A man for all seasons

In Christopher Frayling, the Royal College of Art has appointed a rector with depth, experience and vision. He spoke to Lynda Relph-Knight about his future plans

Christopher Frayling believes the Royal College of Art is like Texas. You’re bound to strike oil by way of talent, but you don’t know quite where or when. If it shares his view of the college, the RCA’s ruling body must be feeling pretty confident about Frayling’s appointment as rector. For if you couple his international reputation as a cultural historian and commentator with his standing within the college, you’re tapping into a rich seam.

To most folk Frayling was the obvious choice this time. As pro-rector for the past three years he’s been a formidable speech-maker where it has counted, not least in front of deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, and the brains behind many an initiative. He has also completed a string of TV programmes and books on subjects as diverse as Egyptian superhero Tutankhamen, the Middle Ages and horror.

Lingering doubts that put him into second place for the rectorship in 1992 behind Professor Tony Jones must surely have been dispelled by his work and commitment since. But Frayling is nonetheless excited at the news – as are many of his colleagues. “The place is electric, which is nice,” he crowed quietly a couple of days after the announcement.

At that time he was still talking of the rectorship in the third person, not quite ready to believe the job was really his. “The rector needs to do this… the rector has to consider that …” and so on: “I can’t use the I word about it yet,” he explained in a conversation that showed him on great form, full of energy and wit.

But while he remains objective about the job, Frayling is convinced that it had to be an internal appointment this time, given the massive shifts affecting the world and therefore a high-profile postgraduate college with an international name to uphold. “It’s not the moment for a slam bang shoot-em-up decision. We need to mobilise the troops,” he says.

Having recently written the college history and masterminded, with curator Claire Catterall, the RCA’s centenary show, Frayling reckons he probably knows more than anyone about the college. Teaching, research and industrial collaboration top his list of priorities in accordance with the college charter’s dictates, and if, as we can expect, there are a few revolutionary moves during his reign as rector, they’ll likely be rooted in college history.

Take teaching, for example. Frayling’s concern here is to “compensate for what’s going on in the undergraduate sector”, where he perceives increasing generalism. Graduates, he says, are “great at breadth, but we’re a depth place”. And to get that depth he foresees the first term of two-year RCA postgraduate studies being “an intensive retraining course”. To emphasise its difference, he proposes the RCA shuns generalism, redefining its role and becoming “the place where you specialise”. The RCA’s first rector Robin Darwin would be delighted.

He’s also ready to tackle the Higher Education Funding Council, but is keen to use persuasion rather than confrontation: “We’ve got to persuade them they need a jewel in the crown.” At a time when colleges everywhere are playing the numbers game with student intake, he’s working to create a consortium of like-minded schools in areas such as music and drama, “people who don’t think scale is everything”.

Funding from the HEFC and other sources is going to be key, given Frayling’s belief that the college needs a major refit of new-technology kit. “The place needs to be completely re-equipped in my view,” he says, adding that the main needs are in the general workshop and studio areas rather than in departments such as research. He’s quick to point out though that technology won’t replace teaching: “I’m not a global village chap. The RCA is a people place and the challenge is to re-equip to provide the right tools.” The college’s long-term tools requirement is currently being assessed by a survey Frayling has already launched. He also has a masterplan to provide funding, but insists he can’t talk about it just yet.

Coming on to research, Frayling maintains the RCA is “poised to be a global research college for art and design”. Some 10 per cent of its 770 students are involved in research on programmes such as DesignAge, the interface work of Gillian Crampton-Smith’s Interval unit and the 1m Schools Technology project to evolve tools for teaching technology in schools.

But when it comes to the third prong of his manifesto – industrial collaboration – Frayling admits he’s frustrated. It’s not that the RCA isn’t doing it – far from it. It’s the lack of central documentation on the college’s many collaborative projects, and he determines to set about gathering data. In areas such as fashion, textiles and metalworking, collaboration accounts for most of the work, he says proudly; in other areas it is less so but the potential is there.

But there is a dichotomy. Frayling talks of the “wonderfully live relationship” with industry, but cautions that the RCA needs to think always of its “motivation” in entering partnerships with commercial firms. The college’s role should be to inspire industry as much as to serve it, and in some (unspecified) academic departments, he detects, collaboration is “a blight”. Watch this space to track the implications of that thought.

Industrial sponsorship by way of bursaries is a different thing. Some 1m has already been raised through the centenary appeal launched last year and Frayling is keen to attract more. It’s a question of going outside the immediate circle of industries where the RCA is known and respected to reach a wider audience.

He constantly harks back to the difference between art and design studies and the theoretical base of academia. One of the reasons educational bodies and some industries haven’t quite understood the RCA in the past is this difference, he perceives, though he admits the RCA must share any blame, having been “a bit aloof” with organisations such as the HEFC.

“Partly it’s an awareness thing,” he says. “The HEFC has no idea what we’re doing, the project-based form of learning.” But there are real opportunities if you could combine more formal learning with doing, he believes – and as a university man who crossed the line into art and design in the Seventies, he maintains he’s well-placed to make it work.

He’s well-placed too, he says, to form partnerships with interests outside the college. His own external involvements include active roles within the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Arts Council, and he has been a governor of the British Film Institute. Since he was appointed the RCA’s first professor of cultural history in 1979, he’s helped set up joint courses with the likes of the V&A, the Tate Gallery and Middlesex University. Partnerships are, he says, important and more are likely to be forged in the name of the RCA. But they won’t be for all departments, nor will there be one big partnership or alliance, with, say, a university. “It’s horses for courses,” says Frayling.

But shunning an intercollege merger doesn’t mean he isn’t keen to take on board some of the work that’s going on in art and design schools elsewhere. He’s already designated a space in the college as a media lab with video, computer art and installation facilities shared by students from all disciplines – “a mini MIT,” he calls it, paying homage to the legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s also planning a grand tour, taking a group of professors to colleges around the world to check them out.

Above all, he’s keen to shake the RCA up a bit, to create an atmosphere of experimentation. The details are yet to come. There’ll be a new pro-rector, “the most senior academic”, to take on Frayling’s old role, but even he doesn’t know who it will be yet. Some courses are likely to be tweaked as Frayling works to bring the college more in line with the outside world, and there could be the odd staff change. And we’ll be seeing much more of him in the coming months: “No one wants an invisible rector,” he says. The great thing is that unlike too many educational potentates, despite his starring role, he is keen to take the college with him all the way.

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