In a shifting context where the role and position of creative individuals has never been as celebrated or as hotly contested as they are today, ENSAPC prepares students to come to grips with complexity.
Founded in 1975 in the center of the new city of Cergy Pontoise, the École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy (ENSAPC) shares the history of its surroundings. The school is located next to the city’s government center, the first of the buildings to arise (in 1969) from the fields lying between the bends in the Oise River. It is a young school in new territory.
ENSAPC’s founding paralleled the first major reform of art education in France. Before 1973, French art schools were very different than they are today. Organized in accordance with a model steeped in academism, schools offered instruction that was highly segmented, promoting an approach to artistic creation that was disconnected from reality and from the artistic ferment of the time. It was in response and opposition to this situation, deemed by many to be anachronistic, that faculties of plastic (visual) arts were created within the universities in the post-1968 reform movement.
To induce change within the freestanding schools of art, a new pedagogy had to be defined and advanced. Education had to be reconceived as cross-disciplinary, encouraging dialogue among various creative fields while acknowledging the specific requirements of individual media. New joint pedagogical units would have to be formed to bring practicing artists together with academics to comprehend contemporary artistic production under multiple and complementary lights. To be capable of observing and questioning the world in the course of its mutation, art schools would have to evolve into sites of research and experimentation that could foster the emergence of innovative artistic forms.
To conceptualize and implement these innovations, a unit comprising artists, scholars, and instructors was formed within the national Ministry of Culture.
A plan had been made to locate a branch of the special school of architecture in Cergy-Pontoise. Its approach to teaching and research was to be in harmony with the new city. When that plan fell through, the government decided to establish a school of art in the sale location. The resulting École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Cergy was the first degree-granting institution to appear in the Ile-de-France outside Paris and the last of its type to be founded.
A RUNNING START
It was in this context that a group of particularly activist and voluntaristic faculty members (some of whom had participated in the reorientation of art education) arrived at the site to plan the new school. It was conceived, naturally enough, as a laboratory, a place that would be resolutely open to the changing work, a space where anything was possible. Every year, the course offerings and curriculum were taken apart and reassembled for the coming year.
The ferment within the school corresponded to the intensive construction work on the new city being built around the school. In this fast-changing and fast-growing area, the school invented a new student-centered instructional model. The invention at work within the school’s walls echoed the architectural and urban innovations being tried in the city around it.
Thirty-five years later, the school’s reputation is no longer in doubt. ENSAPC is proud of the many, many artists that it has helped to train. Many have gone on to chart new paths in the fields of the visual arts, film, design, and literature. Absalon, Erik Samakh, Michel Hazanavicius, Jean-Charles Hue, Valérie Mrejen, Erwan Bouroullec, Loris Gréaud, Nicolas Moulin, Jean-Michel Othoniel, and Sylvain Rousseau are just a few of the graduates whose example could be cited.
The school has also trained a corps of seasoned professionals. Characteristically enterprising and dynamic, these seasoned ENSAPC graduates work in France and abroad in a vast array of creative professions tied to communication, marketing, branding, education, and cultural consulting.
Deeply demanding and determinedly autonomous, the school’s graduates impress others with their maturity. These qualities are the result of a project-based pedagogical approach led by a teaching team that is itself engaged in a dynamic research process.
They also stem directly from fundamental choices made two decades ago. The first of those choices was not to divide the curriculum into options or majors (communication, design, etc.), but to open up to each student as much content as possible in the form of a single option: Art.
The second choice was to make students responsible for their own curriculum. After a first year of required coursework, each student constructs his or her own curriculum for years two through five, choosing from among the full range of the school’s courses, creative and research workshops, and studio offerings.
Thus cross-disciplinarity is complemented by “inter-temporality,” as students of different ages and levels of experience interact.
A coordinating team made up of three to five faculty members monitors students’ progress over the year and ensures balance in their choices. The team is also attentive to the openness and complementary of students’ choices from one year to the next. In parallel, the administrative staff helps the faculty monitor each student’s educational plan during his or her entire career at the school.