State of the art

An increasing culture of philanthropic support is allowing Edinburgh College of Art to position itself as a world-changing hub of ideas and creativity.

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ECA Fashion Show
‘Front Row’, The ECA Final-year fashion show in the national museum of Scotland. Photograph by Julie Howden.

Looking back on his life, the artist Claude Monet reflected on how the support of one individual changed both his fortunes and that of an entire generation of artists.

“We would have died of hunger without him, all we Impressionists,” said Monet. “We owe him everything.”

The individual in question was Parisian businessman Paul Durand-Ruel. At a time when the likes of Monet, Pissaro and Degas were shunned by the artistic establishment, Durand-Ruel bought their canvases with a singular relish. Such was his influence, the National Gallery in London dedicated a show to his beneficence in 2015.

His story gives flesh to the truism that behind a great work of art, lies a generous donor.

Like any major artistic institution, philanthropy’s thumbprint can be seen across Edinburgh College of Art (ECA).

For nearly a century, ECA students have been able to study abroad thanks to a bequest left by Andrew Grant, former chairman of the Royal Bank of India and Liberal MP.

Professorships in History of Art and Music carry names such as John Watson Gordon and General John Reid, lives long-passed but whose passion for the arts still makes a difference today through endowments.

“There is a sense of a long trajectory of giving here,” says Professor Chris Breward, ECA’s Principal. “ECA would absolutely be diminished without it.”

Professor Breward is in a reflective mood. He is on the cusp of leaving the role after six years. His tenure has overlapped with a period of immense change for the College.

In 2011 it officially merged with the University of Edinburgh. It was a mutually beneficial move on many levels, says Professor Breward, not least with regards to philanthropy. ECA was able to build upon the University’s expertise and the College opened up new possibilities for donors.

“Naturally, individual supporters and philanthropists want to encourage the development of a better world,” he says.

“It’s a reason why you might support something like science innovation. But the arts can have the same sort of effect.

“Of course philanthropists can support an individual artist under the traditional notion of patronage, but by supporting artists, musicians, architects, designers, and curators they can really impact the wider world.”

Consider, Professor Breward says, how architecture deals with and finds solutions for environmental concerns. Or how contemporary art can encouraging change in civic society. Or how music can be used to engage marginalised groups.

The donors and charitable trusts that make the Music in the Community project possible understand this.

Led by Dee Isaacs, each year music students work with Edinburgh school pupils to stage large scale theatrical productions. The project is international in scope. ECA students are working with a school in The Gambia and with refugee communities in Greece. At every turn, it is music that brings people together.

As well as working on a grand canvas, ECA also offers the chance for donors to support areas of a personal passion and change an individual’s world along the way.

Mark Astaire has always loved art. The Vice Chairman of Investment Banking at Barclays studied at the University, but crossed the path of ECA students. Edinburgh is, after all, a small city.

He recalls being struck by their creativity. He still is. He ranks the Degree Show as “one of the highlights of my year”.

The Astaire Art Prize is the culmination of this appreciation. Now in its fourth year, the £3000 prize is given to a student whose work is judged by Astaire and ECA tutors.

“I wanted to do something that supported talented artists to remain artists in what can be a very tough career,” he says. “The whole process has just reinforced my appreciation of the quality of teaching within ECA and the students it produces. I’ve learned more about the College because of the prize and my enthusiasm has only deepened. It is a remarkable institution.”

Mark has kept in touch with previous winners, commissioning one to paint portraits of his son and his goddaughter.

The Degree Show is home to several other sponsored awards that help students make the daunting leap into the professional world. The Artists’ Collecting Society, for example, offers two ECA students a one-year residency at a studio of their choice.

Donors are directly supporting students in other ways. Students like Naomi Smith.

Naomi always wanted to work with textiles. She loved the medium’s tactility and versatility. Possible careers in fashion, embroidery, or interior design opened up before her. Then, while still a student at secondary school, she fell pregnant.

And yet, her stride went unchecked. She missed less than five weeks of study during the upheaval of becoming a mother. School was completed and a year was spent at Edinburgh College studying, among other things, her beloved textiles.

ECA’s textiles course should have been a natural next step, but with a young daughter to provide for, the studio fees and material costs looked prohibitive.

And then she heard about the Edinburgh Decorative and Fine Arts Society (EDFAS) scholarship. It has had a “big impact”, she says.

“Without it I would have really struggled,” she says. “It has given me the confidence to pursue all paths when it comes to experimentation and development in my practice because I don’t have to worry about how I will afford extra materials. In textiles it’s really important to have good quality materials to enhance designs. The scholarship has allowed me to do that.”

If our support helps put things on a bigger stage and helps it grow further, then we all benefit

Peter Hillier
Portfolio Director at Cazenove

Cazenove’s involvement helped place Front Row on its biggest ever stage. Set in the Victorian grandeur of the National Museum of Scotland, it was a spectacular success.

The students went on to win six prizes at Graduate Fashion Week in London, the he world’s leading event for fashion students and graduates, including the main prize, the Christopher Bailey Gold Award.

“If our sponsorship helps put things on a bigger stage and help it grow further, then we all benefit,” says Peter.

Like any vibrant organism, philanthropy continues to grow at ECA. More opportunities are presenting themselves for donors, staff and students alike. Professor Breward sees a future where the culture of giving isn’t just reflected in the titles of prizes, chairs and bursaries or in logos at events. He hopes it will be embedded in the attitude of anyone who steps foot in Lauriston Place.

“We see philanthropy as a longer relationship,” she says. “We have very eminent alumni coming back, wanting to support generations of students whose experiences will be very different to theirs 20, 30, or 50 years ago.

“We sow the seeds of a philanthropic attitude in what our students are doing themselves within the community and their own practice – Music in the Community is a great example of this. Seeing philanthropy giving as something that is positive and productive is something we would want to embed in the culture of ECA.”

Edinburgh College of Art