Meet our Head of School

Jonathan Harris is Head of Birmingham School of Art. Learn more about his background, his hobbies and interests and what he enjoys about working for the School and the University

What did you study at University?

I did my first degree in art at Bretton Hall College in Yorkshire, and at Sussex University, where I studied art history. After that I did a PhD at what was then Middlesex Polytechnic on painting and politics in the USA during the 1930s.

How did you become the Head of Birmingham School of Art? 

I joined the University in 2015 as a research professor. Shortly after that the previous Head, John Butler, retired and I was invited to apply for the post – which I was surprised, but delighted to get! I became Head in January 2016.

What does your job involve?

I have overall responsibility for the running of the School, for the studies of all our students, and the management and leadership of our academic staff.  There is literally nothing that happens here that I don’t have some involvement in: from budgets, health and safety, course development, to recruitment and research development.

What’s your favourite thing about working for the School?

My favourite jobs are meeting students and talking to all our staff about how we can make things better for our current and future budding artists and art world professionals! We also have a growing number of international projects and partners and I love meeting these people here when they visit and in their own countries.

What have been your career highlights so far?

Our partnership with Tate, through Tate Liverpool, is the most exciting and ambitious development in the School as it promises to transform all our students’ learning experiences – Tate is the best art museum in the world and we are honoured to be able to work with them. Other highlights include bringing new academic colleagues to the School, such as Professor Anthony Downey, world leading research professor on art in the Middle East, and developing our links with schools in Birmingham, from which we hope to recruit more and more great students in the years to come!

What are your specialist areas?

I am an art theorist and art historian. I have written and edited over 20 books, on modern and contemporary art. I have just published a third book on globalisation and contemporary art, focused on Asian art centres in Hong Kong, China, South Korea, India and Palestine.

What are your hobbies and interests?

I have played the drums since I was 14 as a schoolboy in Adelaide, South Australia. I have played in bands since my 20s and hope to form another soon involving people from the art school. I have recently taken up bird watching which I do when out walking, which is another of my interests. I also ride a bike for exercise and pleasure, and try to go for a ride every day.

Could you tell us about your work outside the School?

I am involved in many art research and development projects in this country and overseas. I review grant applications for the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and for the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands, whose 2017 awards ceremony I attended in Amsterdam, hosted by the Dutch royal family. I lecture and take part in seminars around the world, in museums and universities and last year was lucky also to travel to Hong Kong, China, India, South Korea, Poland, Spain, Israel, Palestine and Bahrain.

How would you describe Birmingham School of Art?

The School is a dynamic community of people involved in collective art production, review and dissemination. Although we have students on different courses and levels, and staff who work in various areas of teaching and research, we actually constitute an interdependent collective who learn from each other all the time, and from our partner organisations, and their staff around the world as well as in the UK. We are a kind of thinking and making machine for the future, and we use art and ideas creatively and critically to propel us forward!

How would you describe your staff?

We have fantastic staff committed in what ever they do to supporting students’ get the best possible learning experience from the School of Art and the University. Staff work extremely hard – both in ‘frontline’ teaching, tutorials and supervision, but also in less visible development, management and research roles. All these activities, though, contribute a lot to the quality of students’ experiences and learning here at the School.

What can new students most look forward to?

The School is changing, and must continually change to anticipate how the world is organised, locally and globally. New students will find a revised and expanded curriculum of studies, new staff with exciting ideas for better teaching, learning and live projects, as well as a range of partnership activities with arts organisations that they can get involved with! As well as Tate, we work with Ikon Gallery here in Birmingham and with Birmingham Museums Trust. We also host two important and creative ACE funded projects: Eastside Projects in Digbeth and New Art West Midlands – we want all our new students to take advantage of the exhibitions and professional development opportunities these projects will offer in the years to come.

How can they prepare for university now?

Find out about Birmingham and its great cultural institutions and creative culture – which spans the whole of the visual and performing arts. When you get here, be ready to join in and don’t wait to be asked. The School is in the centre of Birmingham and close to the top institutions for visual and performing arts. But also think about what YOU can offer when you get here! Be ready to take part, not just watch. The School of Art will be at the centre of these developments in the years to come, though it also links up to people and organisations across the world that you can get to work with too!

Do you have any advice for working in the industry?

The professional contemporary art world offers a wide range of jobs and creative activities -  curating, management, learning and research, as well as art production and support services. All the courses and modules in the School of Art offer you insights into these areas of work, and the opportunities are now truly global. Don’t limit yourself to one area – think about the range of jobs you could do and the skills and aptitudes they need. Writing and oral presentation abilities are the keys to success in this world! Work on these as well as art making!