top of page


Dartington College of Arts – Learning by Doing is the biography of a college. It tells the story of an institution unique in higher education in the arts.


  • All arts were taught alongside each other on the same campus: music, theatre, dance, visual art, writing, media arts. In the college’s later years these came together in a module devoted to collaborations.

  • It based its teaching approaches on “learning by doing”, now often known as “experiential learning”.

  • Dartington College was the first in the UK to employ non-Western musicians in residence for extended periods.

  • It introduced ideas and educational practices focused on arts practice and social context.

  • Its policy of student placements in communities – some of them quite challenging – was highly innovative in the 1970s.

  • Its community music course in the 1980s was the first in the country.

  • Its inclusion of site-specific work in all arts subjects was likewise unusual.

  • It pioneered courses in Performance Writing and Visual Performance.

  • It offered a unique course on Art and Ecology.

  • Its physical environment was the remarkable and beautiful Dartington Hall Estate.


All this and more is covered in this detailed account of the college beginning with the Dartington experiment in rural reconstruction pioneered by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst and closing with the demise of the college when the last students left in 2010.


Much of the book is arranged into chapters dealing with specific subjects for specific time periods – as in “Music at Dartington – 1970s to 1990”. Each chapter contextualizes Dartington’s courses in the wider world of the arts. The chapter on the Theatre Degree, for example, mentions Theatre Workshop, Brecht, Artaud, Marowitz, Brook, Grotowski, Beck, Barba, Boal, Community Arts, Welfare State, Judson postmodern dance, and contact improvisation as contexts and influences. “Art and Social Context” describes an art course which was unique in placing context in the central position.


Other sections describe aspects of the college such as its administration and finance, its ideals and internal debates. The last two chapters are an account of why and how the college closed.


The narrative presented in the book is divided into three major periods.


  • The college’s prehistory and origins were in an era of patronage and were dependent on the wealth of modern Dartington’s founders Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst.

  • From its inception as a college in 1961, both as teacher training and degree courses, a strong and increasing background of welfare democracy pervaded the college. Public funding became a decisive element as, indeed, was the case nationwide.

  • In the college’s last twenty years it operated against a neoliberal political background which, in the end, became a strong element in its demise.


None of these three were unique to Dartington, but because of its small size national trends were often put under a microscope.


Sam Richards was a student at Dartington, a visiting lecturer for some years, and eventually a regular part time (Associate) lecturer. He writes lucidly from his strong background of experience at Dartington. He describes the progress of arts teaching and how its approaches changed over the years. He details the crisis of 1990 that nearly closed the college, and he analyses some of the reasons why the college did eventually close in 2010. He is equally articulate and at home with artistic and political analysis. 

bottom of page