Working collaboratively across two sites, the school provides undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in the study and production of visual art. Contained within the school is also the Ruskin Laboratory, which primarily organises exhibitions and research projects, and coordinates interdisciplinary relations with other departments across the University. The subject is taught as a living element of contemporary culture with a broad range of historical and theoretical references.
Though it wears its past lightly, the school can trace its origins to 1871, when John Ruskin founded a school in the University Galleries (subsequently the Ashmolean Museum) to encourage artisanship and technical skills. The Ruskin stayed in the Ashmolean till 1974, when it moved to 74 High Street, its current headquarters. The school was originally entitled, "The Ruskin School of Drawing", with "and Fine Art" being added in 1945. The Slade School of Art relocated to the Ruskin for the Second World War.
The current director is the sculptor Richard Wentworth.
The Laboratory is the research wing of the Ruskin and was founded in 1994. Visible output from the unit takes the form of exhibitions, public art projects, multiples, live and time-based art and publications in electronic and paper-based formats. The exhibitions and other projects occur in and out of Oxford and form the basis of symposia on a wide range of topics. Each year the Laboratory, currently run by Paul Bonaventura, awards the prestigious Helen Chadwick Fellowship. The Fellowship was established by the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and the British School at Rome in order to assist artists in the making of new work. After visiting Rome for a one-month reconnaissance period, the Fellow devotes two months to research-related activities in Oxford before returning to Rome for three months of intensive studio-based production.