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Australia's oldest art school wins independence

Western Sydney University has called on the NSW Govermment to commit long-term financial support to Australia's oldest art school.

Arts minister Don Harwin has given his backing for the National Art School to remain  at the historic Darlinghurst Gaol, its home for more than a century after the Herald revealed the Western Sydney University interest in taking over the site and the school's management.

After nearly a decade of uncertainty and neglect, a commitment to the site was not enough, a university spokesperson said. ''The NAS deserves a secure funding stream and a commitment of long-term financial support, including badly needed renovations of the Darlinghurst Gaol site.''

The National Art School is the alma mater of some of Australia's greatest artists Margaret Olley, Max Dupain and Tim Storrier.

Western Sydney University denied it had made a proactive bid, but rather characterised talks as a negotiation between the NAS, Western Sydney University, and the Department of Premier and Cabinet which had ceased when the government withdrew from the process.

The educational partnership offered to potentially bolster the school's undergraduate enrolments, introduce new postgraduate degrees and put the school on a secure financial footing independent of government funding.


Mr Harwin, who commissioned an Ernst & Young study into the school's future options, said it was his opinion that "an independent NAS continues to be the best way forward".

He confirmed responsibility for the school was transferred from the Department of Education to the Department of Planning and Environment on January 1, where he has greater bureaucratic oversight.

The minister has also called for expressions of interest from the public to fill up to nine director positions to serve on the board for terms of up to three years.

The aim of those directors would be to work alongside the government to "achieve the school's ambitions and secure its long-term future through the development and implementation of commercial, academic and philanthropic strategies".

The school's director, Steven Alderton, also welcomed the minister's comments. Mr Harwin was a frequent visitor and friend of the institution, Mr Alderton said. The school hoped to work with the government to confirm a long-term lease of ''several decades'', as well as ongoing funding.

The initiatives represent the first step in ending years of uncertainty for the National Art School, which had also been subject to a merger proposal by the University of NSW and the University of Sydney.

Mr Harwin said the school had a special role in the Australian visual arts community.

''As Arts Minister, I am prioritising a sustainable future for NAS that maintains its rich heritage and identity for decades to come,'' he told the Herald.

"We not only want NAS to be Australia's best art school, but one of the best arts schools in the Asia-Pacific.

"The calibre of the alumni at NAS shows what this school is capable of achieving -­ we want to secure its future growth and build on its pedigree."

The ministerial endorsement recognised the art school's success in boosting enrolment numbers and high satisfaction ratings. Full-time student numbers have doubled since 2013 by 61 per cent while student degree fee income has more than doubled. The school has the highest number of short-course enrolments in a decade and exhibition attendances have climbed from 14,342 to 26,539.

The school's first-year enrolments in January were the largest ever, he said.  In the last 12 months, the school had introduced a doctorate program, hosted the 40th anniversary Mardi Gras exhibition and become the home of the Dobell Drawing prize.

The Ernst & Young study, which concluded in September, found the school could boost revenue through philanthropic partnerships and enrolments of international students. The Berijiklian government spends about $5.5 million on the National Art School annually.