What’s the first work of art you remember seeing?
When I was very young and at school in Spain, we were taken to see a Kandinsky exhibition in a gallery in Madrid. I remember it really well because I had no idea what I was looking at, and I felt really excited by that.
When did you decide to pursue a career in art?
I didn’t become really interested in art until I was in sixth form. I think I ended up wanting to be an artist partly because I was terrified of doing anything else! I share that with a number of artists of my generation: going to art school was nothing to do with wanting to learn to paint or sculpt, it was an alternative to a more orthodox [career] path.
How did you get your present role?
I worked as an artist and art critic until I was about 30, then got a job teaching at Goldsmiths [College, part of the University of London]. My first leadership role was director of Liverpool School of Art in 2008, then I went to the Royal College in London where I was Dean of Arts & Humanities. I came to Edinburgh College of Art in 2019.
Just in time for the pandemic, then?
Yes, and it was really difficult, particularly being relatively new. I had brilliant support from my colleagues and I think, as a staff team, we became very close. But it was incredibly tough on the students, who were used to having studios and workshops. Without taking away from the difficulties, it amazed me how resilient they were.
What’s a normal day like?
I don’t think there is one! The only typical thing is that I walk across the Meadows every morning. ECA is part of the largest school in the University of Edinburgh with 3,500 students. A lot of my time is spent in meetings interfacing with ECA staff, with the wider university, and the city. The diary is always full.
What are the best parts of the job – and the worst?
Every day I try to have a walk round some of the studios, to see the amazing creative work the students and staff are doing. I feel very fortunate to be working in this environment. As is the case in any big organisation, tragic things happen to people sometimes, and dealing with these things can be quite challenging.
Can art be taught?
Yes… I guess I would have to say yes doing the job I do! I think it can be taught as long as you remain open to the idea that you can’t control what someone learns. The last thing you want to do when you’re teaching artists is to control or influence what they do. It’s about radical innovation, self-authorship, and if you get in the way of that, if you’re teaching something too prescriptive, you’re not really teaching the subject.
What do you look for in prospective students? Can you spot talent?
What we’re really interested in is trying to enhance the diversity of our student body, trying to make this available to as many as possible from as many backgrounds as possible. We appreciate and value the backgrounds the students bring to us, and our job is to help them use that to distinguish themselves, rather than look for a specific ability in someone.
How do you find time for your own art practice?
I’ve become quite good at learning how to fit the art in around other commitments. In the past, I’ve made films, worked with text, done performance, installation, but in the last couple of years I’ve started making paintings again. Like many people in the pandemic, having spent so much time in front of a screen, I craved the chance to make something more material. Even if I don’t have a deadline for a show I feel it’s really important to continue to make art – it helps me recognise myself.
If you could have a work of art from any art collection anywhere in the world…
That’s really hard! Sometimes I see an exhibition where I’d like to take something away with me to spend a bit more time looking at it. Take the current exhibition by American painter Alice Neel at the Barbican – I’d love to take a painting home, spend some time with it, think about it.
Have you ever changed your mind about a work of art?
I think our sense of what’s important fluctuates. When I was a student, I was quite interested in minimalism, the art of the 1960s and 1970s in the USA. It seemed very urgent, with a very political dynamic to it. Looking at that work now from a different perspective, it starts to feel slightly heroic, arrogant, all made by men. It’s the same work, but times change, one’s perspective changes.
Has a work of art ever changed your life? Daily. I think works of art, whether one is seeing them or remembering them, impact my life all the time.
Who or what inspires you? I’ve got three children, aged 22, 19 and 16, all at different stages of education and life. I’m constantly amazed and inspired by them.
What do you like about the Degree Show?
This time of year is amazing, there’s such a surge of energy. Paul Thompson, Vice-Chancellor at the RCA, would say the Degree Show was “the RCA in bloom”, I love that, it’s the flowering of the college, letting everyone see what we do. Also, there’s been a degree show every year of my working life for about 24 years, so it would be really weird not to have one!
What are you looking forward to?
Apart from the Degree Show? We have a big capital programme happening at the moment to refurbish the whole campus. We have a really amazing campus, and this is going to enhance what we do, both for students and staff.
Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show runs until June 11. For more information and events, see https://www.eca.ed.ac.uk/event/eca-graduate-show-2023