Dartington: Past, Present, Future…

Image Copyright Becca Gulliver

As reported in the Totnes Times (19th August 2018) the STREAM festival did a marvelous job of honouring the legacy of Dartington College of Arts. Congratulations and thanks are due to organisers Sarah Gray and Soundart Radio, all their support staff, and everyone who contributed. The programme of events sampled the kind of extraordinary work that once happened at the college – but that, of course, gave this celebratory event a tinge of real sadness. It was a reminder that when, in 2010, the unthinkable actually happened and the college was closed, the international world of the arts, of higher education, not to mention Totnes, Dartington and the surrounding area not only lost something of extraordinary value; it also tore the heart out of the the Dartington project in general.

The college opened in 1961. Gradually two key developments took place. First, it became established as a hub of arts discourse and practice both within and outside higher education. This was of international significance, as I witnessed as a member of the Save Dartington College campaign: we received a flood of letters and emails from all over the world. Second, although many excellent arts ventures were undertaken at Dartington Hall before the college, the Estate’s relationship with the locality had been limited. The college, slowly at first, created a different, more fruitful relationship, and this developed significantly over the years. Both dimensions, the international and the local, were brutally and needlessly shattered by the closure of the college.

Fingers were pointed at the time – at the Dartington Trust, the College Governors and management, the Higher Education Funding Council, the then Regional Development Agency, even the EU which funded the “relocation” of Dartington to Falmouth. However, although none of these were solely responsible for the closure of the college – and all were implicated – it was mostly the Dartington Trust that got the blame. In some ways it was hardly fair to dump the collective guilt on the shoulders of just one partner.

There is now a new regime at Dartington. None of the current arts team, the CEO or members of the Trust were there in 2018 so none can be held responsible. In the last few years plenty of new arts initiatives have been forged at Dartington. A mere glance at the coming calendar shows that this will continue. However, at the STREAM festival I gave a talk entitled “Why Dartington Needs a College”. My implication was certainly not to underplay the good work now being done at Dartington. It was, however, to draw attention to what I see as a fact. The college did not merely train students to get degrees. It did so via innovative work, deep questionings of the nature and functions of the arts, an ability to take risks, to go out on a limb, and be a player in international discourses about the developing languages, purposes, pedagogies and contexts for the arts. I happen to believe that full-time educational and research presence is the most effective way of keeping these themes alive and constantly renewing. I would like to see them restored alongside the very imaginative and compelling arts programme now happening at Dartington.

Nearly a decade has passed since the closure. By “see them restored” I do not imply an attempt to rerun the old college. So much has happened in ten years – politically, socially, environmentally, in the arts – that a new venture of this type would need to find its own identity, not attempt the kiss of life to the old one. However, with the new arts team at Dartington in place as a key partner it is not too fanciful to imagine that such a development could take place. Research, deep questioning, experimentation, risk (a college) could live alongside a public face and sharing (the arts programme).

I can’t think of anything more inspiring.

Agree, Disagree, anything to add? Comment below…

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