you and to your institution. Vision and values. The alternative is some form of control that squeezes the life out of everything, and that’s profoundly disabling for everyone.

If you surround yourself with the right people and they’re sufficiently confident, open and challenging, you can go somewhere as a group. But you need to have answered the question ‘why?’. Our lives are beset by all sorts of pressing questions about ‘what’ and ‘how’ and ‘when’. But I always think that if you can answer the question ‘why?’, then it doesn’t matter if you get waylaid or distracted or even lost. You can always go back to base.

SM: You worked in the glass industry for several years. How did that happen?

AB: After graduating, I taught English at the University of L’Aquila in Italy for two years and then began a PhD at Warwick. But after a year I decided I didn’t really want to be a literary academic. So to keep the wolf from the door I got a job at Stuart Crystal and ended up working for 10 years in the handmade glass industry. It was an extraordinary hands-on apprenticeship, amazing to work in a company that had been there since the 18th century, where generations of the same families had worked as glassmakers or cutters. The designers there were still known (affectionately) as “the sketchin’ wenches”.

But I knew I was witnessing the end of something: a whole culture. You could see the handmade crystal market evaporating. I moved to Dartington Crystal as Head of Design and Development for about five years, before re-entering academia to run the glass department at the University of Wolverhampton.

Plymouth College of Art 

SM: How have tuition fees affected Higher Education in art and design?

AB: The fee system we have now is flawed and ultimately unaffordable. It’s an arrangement that’s averted short-term crisis by creating a longer-term financial time-bomb.

But at Plymouth we were clear that we would not compromise on delivery or quality and so our governors supported the difficult decision to charge the full £9K tuition fees. We thought the conversation would move quite quickly from price to value, and it has.

Students are far more eloquent than politicians on the question of what HE experience is for. For them, this is a massive investment in terms of their lives and not just their employment prospects.

SM: Plymouth College of Art has taken the radical step of establishing a new 4-16 school, the Plymouth School of Creative Arts. What was the thinking?

AB: We’re building a new progressive model of creative education, from early years right through to BA and MA level. This was an active response to what’s been happening to creative learning in schools. We thought: “We’re an art college. We make things. Let’s make a school.” Making is at least as important as reading and writing, so in our school the ethos of learning through making and reflective practice is embedded in all subjects. How are ideas made?

We believe in the kind of emancipation that comes through deep learning: in becoming a maker, not just a consumer. Education is for life, so it’s best to start young. This conversation began with the question of leadership. How can individual children lead their own learning? In our school we see precisely how this does indeed happen in and through practice.

The social context is equally critical. I should emphasise that our School’s admissions policy is geared to the needs of its immediate community, an area with 43% child poverty including amongst the 10% most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the country.

SM: The cultural scene in Plymouth is clearly going from strength to strength.

AB: I think this city council can take credit for their understanding of the role of arts and culture in development. There are two excellent universities; a very distinctive independent art college now also an HE institution; a good FE college; and good schools already specialising in the arts. There’s a burgeoning independent arts scene, in the visual arts including Plymouth Arts Centre and various artist-led groups, and the City Museum & Art Gallery is a brilliant partner. Great producing theatres too.

Plymouth’s a city that’s had to re-build itself before, notably after the aerial bombardment that virtually destroyed the place during World War II. And re-inventing Plymouth’s in a way what we think we’re doing now – place-making, through arts and cultural entrepreneurship.

SM: Plymouth College of Art has just invested in some amazing new facilities. Tell us more.

AB: We’ve invested £8m in new 3D craft, design and fabrication workshops at a time when others are closing them down. We aim to build the most complete eco-system of technologies, materials, processes, practices, ideas, art forms that you’d ever encounter in an art college. So we’re also commissioning an 1840 blocking table (a Victorian wallpaper press), letterpress and etching presses. We’re investing in the ‘conversation’ or formal exchange between traditional and digital making.

Up and down the country we seem to be losing the physical spaces for hands-on learning in particular or specialist ways. And once these spaces are lost, you’ll never get them back.

PCA Ceramics

The new ceramics studio at Plymouth College of art 

SM: You’re developing new international links, especially with China. 
How did that come about?

AB: I have a lifelong interest in Chinese culture, and have been working there since 1995/6. When I was at Wolves we helped set up the first Chinese glass programme at Shanghai University, and over the years trained the practitioners who are now leading glass courses in China. Our work is regarded as a significant catalyst for contemporary Chinese glass, so now there’s this generation of studio glass artists who didn’t exist before and who’re being collected by the Corning Museum in New York and the V&A.

In July 2014 Plymouth College of Art transferred to the Higher Education sector by order of parliament. So now we can really develop more formal links in craft, design, fine art and curatorial practice with the institutions I already work with in China. But we’re already very active, e.g. by invitation presenting a ‘travel-version’ of our Making Futures biennial symposium as a centrepiece of Beijing Design Week over a weekend last September.

A next thing will be to create a new event, similar to Making Futures, building an international community of practice around innovation in creative education at all levels. We want this ‘continuum project’ that we’re forging in the heart of Plymouth to have practical resonance with similar brilliant projects all over the world. We want the world to come to Plymouth.

Find out more about Plymouth College of Art >

Interview by Sheila McGregor
January 2015

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