Towards a geographical understanding of art scenes: Studying art schools through the lens of place (PhD Research)

2015 – 2018

Supervisor team:

Dr. Roberta Comunian, Dept. of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, KCL

Dr. Johan Andersson, Dept of Geography, KCL

Prof. Dr. Ilse Helbrecht, Geographisches Institut, HU

Research context and aims:

While much writing on the geography of the art world emphasises the formation of specialised global circuits (Sassen, 2005), evidence is showing that globalisation of contemporary art production and circulation has specific under-researched local effects. These can for example be explained through the wealth of local DIY initiatives emerging in different cities around the world (Relyea, 2013) or through trust relationship between local gallerists and artists (Velthuis, 2013) that re-evaluate physical distance in the art world. Within this context however an understanding of what art scenes are and how they are located or spatially imagined does not surface.

My thesis takes Madoff's (2009) argument that "art schools are always local" as starting point to discuss their potential for the emergence of art scenes from a specific place. He continues to argue: "Who, if not the young artists studying in a city and the professors teaching them year after year, should define the local art situation?" (Madoff, 2009: 239). At the same time as I will study the emergence of scenes though the case of art schools, I will question the local bias and articulate how art scenes are spatially constructed and cross the physical boundaries of place.

The underlying theme of learning exposes how artists learn about place(s) at the same time as their practice is solidified. This process contributes to an understanding of how a specific place caters for the development of a specific artist identity, juxtaposing the qualities of a specific place in relation to elsewhere, often higher hierarchy art world cities e.g. London and Berlin.

To provide empirical perspectives on these processes, I will draw from the experiences of students, graduates and staff studying and teaching art in Leipzig and Manchester. Leipzig Academy of Fine Arts is known historically as paradigm for establishing a critically controversial yet market-hyped scene, i.e. the New Leipzig School (Gerlach, 2008). I took this as starting point to understand the current dynamics in Leipzig, and also to study how this applies in a different context in a comparable city, which is why I chose to work with Manchester School of Art.

Research methods:

  • Biographic interviews with Fine Art students & graduates
  • Interviews with art school lecturers, artist studio providers and local arts organisations engaged in artist's professional development
  • Ethnographic questions and observation
  • Mapping spaces of artistic production and consumption in the city (auto-cartography)
  • Analysis of statistics sourced from secondary data on student’s location and occupation prior to and after their studies

Ethics: Participants will be anonymised, unless they have consented for their name being used in relation to their work only. Participants can withdraw their information at any point by contacting the researcher.


Case study schools:

Many thanks to all lecturers, students and artists providing me with your perspectives and support!