An incredible history of more than 70 years on the move

In 2023, at the age of 74, the Valais School of Art is a household name in that part of Switzerland, offering vocational training, preparatory classes and degree-level courses all in one place. Despite being an old lady, she is still light on her feet, regularly re-designing her programmes and continuing to grow. For example, today the School has shifted its focus more towards sound in the field of visual arts, convinced that different artistic disciplines can be mutually beneficial.
After having moved home several times throughout its history, the School is now looking to the future, conceiving a new building that will enable it to continue to expand and go from strength to strength in the years to come. Like its current home, this new building will be in Sierre.

But it was in Saxon near Martigny that the Ecole Cantonale des Beaux-Arts du Valais, as it was then known, was founded in 1949. Established by the artist Fred Fay, who was born in Basel in 1901, its first home was a former watchmaking factory. It was not long before the local students were joined by others from Belgium and Britain. Artists and creative minds of international renown – including Oskar Kokoschka, Jean Lurçat and Alberto Sartoris – taught there, or attended as guest lecturers, as was the case of Fernand Léger.

The first move came in 1953, to the canton’s administrative capital, Sion. The School stood next door to the recently opened Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, inaugurated in 1947 at the Château de la Majorie. It also collaborated with the brand-new Conservatoire Cantonal de Musique.

In 1972, the graphic artist Harald Schulthess took over at the helm. Under his leadership, the School opened a graphic design department, a field which was booming and was consequently to play an increasingly important role in the institution’s life.

The next director, Walter Fischer, was a former student at the School. He took over the reins from 1986 to 1997. From 1988 onwards, the Ecole Cantonale des Beaux-Arts was run by a foundation that would not be dissolved until 2019. The School was also subsidised by the Federal Office for Industry, Trade and Labor. That same year, the School opened its first proper library, with a collection of works of art and graphic design.

In 1990, the School passed the milestone of 100 students and before long began to consider a move to a new site where it would have more room. Seven years later, in 1997, it moved a few kilometres east to a site in Sierre. With the change of location came a change of name: to ECAV, Ecole Cantonale d’Art du Valais. There was a change at the top too, with the artist and researcher Georges Pfründer becoming the new director. This new impetus gave the School a pioneering role when it opened a Research Institute. In 1998, it shifted its focus to the new media (video and IT) and developed a Federal Vocational Baccalaureate in art. Then, in 2000, it opened screen printing, lithography, embossing and etching workshops under the name ‘Multiples-Editions’.

Keen to secure firm backing, in 2005, the School was granted the status of a University of Applied Sciences (UAS). Links between the institutions developed over time, and the School was integrated into the University of Applied Sciences of Arts Western Switzerland (HES-SO) in 2019. From the 2008-2010 intake onwards, the Master of Arts in Public Spheres (MAPS), set up in 2004 with HGK Lucerne, included an HES-SO Master in Visual Arts degree programme.

In 2009, Sibylle Omlin, the first female director of a Swiss art school, took over from Georges Pfründer at a time when the School was rapidly approaching a total of 200 pupils and students. Nine years later, in 2018, it was the turn of Jean-Paul Felley, former co-director of the independent art space ‘Attitudes’ and the Swiss Cultural Centre in Paris, to take over as director of the School.

In 2019, to mark its 70th anniversary, EDHEA wrote a new page in its history by taking on a new identity: EDHEA, the Valais School of Art, the new name being a more accurate reflection of its role. The School has also adopted a new logo to illustrate its dual vocation, combining teaching at secondary school level with degree-level art education. And lastly, it is now formally part of the HES-SO Valais-Wallis.