A Bottom-Up Academy

Art academies should not function as companies, but as real academies, where high-quality education and research go hand in hand with commitment and care for one another.


Imagine you work in an organisation and you have a precarious contract, a good relationship with your students, and you love teaching, but management is making a mess of things. Imagine it’s a scandal, it’s written about in the papers, an agency investigates, and things need to change. Imagine this academy in a country with a toothless union, where management and politicians blabber on about ‘individual choices’ about what kind of contract you have. Imagine you work for an organisation where management is so far removed from the work floor it only communicates via Excel sheets and reports. Imagine your director addresses employees as ‘friends’ and says things like ‘we’re in this together’, and ‘looking out for each other’, with a salary that is 18 times what you earn – not to mention the pension scheme, because your pension scheme is non-existent. Those words slither through the conversation like snakes – words that you want to be true but are dead terms from a lost era that really don’t apply to you. Imagine your academy is white, straight, and disproportionately middle class, where people think solidarity is a thing of the past. And if a problem occurs, it is dealt with using the ‘rotten apple’ approach, which isolates the problem and doesn’t solve it. Imagine seeing your students in their twenties burning out due to impenetrable structures and being brushed aside by overworked or uninterested department heads. If you can imagine all of that, then you’re picturing the academy we’re talking about.

That director’s salary is sustained by leaning on a growing group of freelancers and overworked teams where people work full time on minimal contracts. You attend to more than a hundred students in just one day a week, because of the use of contracts so meagre – 0.0562 full-time equivalent – that one has to have studied maths to be able to calculate them. This fragmentation can mean that a department with 100 students can have more than 40 teachers, that teams hardly meet and can’t work together, and that individualisation is the educational standard. It also means that discussion is scarce and meetings are poorly attended because it’s voluntary work and therefore noncommittal. Teachers, especially those with permanent contracts, can afford to work in their own ‘unique’ way because it is impossible to call them out and correct them or fire them. Freelancers are resigned to the situation and ‘just stay out of it’ because ‘it is what it is,’ or because their positions are too precarious for them to get involved. This means that groups of teachers neither build up shared knowledge nor develop a shared educational vision. It’s therefore impossible for the departments to develop a research culture, which would greatly benefit teachers as well as students. This situation is all the more poignant because the academy prides itself on research and ‘academisation’, and claims that it is important for teachers to conduct doctoral research. Development and research take time, and academies should provide it. Dated, nostalgic, Eurocentric, avantgarde visions of art and education are now perpetuated by teachers who have nowhere else to go.

Your colleagues put in their hours and rush home. You rarely meet each other and have little contact, but if you do run into each other, it can be priceless. It turns out that you have great colleagues, even if they’re in different departments, who also put their heart into their work. You find out that management considers those colleagues a problem, or at best tolerates them because passionate teachers bring in students.

You ask your students if this academy is a feminist organisation. Not a single student thinks so, even though there’s a woman at the helm. At this academy, diversity simply means ticking a box: people are left to their own devices. The cafeteria is not wheelchair accessible, which shows that there is no space for people who claim their right to an accessible academy, no structural consideration for students and staff with disabilities. Diversity is instead represented by one diversity officer who works two days a week for four years, because that’s considered sufficient. This is of a piece with the neoliberal nonsense about ‘expressing your feelings’ but having to do what the manager says anyway. Research has shown time and again that trauma and violence occur in situations where hierarchy is more important than cooperation. From the point of view of social safety and preventing sexual violence, it is therefore also important that the top-down structure becomes more porous.

It is predictable that instead of listening, management shows ‘decisiveness’ (hence the ‘diversity officer’). However, the unsafe atmosphere is such that decisiveness cannot undo the big, structural problems. Therefore, one can expect that some individuals will be pointed at as scapegoats. Chances are that managers who have turned a blind eye to these problems will have to leave, and that department heads who receive too many complaints will be out as well. And you might find yourself, as an enthusiastic teacher, with the same precarious contract but a new manager. But what does that solve? A new manager will of course want to bring fresh energy to the department and thus to reorganise – using his or her own contacts. (After all it’s still the Netherlands: corrupt and shot through with nepotism. How do you think that those schools stay white, middle class, and straight?) Reorganising may seem like change but actually keeps everything the same, because the new department head or director cannot make structural changes on his or her own. Thus, everything stays as it is, with new people in the same places. Including its patronising HR department that will never do anything to change the academy. If you, as a passionate teacher, speak out about this, you’re labelled ‘difficult’ and left out in the cold.

In the meantime, the board of directors wants to keep things ‘realistic’, so of course the new manager can’t make less than €155,000. That’s 350,000 guilders for those who still remember, which was impossibly high before the ‘market logic’ took over. In fact, this has nothing to do with the free market, but is simply a result of the Balkenende norm: if you’re not ‘allowed’ to earn more than a certain amount, it follows that you are allowed to earn that amount, which then becomes the standard. In this way, managers are put at such a great distance from the rest of the organisation – because they earn twice as much as department heads – that in their lonely ivory towers, they surround themselves with a clique of directors who are all equally highly paid and have nothing to do with the field itself. They have meetings, manage, and make decisions about things whose consequences they will never feel, because they themselves do not teach and are not artists. Management becomes an end in itself. This makes the organisation top heavy. All the while, you wonder why you’re paid just a few tenners to teach your class on a bad contract. With the number of self-employed people growing explosively, this country normalises precarity in combination with profound liberal intellectual poverty, pragmatism, and so-called ‘realism’.

‘Realism’ always means realism for upper management, who pass money to each other, and never the kind of realism that means that you have colleagues you can trust, get to know, and build a relationship with. The kind of realism, where you can work together in a good department at a good academy; where your students don’t have to be afraid of the department coordinator; where your students don’t come to you crying instead of the department head because they fear the response they might get to their vulnerability; where overworked department heads have no time, desire, or interest; where the head of your department doesn’t come running angrily out of a meeting with the director with yet another unattainable demand to fulfil. . But rather, where the board of directors are interested in the welfare of the employees and students, instead of believing that this can be solved with another high-paid director. If you were to realistically describe your workload and how top-down management makes the academy less safe, you would get the reply that you have to be realistic, because the only realism that counts is the kind that fits on an Excel sheet or in a report. Meanwhile, all those lower positions that are not considered realistic keep the academy going by offering a listening ear when students make a complaint in the hope that an outsider will be able to dispel the current delusions. But the workload prevents any meaningful discussions, unless you put even more extra time into your job for no extra pay – but then how can you pay for rent, day care, medical bills, energy, exercise, and so on? Everything is being stolen from you, while your manager earns €155,000 – and on top of that, you’re expected to make critical art, while your grant application will be judged by a fund with exactly the same kind of overpaid puppeteer at its head. This has to stop, because top-down structures don’t work in art or in the academy, not even in universities, hospitals, schools, or healthcare. They make us unsafe and education is no better for them. And if top-down structures do work in business, that just goes to show that we are therefore not a business.

This is what an academy looks like viewed from below when it’s at the point of collapse. But we can still turn it around. We could have an academy that students are happy to attend and talk about enthusiastically, where engaged teachers contribute to the direction of their departments and work together to create a safe and challenging learning environment, and where department heads are trusted by a management that is close to them and who earn only 20% more – because an academy is not a corporation. In the end, it’s as simple as having a director who is accountable within the organisation to the students, the teachers, and the staff. We want to be paid for the work that we do. We want time for research and time to work together with other teachers and staff and discuss what we see happening. We want the people who do the essential work in this school, such as the cleaners who keep our spaces hygienic and the people in the cafeteria who feed us, to be a part of the academy and for this work not to be outsourced to the lowest bidder. We want students to find an accessible academy that you can enter if you are chronically ill, use a wheelchair, or need an induction loop – and where you are even welcome. Now there is public awareness of the problem that there’s a lack of safety and a culture of harassment, we need to shift to a different structure that learns from feminism. A structure that learns from anti-racism and decoloniality to address the overwhelming whiteness. That means that diversity consists not of a part-time diversity officer and a hastily assembled handful of teachers of colour on precarious contracts. Rather, it means that the organisation listens and changes when teachers and students talk about social pressure, a lack of safety, and the deep-rooted everyday racism and sexism, and has a team with the knowledge and the space to bring about change, train employees, and offer support.

This is another reason why it is essential for the directors and the department heads in an academy, who collaborate with teachers, to listen to students in order to decide on a path that people can agree with. We want awareness that the invisible yet dominant, toxic culture of whiteness and Eurocentrism is unsustainable. We are done with colleagues who can only talk about their second home in France or about their kitchen renovation. We want anti-racism in our organisation, because teachers and students of colour are simply a part of the academy and the world. That means that white teachers and students, department heads, HR reps, and directors must learn to listen to the people who endure the social pressure of racism every day – including at the academy, because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This means that when our students of colour are taught well, then all our students are taught well. That we open expansive, varied windows on the world, and that we leave the pedagogical laziness of Eurocentrism in the past. That endless curiosity, self-reflection, and an appropriate degree of modesty are the norm. The same goes for our queer and trans students, who are also an important part of the academy, simply because they are there. Inclusion means that your organisation is flexible enough to deal with many different kinds of people, has the in-house knowledge to do so, and knows how to approach people with respect and interest. Because people with disabilities are part of the academy, support is essential, whether short- or long-term. Diversity is reflecting on how to deal with racism, sexism, ableism, and transphobia, and knowing how the organisation, staff, and teachers should respond to them. In a good academy, people take care of each other, because we need each other’s talents and insights in a world that has never been and never will be homogenous. And we don’t want a corporation, but a real academy, with education and research, in which responsibility for one another goes hand in hand with commitment and care for each other.

We want:

  • less hierarchy and more participation: no high-level salaries and maximum 20% difference in salaries between department heads and directors;
  • good contracts for teachers, drawn up in negotiation;
  • good anti-racism policies, good anti-sexism policies, and appropriate accessibility in the academies;
  • strong educational visions and good research programmes within departments, and with this, room to innovate education;
  • good guidance for teachers so that they remain engaged and generous to students and cooperation within departments is promoted;
  • students to get the right to make decisions and not just weigh in or participate in powerless commissions!

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