25 July 1993

Art college friction isn't fiction

Premier John Fahey's announcement this week that Sydney College of the Arts(SCA), now amalgamated with the University of Sydney, will be relocated to a new $19 million facility at Rozelle means, publicly, an end to 18 years of poor accommodation and inadequate funding. But behind the scenes the country's leading art school remains embroiled in a bitter power struggle among senior management.
At the end of last year, the friction became so intense that the university's vice-chancellor, Don McNichol, was forced to intervene.
He commissioned an inquiry and appointed an independent facilitator to bring the college back from the brink.
The inquiry's confidential report - Inside Sydney has obtained a copy -finds a prevailing climate of "distrust, side-taking, suspicion, low morale"resulting in a "lack of effective decision-making and action ... a climate not conducive to allowing an obviously talented and committed staff to give of their best".
In the eye of the storm is internationally recognised Sydney artist Richard Dunn.
SCA's director since 1988, he sees the genesis of the problem dating back to the college's amalgamation with Sydney University in 1990.
Dunn commented: "If you join an institution and they say 'this is how you must be' - and it's very different from how you were - then there are bound to be difficulties.
"The uni created a school within the college and then appointed a person to head the school. It hadn't been structured that way before and there was confusion about roles and duties."
And according to the vice-chancellor's own report, this led to escalating conflict between Dunn and the head of the school, Associate Professor Helge Larson.
As the acrimony grew, lines of communication collapsed and, notes the report, "previously neutral staff (were) being drawn into factionalism ..."
Inside Sydney was unable to contact Larson but, according to Dunn, his current job will no longer be there when he returns from holidays next month.
Dunn revealed: "He will be my deputy, now that the vice-chancellor has decided to remove the school from the college and adopt a structure where the director also has the duties and responsibilities of head of school."
Dunn said he was willing to work with Larson on his return.
"I'm sure we'll develop a good working relationship, but we need to sit down and talk about where we go from here.
"There are ongoing problems with a minority of people, but that's nothing surprising."
While the new structure is still to be ratified by the university's senate, the independent facilitator, former Dean of Arts Dr Pat Lahy, took up her role last month.
"I'm trying to move the college more into line with the way a faculty at the university works," Lahy explained.
"In a faculty there's more collegiality, people have more input into the decision-making process and some say in what happens.
"And I'd like it known that the process is working."
Constituted by the Whitlam Government in 1975, SCA has coped with sparse funding and poor accommodation ever since.
Scattered over three ramshackle campuses in Glebe and Balmain, it has produced a steady stream of graduates who have slotted straight into the vanguard of Australian contemporary art - such as Jane Campion, Lindy Lee, John Young, Janet Burchill and Dunn himself.
The acting vice-chancellor, Professor Susan Dorsch, told Inside Sydney SCA was an asset to the university, and the move to the heritage-listed, 19th-century Kirkbride buildings at Rozelle Hospital would go a long way to solving the college's problems.
She said: "They've been labouring in bad accommodation for such a long time that Kirkbride must have a positive effect, mainly because it removes that climate of uncertainty."
Dunn agreed that staff relations had improved since Lahy came on board.
"It's slowly being worked through," he said. "Essentially, we have a staff working under appalling conditions producing students who are incredibly good."
Caption: Illus: SCA director, Richard Dunn ... hoping for an end to the bickering. Picture by GARY McLEAN
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 24-7-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 15
Section: News and Features
Length: 808
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald

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