Believing that creativity is central to education

Former Danish culture minister speaks of alternative models as part of Burren College of Art 20th anniversary

Uffe Elbaek from the new Danish Political party, Alternativet, and Mary Hawkes Greene, president of the Burren College of Art,  which is  celebrating 20 years as a fine art college in the Burren,  Ballyvaughan, Co Clare.  Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Uffe Elbaek from the new Danish Political party, Alternativet, and Mary Hawkes Greene, president of the Burren College of Art, which is celebrating 20 years as a fine art college in the Burren, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy


Writer and cartographer Tim Robinson once described the Burren as “150 square miles of paradoxes”, and that’s a description that might appeal to Uffe Elbaek. The former Danish culture minister had his first taste of the honeycombed karstic landscape this week as participant in an “audacious conversation” to mark the 20th anniversary of the Burren College of Art.

Elbaek embraces paradox and unorthodoxy – as initiator of the KaosPilots creative business school back in 1991, as a cabinet member with the centrist Radikale party and now founder of a new political party, Alternativet (Alternative) in Denmark. It was due to a conflict of interest that he quit his ministerial job. If this sounds like a clip from an episode of television series Borgen, Elbaek is certainly as disillusioned with current models as fictional character Birgitte Nyborg appeared to be.

“I loved my job as culture minister as I know the cultural landscape and artistic fields very well,” Elbaek says. The year after his appointment in 2011, he resigned after a media storm over claims he had hosted dinners at an organisation of which he was once board member and where his partner had been employed.

He was cleared of wrongdoing by the state auditor, but felt loyalty to his partner was more important. “My political ego said ‘Uffe, keep the post’, but I couldn’t look myself in the eye and see that it was hurting the person I loved the most,” he says. “Then of course those people who had created the whole drama in the first place said I shouldn’t resign, so I learned a lot about the dark side of politics during that period.”

Elbaek believes people are “fed up with political parties” and trust is low, and that creation of a new political culture is imperative. Empathy and humour are some of the values that his new party espouses, while sustainability is central.

However, it is his experience with KaosPilots that earned his invitation to the Burren, along with fellow audacious conversers on “Ex-centric” or alternative models of art education. These included Carol Becker from New York’s Columbia University; James Elkins from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago; Prof Brian Butler of the Black Mountain College Museum and Sir Christopher Frayling, former British Arts Council chair and rector of the Royal College of Art.

Five years before he started KaosPilots, Elbaek had set up Frontløberne or Frontrunners in the city of Aarhus in 1986 to help tackle high youth unemployment by giving young people advice on how to develop projects, ideas and business plans.

Elbaek firmly believes that money is not the solution to every problem and that creativity should be central to education. Similarly, KaosPilots worked to revise neo-liberal definitions of “leadership” and “entrepreneuralism” and to equip young people with the skills required in a fast-changing world.

“In the late 1980s, the Berlin Wall had come down and we had to refigure what Europe was about and what its values were,” he says. “A lot of political, education and artistic questions were coming up. Most education today is about taking it to get a job, but we say we take it to create a job.” About a third of its graduates create a business or institution. KaosPilots aims to be “the best education for the world, not in the world”.

Elbaek believes such a spirit is alive and well in “this tiny little independent institution in the Burren”, where, he says, some of the world’s finest creative minds have spent the last few days. He pays tribute to the College of Art founder and president Mary Hawkes Greene, who shared a vision of education with her late husband Michael Greene.

“We see ourselves as a creative incubation space and our approach is not the mass model, as our numbers are small,” Hawkes Greene says. “We’re very proud of our 20 years, without State funding.” Postgraduate programmes have been accredited there by NUI Galway since 2002.

“This week’s conversation is as much about being out on the hillside with Dr Brendan Dunford of Burrenbeo, as ideas don’t always flow inside a conference room,” she adds. “The industrial model which our educational system has been designed around isn’t fit for purpose any more and people need to have the skills to adapt, so this is less about the institutions and structure of art education, and more about creating sparks that can ignite.” Irish-born American painter and printmaker and twice Turner Prize nominee Seán Scully will be conferred with an honorary doctorate from NUIG today as part of the Burren College of Art’s 20-year celebrations.