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Art History taught me not to be a snob, says Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller and Professor David Alan Mellor at the opening of the Bruce Lacey exhibition which the pair jointly curated in 2012

Art History is as vital, vocational and inclusive as it has ever been, University of Sussex academics and alumni including conceptual artist Jeremy Deller have said as the department celebrates its 50th birthday.

The department’s first half century will be celebrated with a symposium followed by a celebration reception held at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts this Saturday.

The celebration comes almost a year to the day that A-Level Art History received an 11th hour reprieve following a high-profile campaign.

In October 2016, exam board AQA had announced it would cease to offer Art History from 2018 - but Pearson announced weeks later it would develop a new A-level in Art History, which launched in schools this September.

Art History academics at the University of Sussex played a pivotal role in the successful campaign, including Dr Ben Burbridge who co-ordinated an open letter to AQA, signed by several of his colleagues and 200 academics and art professionals nationwide, which attracted national media attention and was mentioned in a House of Lords debate.

Over its first 50 years, the University of Sussex has seen some exceptional Art History students pass through its doors - including Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller and historian, author and presenter Lucy Worsley.

All Art History graduates who completed courses between September 2015 and August 2016 found employment in a wide range of sectors including retail, manufacturing, construction, finance and the arts within six months or went on to further study.

Graduates have gone on to work for some of the country’s leading cultural institutions including the V&A and English Heritage as well as a broad range of private companies and public bodies including Apple, KPMG and GlaxoSmithKline.

Jeremy Deller said: “I think for me, Sussex and especially the classes of David Mellor, taught me how to look at images and culture afresh and see value in everything, i.e. not to be a snob, which is very important. The study of Art History is the study of power, identity and most important humanity itself. What could be more important than that?”

Gilane Tawadros, who graduated with an MA in Art History from Sussex in 1989 and is now chief executive of the not-for-profit visual artists’ rights management organisation DACS, has contributed to an oral history project marking the anniversary, which will be launched on Saturday, and will speak at the birthday reception.

She said: “Studying Art History at Sussex sparked in me a life-long passion for contemporary and modern art and artists. I left university equipped with the curiosity and confidence to explore artists and ideas which were at the margins of the art establishment at the time.

"Sussex’s radical and progressive teaching of Art History was unlike any other in the country and has demonstrated, over five decades, the critical importance of a discipline which – together with fine art teaching – has positioned Britain at the centre of the global art world.”

Maurice Howard, Professor of Art History, who has been at Sussex since 1976, said: "We are delighted to be celebrating 50 years of Art History not just at Sussex but across the country, since many other departments were founded at the same time.

"Saturday's event will be attended by many graduates of ours: academics, television moguls and presenters, publishers, leaders of the travel industry, museum directors and curators, art practitioners, all testifying to the wide impact of our subject and its creative contribution to the modern world."

David Alan Mellor, Professor of Art History, who has studied and taught at the University for 50 years, said: "Sussex's founding professors brought to us fundamental and personal experience of British art along with a European perspective, where the discipline first began.

"We have extended over the years into the historical and theoretical concerns of photography, architecture, the applied arts and art across the world. In the last 50 years the 'visual' has conquered the humanities in that all subjects now consider its meanings and resonance within their disciplines.”

The symposium will begin at 10am until 4pm on Saturday followed by an evening reception at 5pm. It will feature talks from alumni including Yale professor Tim Barringer and British Academy fellow Briony Fer as well as other leading academic figures including Professor Robin Cormack, classics lecturer at Wolfson College, Cambridge and husband of Mary Beard.

By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Wednesday, 5 September 2018