The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent is one of the oldest art schools in Belgium and has been the breeding ground of Flemish cultural and artistic life for much of its history. It started out as a private school for drawing, painting, and architecture at the home of artist Philippe Karel Marissal in 1741, but soon acquired material support of the city council and was recognized by decree and endowed with a Royal title by the Austrian empress Maria-Theresia in 1771. The academy lived through several changes of rule and regime until it became a municipal institute protected by the Belgian state at the time of the country’s beginnings in the early 1830s. Only a decade ago, in 1995, the academy merged with the Ghent Institute of Higher Education (Hogeschool Gent), whose thirteen faculties together became a University College and a member of the Ghent University Association in 2003. Although still commonly known as the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK), the school is now officially referred to as the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University College Ghent.
The academy’s evolution and nomenclature are proof of the institutes esteemed position within European art and culture. It also reflects the history of art education in general. The traditional Academy of Fine Arts, as it was conceived in the 18th and 19th centuries, provided a model for accepted taste and artistic excellence. Honorary degrees such as the ones awarded to the Royal Academy of Ghent at the World Exhibition in 1913 and the World Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925 bore witness to the prestige of the art school as a cultural and national institution. At the same time, innovative teaching models, such as the famous Parisian drawing method of Dupuis – introduced in Belgian by the Royal Academy of Ghent in 1841 – lay the groundwork for a common tradition, on which generations of artists would build to expand the artistic repertoire into previously unseen and often radical directions. Many of the people who went to school at the Royal Academy in Ghent have set new standards themselves. There are the architects Victor Horta and Gaston Eysselinck, and the entire so-called “School of Latem,” Gust and Leon De Smet, Frits van den Berghe, George Minne, and Hubert Malfait. By the middle of the 20th century social and cultural upheavals had drastically changed education in the arts. Various avant-garde movements and the cult of the new replaced the authority of the tradition with that of the individual talent. Meanwhile, the egalitarian ethos of the 1960s had knocked the Fine Arts down a peg and broadened the arts academy with adventurous and exciting disciplines such as photography, animation, film, fashion, graphic and textile designs.
From that time on, the achievements of the Royal Academy have been closely tied in with the work and renown of the artists who taught there and helped to steer the school, at a different pace and with varying degrees of success, into several directions at once. To give but a few examples. Animation filmmaker and Golden Palm winner Raoul Servais founded the KASK animation studios, whose graduates include Paul Demeyer (Goose Girl, Duckman, …), Tim Crawfurd (Pixar) and Jonas Geirnaert (Flatlife, prize of the jury in Cannes 2004). Photographers as diverse as Magnum member Carl De Keyzer and artist Dirk Braeckman are part of what the Dutch magazine FOTO has called “the magic of Ghent”. No less indicative of the academy’s high-quality education and influence on contemporary art, are graduates such as Thierry De Cordier, Wim Delvoye, Valérie Mannaerts, and Jan De Cock.
Name-dropping should not eclipse the achievements of the many young people who leave school each year to carry on into their manifold professional fields the spirit of exploration they have come to cherish at the Royal Academy. Indeed, it is safe to say that the academy’s top-class educational standards are characterized by its high-level of teaching staff and researches working in close collaboration and mutual inspiration with students. Internationally acclaimed artists regularly fulfil teaching stints at the Royal Academy. Art critics, curators, and academics come to visit and lecture. Disciplines such as graphic and textile design, fashion, book illustration and web design draw the best professionals working in their fields at the moment.
The academy’s thoroughgoing focus on practice-based artistic research has given a fresh impetus to artistic and intellectual inquiry. Due to economic and political globalization, the instability and fragmentation of cultural and social life-worlds have given rise to an ever-growing need for artists and designers to examine and find out what they are doing and have been doing all along. The self-reflective and critical attitude, which to a certain extent has been implicit in the story of art from day one, has grown into distinct doctoral and post-doctoral programmes at today’s art academies. That academic standards may not stand apart from what goes on in the art world at large is a point the Royal Academy of Ghent finds worth emphasizing. Along its association with the Ghent University, academic networks and specialized journals, the Royal Academy is co-editor of the international art publication A Prior Magazine; it has established the independent exhibition project KIOSK; and it organizes events and workshops in close collaboration with Ghent’s lively art scene, including the Higher Institute of the Arts (HISK) and the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art (S.M.A.K.), all within walking distance of the academy’s premises.
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