Art School History

The National Art School has a history extending back almost 175 years, to the first lecture presented at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts in 1843.

Forty years and several re-organisations later, in 1883 the Technical and Working Men’s College was taken over by the government-appointed Board of Technical Education and became known as the Sydney Technical College.

The Department of Art within the Sydney Technical College was relocated to the old Darlinghurst Gaol in 1922 and the vision of the nascent ‘National Art School’ was born.

The 1920s saw the development of NAS’ renowned studio model of teaching and its first five year diploma in visual arts under the English sculptor G Rayner Hoff.

The 1950s and 1960s were a golden era. The size and reputation of the Department of Art bloomed. The diploma course saw the graduation of renowned artists such as Colin Lanceley, Ann Thomson, and Vivienne Binns.

As a department within a governmental organisation, the National Art School went through a long period of upheaval and uncertainty starting in 1974. The Department of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) proposed to move the art school out of the Darlinghurst Gaol campus. The decision was fought. Protest marches were held. But in 1975 the Division of Fine Art was transferred to new institution that would evolve into today’s College of Fine Arts (COFA) now UNSW Art and Design in Paddington.

What was left was a much diminished “School of Art and Design” offering short certificate courses. But the staff who remained, with the support of newly formed “Friends of the National Art School” (FoNAS), the visual arts program and its offerings were slowly rebuilt.

In 1996, after much lobbying, NAS became separate from TAFE and in 1999 began to offer an accredited Bachelor of Fine Arts program, and a Master of Fine Arts (by Research) in 2001.

But NAS was still under the umbrella of the Department of Education and Training (DET). It was not yet independent, and in 2006 it was placed under the threat of being incorporated into one of NSW’s existing universities.

After more lobbying and activity by FoNAS and other supporters of the NAS, in 2009 it was released from the management of DET and allowed to become a fully independent higher education provider.

NAS’ future is now in the hands of people who care deeply about the National Art School and the visual arts. It continues to grow and to thrive thanks to the passion and determination of its staff, students and supporters.