West Dean College of Arts and Conservation marks 50 years

A year of celebration is under way as West Dean College of Arts and Conservation marks its 50th anniversary.

West Dean College of Arts and Conservation
West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

Alexander Barron, chief executive of the college, said: “It is a real privilege to be in this position at this particular moment in the organisation’s history. 50 years is an endurance for any institution in any day or any age but when you think that we have got through the past 18 months as well, it has been fantastic. I think resilience is a really good word, and it is one of the words that we have been using a lot when we think about what we have all survived since the start of 2020. These have been incredibly challenging times from any point of view. We had some of our students that ended up with us for long chunks of time because of the pandemic when they couldn’t get back to their home countries, and we also had the massive challenge of how do you teach practice-based courses online. The short answer is that you can’t do that long term but the great thing is that in the short term you can do some incredible things and I think we did.”

The crucial thing, Alexander feels, is that the college, whatever has happened, has always stayed true to its founding principles.

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The college was founded by Edward James, poet, patron of the arts and visionary of the 20th century. James donated his family home and estate to fulfil his desire to nurture music, traditional crafts and the fine arts. In 1939 James wrote of his vision to writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley: “My suggestion would be to make this community a group of people working to preserve and teach certain crafts.” This legacy lives on today through the college’s extensive programme of courses.

“We opened in October 1971 and as the college works on the academic year we have decided to make the academic year 2021-22 the celebratory year. The message is that West Dean has endured as a leading provider of choice for practice-based creative education. That was Edward James’s original idea – ‘How do I protect skills that might otherwise be lost, how can I make these skills relevant today and how can I develop new skills for the future?’ and that is precisely what we have done. We are working very carefully to protect endangered heritage crafts but we are also working with courses that will create new skills that just simply would not have been around 50 years ago when we opened. Edward James was an incredible man, an inspirational character. He was in many ways an unspoken hero. He was not someone that many people on the street would have heard of but he was a very important patron behind the scenes. He decided to have a contract with Salvador Dali when Dali was not heard of. He was a philanthropist to his core. He was creative himself but he also invested in others and he really believed in what they were doing. His collection and his archive that grew up in his lifetime is fascinating but a lot of people have not had access to it. One of the ideas for the anniversary has been to increase that access because there is so much there.

“We also ran an open-call just asking students and people connected with West Dean over the years to share with us their individual personal experiences, sending us an image or sending us their thoughts. We have put together an exhibition of about 140 responses and the very personal stories that they tell and it is all laced with wonderful creative insights”

The exhibition is available to enjoy in the glasshouses throughout the academic year. It is also online.

“We have also come up with the idea of running 50 special one-day short courses that reflect the duality of the nod to the past and the nod to the future. There are 25 short courses mirroring some of the original courses 50 years ago and also 25 courses that certainly would not have been originally taught here.”

Among the latter is one turning waste plastic into jewellery – very much moving with the times.

The point is that many of these are skills that would have been lost: “We are very proud to have kept these skills going and we are still today the only commercial tapestry studio in England and we have an order book that will keep us going through the next few years. It is a triumph to work with the people that we have worked with over the years.”