Pearson Exam Board to offer new Art History A level exam from 2017

The recent news that the Art History A-Level is to be saved for future generations to study is very welcome for those of us who believe in providing opportunities for a broad historical and culturally sensitive education. Here at The Open University we have lobbied alongside teachers, other HEIs and the Association of Art Historians to raise awareness about the huge deficit in knowledge and creative opportunities that the dismantling of the arts and humanities subjects at school level could bring.

We are delighted that Pearson will now be offering A-Level Art History. Meanwhile we will continue to use our digital platforms ( to disseminate the subject to a wider public and to produce educational material, enabling more state schools to offer the provision.

One of the main ways in which we have been doing this is through our project, Open Arts Objects, a series of video podcasts exploring works of art from the Renaissance to the 21st century. Each podcast is a free resource, presented by a specialist and is accompanied by support material for lesson plans. These have been developed in close collaboration with secondary school teachers.

This is a growing resource and an open network, if you are a teacher or education specialist and would like to be involved or know more about Open Arts Objects please get in touch with us at

Dr Amy Charlesworth and Professor Gill Perry

Save Art History in the A-level curriculum

Statement from the Art Historians at the Open University

As soon as the news reports about removing Art History from the A level curriculum hit twitter, a campaign was started: #whyarthistorymatters. Responses flooded in from key academics in the field such as Craig Clunas (Professor at Oxford), TV personalities such as Simon Schama as well as individuals who had taken the subject at A-level or at university and whose lives had been profoundly changed by Art History. And then Jonathon Jones wrote an opinionated piece in the Guardian describing the discipline as ‘posh’ and ‘elite’. Fortunately, a better informed response was posted on ‘The Conversation’ by Art Historian Professor Griselda Pollock (Leeds University) showing that axing A-level Art History only amplifies class divides.

One of Art History’s many strengths is that it is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Through the study of art you can learn about gender relations, philosophy, anthropology, sociology or economics, not to mention its important relationship with history. At a time when everyone is glued to their smartphones, looking at images on twitter, Instagram or Facebook, the ability to understand, and more importantly, to be able to analyse critically the wealth of images that bombard us seems more pressing than ever.

The AQA say that the decision has nothing to do with the validity of the discipline, but the difficulty, or the ‘risk’, in teaching it. The discipline has long been seen to be an elitist subject, closely tied to access to museums and galleries, but the Open University has sought to change and challenge this perception. It has provided free online courses alongside a wide range of distance learning undergraduate and postgraduate courses available to non-traditional students—from working parents to seniors who never had the chance to study a degree in the past. The Open University is also leading a new initiative helping to teach the subject in schools—by providing shorts films and teaching materials, increasing the accessibility and outreach of the subject. By so-doing we are hoping to increase the facilities and support available to some hard-pressed state schools, and to increase public understanding of the value of art. In a statement released to teachers the AQA explained the reasons behind their decision:

‘The existing specification is challenging to mark and award because of the specialist nature of the topics, the range of options, difficulties in recruiting sufficient, experienced examiners and limited entries. We had hoped that we could reduce or remove these areas of difficulty in developing the new specification, but this has not proved possible.
We are committed to ensuring the safe and secure delivery of all of our qualifications and, after careful consideration, we have concluded that the delivery risks we currently manage for this subject are not sustainable in the longer term. We have therefore taken the decision not to continue with the redevelopment of this qualification.’

The AQA specifies that they have attempted to reduce ‘these areas of difficulty’ but they have not specified how they have. Indeed, the OU’s new initiative to work with teachers and provide the types of training they would need to teach and examine the subject does not seem to have been known to the AQA or taken into consideration in making this decision.

Art History is a discipline that encourages us to ask questions about how we see the world; by studying visual culture through history, we can reflect on our relationship with society. It can offer a window onto the past, while challenging preconceptions about race, gender and power.  Art History, might be a complex subject, but shouldn’t that be the reason to keep it? At the OU we believe we should be seeking to enable and support the widest possible range of students to study, enjoy and think critically about the world around them, rather than removing opportunities to do so. Given the extraordinary bombardment of visual imagery that we experience on a daily basis in the modern digital era, shouldn’t we be equipping more people to look with a critical eye?  Surely, we should seek to provide future generations with new ways of seeing the world?

Pollock argues that the killing off of art history at A-level is a blow against democratisation:

‘A lack of art history will deprive all young people of opportunities for new kinds of knowledge of the world they live in. It will close down the chance to acquire an understanding of the past and of the present through image and object, place and building, powerful patrons and craftspeople and makers. Far from dismissing this subject because at present it is more often taught in independent schools, we need to be insisting on the value of this way of learning about the world through its cultures, its monuments, its legends, its visual story-telling, its creative imaginations — for all young people in all schools.

For many children in state schools, who may not have the advantages of frequent travel or other occasions to encounter not just art but material culture, this may have been their only opportunity to have these doors opened. And other doors – because art history is a portal to a range of work fields, from high-level art marketing to curation and conservation and, of course, museum and gallery education that is aimed a future generations. And let us also remember that the A-level is also a doorway to architecture and design.’

Many of us working in UK universities have been promoting and disseminating the subject precisely because it has so many academic, cultural and career possibilities. We believe, like Pollock that it is a force for democratisation and high quality learning. Hence the importance of the subject in the curriculum at the OU, an institution committed to open access. The support we are now providing teachers suggests it is an important time to offer this subject to the widest possible range of students—not a moment to pull the plug. Give more people, young and old, the chance to study it.

Dr Leah Clark and Professor Gill Perry


OAJ Issue 5: Sustainable art communities: creativity and policy in the transnational Caribbean


We are delighted to announce the publication of Issue 5 of the Open Arts Journal.

This themed issue of the Open Arts Journal, ‘Sustainable Art Communities: Creativity and Policy in the Transnational Caribbean’, brings together academics, artists, curators and policymakers from various countries in the English- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean and their diasporas, the UK and the Netherlands. It explores how the understanding and formation of sustainable community for the Caribbean and its global diaspora may be supported by art practice, curating and museums. The collection was developed through a two-year international research project (2012-14) led by Leon Wainwright, with Co-Investigator Kitty Zijlmans (Leiden University), focused on major public events in Amsterdam and London. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO/Humanities).

You can read this online or download it in PDF format now:

Study day: Romantic rebellions: From Delacroix to Picasso

National Gallery London
Saturday 23 April, 2016

Join speakers including Darren Almond, Simon Lee, Lynda Nead, Christopher Riopelle and  the OU’s Emma Barker and Gill Perry at this study day.

“Romanticism and modern art are one and the same thing” wrote the French poet CharlesBaudelaire in 1846.

This study day, held in collaboration with the Open University, explores the diverse subjects and varied styles of Romantic painting with its ‘intimacy, spirituality, colour’ and ‘yearning for the infinite.’ Curators, art historians and artists discuss Delacroix, Romanticism, and the rise of modern art.

You can book online from the National Gallery’s website.

Blue moon diamond and naming jewels

You might have heard in the news that a Hong Kong businessman purchased a rare diamond for $48 million dollars from Sotheby’s yesterday. You might have also picked up on the fact that he renamed the gem after his daughter ‘Blue Moon of Josephine.’ The naming of jewels is certainly not a modern phenomenon. Indeed it was a popular thing to do in the Renaissance when jewels were given names from David to ‘Il Spigo’ (Lavender) to  ‘Semperviva.’ These names could reflect the qualities of the stones (in the case of lavender) but could also point to the magical properties that these particular gems were believed to possess (from promoting a male heir to detecting poison). Jewels and gems, of course were clear social and economic signifiers, just as they are today, and frequently in the Renaissance, they were used as liquid capital. For more on the function of jewels in the Renaissance, you might like to listen to the talk related to this over on the Open Arts Archive, delivered at Cambridge in 2014.

What fascinates me is the continued tradition of naming jewels, which individualises them and allows them to be traced in history from the Kohinoor to the Hope Diamond. Their value is certainly attached to the rarity of the gem, but the naming of jewels and the tales that are told about them surely contribute to their economic as well as symbolic value. As the Blue Moon of Josephine was only found in South Africa last year, it will be interesting to see what histories are written and what tales are told about this diamond.

Study day: Subversive portraits: Goya and his legacy

National Gallery London
Saturday, November 21, 2015
11:00 -3:30

Join speakers including Yinka Shonibare, Xavier Bray, Juliet Wilson Bareau, Emma Barker, and Gill Perry to explore Goya’s portraits.

Goya took the genre of portraiture to new heights. His technical and stylistic innovations enabled him to portray his sitters with extraordinary vividness and insight.

This study day, held in collaboration with the Open University, will explore portraits by Goya and other artists in the context of Napoleonic Europe; showing how portraiture engaged with social and political issues. It will also consider why Goya has been such a key figure for modern and contemporary artists from Manet to Jake and Dinos Chapman.

The programme is available online.


£25/£14 concessions/£10 Members and OU students.  Book tickets from the National Gallery website.

Review of Mike Perry’s “Môr Plastig” at Venice

Mike Perry’s Môr Plastig at the Venice Biennale 2015  is the subject of a recent review on
Irenebrination: Notes on Architecture, Art, Fashion and Style.
This series addresses the impact of plastic objects in the living world and the erosive power of nature.

Mike Perry has recently been the Coastal Currents Artist in Residence at Oriel y Parc, North Pembrokeshire and a short film of the residency, directed by Eilir Pierce, is available on OAA.

2015 Turner Prize shortlist announced

As this year’s shortlist was announced, Gill Perry was interviewed by a variety of local radio stations. It’s been described as a list that displays ‘art with a conscience’ with work that has a political or social message.

Listen to Gill discussing the list with Phil White on Radio Humberside. (The interview starts from 17 mins and runs till 26 mins).

See The Guardian for more information about this year’s nominees.