Continuing our focus on student life this week we have an interview with Dr Francis Halsall, lecturer in modern and contemporary art and director of the MA in Art in the Contemporary World at the National College of Art and Design.
How long have you been at NCAD?
About five or six years. I studied History of Art at Glasgow and I was there for ten years. I was in the process of completing my PhD in History of Art and I got a job in Cork, teaching in what was the new History of Art department. That was ten years ago. I hadn’t finished my PhD and it was too good an offer to turn down because jobs are really difficult to find. From there, I got a job in Limerick School of Art and Design, then returned to teach in UCC. Following that, I started part-time at NCAD where a full-time permanent job came up. I moved up here and that was that.
Is there anything you wish you’d known about academia before you went into it?
How tough it is. I just got incredibly lucky though as I did have some teaching experience, but I sort of fell into it. If I’d had a bit more savvy, I would have realised it was going to be very tough. But maybe that was a good thing, because if I’d known I might have given up. Art history is a very traditional discipline and there are no jobs.
What is your favourite and least favourite part of the day job?
People think I’m a teacher, but there are three elements to what I do: teaching, administration and then my own research. All those parts could be full-time jobs, each one is never-ending and could take up all of your time. I like teaching the most. I’m very involved in an MA programme and I like MA teaching and PhD teaching. I used to be a civil servant, so I can do it, but I really hate administration and the job is becoming more administrative. Some people love it, but it’s not for me.
You did Art History, do you get to do much research in that area now?
I look more at contemporary art now, which art historians might not usually. The last couple of years, through book projects, conferences and so on, I’ve worked with philosophers and that’s where my other interest lies. My current research is based more in philosophy: aesthetics, philosophy of art, phenomenology, systems. I’m very lucky, because if I was in a History of Art department, there would be a huge amount of pressure to do a certain type of research. There’s more freedom here in the art school which is brilliant.
You’re not from here originally, so you have the experience of moving to Dublin. Is it a difficult city to get to know?
I thought it was before I moved here. It didn’t make sense. But actually its size is really good. In terms of the art scene, it’s really good, especially at MA level. This is a capital city, so if any artists or curators or art historians or theorists are coming through the city to work in any of the galleries or such, we usually get a chance to talk to them. Through the MA we have relationships with many of the galleries in Dublin and that’s really good about the city. Without being cliquish, the community is closely knit and everyone knows one another. There’s a sense of collaboration in the art scene, it’s very co-operative. It means students get a lot of opportunities, more than they would in a bigger city.
In terms of the horizon for art students, is it tough? Do graduates get to work within the field or the discipline they studied?
This is not unique to art students. English literature students are not becoming novelists. Of the thirty or forty people in my History of Art class at undergrad, only two of us are now art historians. When it comes to the undergraduate fine art degree, it’s always been the case that most won’t become artists. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. The art education is great, it allows you to become a creative thinker. It allows you to manage projects, to deal with people, it fosters visual literacy and it makes people culturally aware. Very few undergraduate degrees are vocational anyway and as a general foundation for someone who will be a participating member of society, the art degree is brilliant. Some people are becoming artists, but that doesn’t really matter. People come out and work in galleries, for art companies, in event management, in writing. Artists could be in galleries or making films, organising events or making objects. So when students are engaging in contemporary practice, they’re engaging in all of the different modes of contemporary cultural production.
We had a four year degree, but as of three weeks from now, the undergraduate will be a three year degree with the understanding that it will be coupled with a two year postgraduate. Because it’s being shaken up, it means we really have to consider what the undergraduate degree is for – it’s not merely to produce workers and I think that’s a really good and positive thing about the arts education. The idea that there is a benefit to the education itself is something we need to hold on to. It’s not merely about entering into a specific profession but more so about creating innovative, thoughtful, active citizens.
What about people who are starting? Anything particular to bear in mind?
I probably shouldn’t admit this because I’m a lecturer, but the most important things I learned in college were from the other students. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Students can be a little passive, they expect to be told things. There’s a shift from school to university, you’re not just being taught, you’re learning. It’s a privilege and an opportunity. It’s a great time to experiment with ideas, with lives, with all sorts of things. The students who throw themselves into the process of experimentation get the most out of it. The more you engage, the more you get out of it.