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Chelsea College of Arts was originally an integral school of the South-Western Polytechnic, which opened at Manresa Road, Chelsea, in 1895 to provide scientific and technical education to Londoners. Day and evening classes for men and women were held in domestic economy, mathematics, engineering, natural science, art and music. Art was taught from the beginning of the Polytechnic, and included design, weaving, embroidery and electrodeposition. The South-Western Polytechnic became the Chelsea Polytechnic in 1922 and taught a growing number of registered students of the University of London.
The School of Art merged with the Hammersmith School of Art, founded by Francis Hawke, to form the Chelsea School of Art in 1908. The newly formed school was taken over by the London County Council and a new building erected at Lime Grove, which opened with an extended curriculum. A trade school for girls was erected on the same site in 1914.
Lawrence Gowing, painter and art historian, was appointed as the first headmaster of the Chelsea School of Art. He was responsible for the integration of history and theory with practice, employing artists rather than art historians to teach art history and theory. This approach remains intrinsic to Chelsea's teaching philosophy today.
Professor William Callaway (Head of School from 1989 to 1992), Colin Cina (appointed Dean of School of Art), and Bridget Jackson (Dean of School of Design): These three reformed the school and ensured the redevelopment of the entire academic program, introducing courses at multiple levels from HND to accredited Honours and Postgraduate degrees. Initially, these were validated by the UK Council for National Academic Awards; i.e. in the short period prior to the London Institute gaining degree-awarding powers. Bridget Jackson was appointed Head of College in 1993, retiring in 1997 to be succeeded by Professor Colin Cina who led the college until his retirement in 2003.
The Chelsea School of Art became a constituent College of the London Institute in 1986, formed by the Inner London Education Authority to associate London's art, design, fashion and media schools into a collegiate structure. The school was renamed Chelsea College of Art and Design in 1989. The London Institute was granted University status and was renamed University of the Arts London in 2004. In 2013, the College was renamed Chelsea College of Arts.
In 2002-2003, Professor Roger Wilson was appointed as the Head of College until his retirement in 2006. He led the relocation to the listedRoyal Army Medical College, renovated as a purpose-built art college by the architects Allies and Morrison in 2005. With this move, the Chelsea College of Arts presently resides next to Tate Britain at Millbank, returning to one standalone campus.
The college comprises three notable on-site exhibition spaces:
Chelsea Space is an international and interdisciplinary platform for professional practitioners to exhibit experimental curatorial projects. The gallery also releases regular publications from participating authors, artists and designers.
The Parade Ground, situated within the college, has been transformed into London's largest open-air gallery hosting events from film screenings to large scale installations in spring 2008. The exhibition ground had previously been used for students and professionals as an open area platform, notably artist Chris Burden's 'A Flying Steamroller' in 2006. Recent exhibitions include Cildo Meireles's 'Occasion', held in association with his exhibition at Tate Modern in 2008.
The Triangle Gallery, pertaining to its name, has been designed as a modern angular shaped space for students to show their work throughout the year.
Chelsea and the London College of Fashion share the 'Creative Learning in Practice Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning' (CLIP CETL). The Centre is funded by the British government in recognition of the two colleges' excellent results in developing student learning.