The foundation of the Higher Institute of Fine Arts can be traced back to the Royal Decree of 27 March 1885, which decided on the continued higher cycle to which the HISK belonged. As part of the Academy of Antwerp, the institute provided both practical and theoretical education for the candidate laureates in the visual arts and architecture. After the separation of the architecture department in 1946, the institute continued under the name NHISK, the National Higher Institute for Fine Arts. The curriculum remained largely unchanged for a long time, until in the 1970s it was decided to replace the permanent professors with guest lecturers.
With the 1994 Decree on Higher Education, the NHISK as part of the Academy lost its right to exist. Willem Elias, who at that time was already a member of the separate advisory board for the Institute, decided together with general director Johan Swinnen to continue the concept of the NHISK through a newly founded non-profit organisation, the HISK. In 1996 the Higher Institute of Fine Arts was launched. The duration of the programme was reduced to two years and new pedagogical concepts were developed, based on three core concepts. The first concept, technical-artistic preparation, focuses on the knowledge of the creative process. The artists learn to deal with the technical side of creating while also immersing themselves in the mental process behind the creation. The second concept of creative-artistic development is linked to working with and in the studio of a renowned master. The third core concept, sciences that serve as cultural support, is expressed in the wide range of guest lecturers, lectures and theoretical training courses.
After Johan Swinnen stepped down in 2004, it was decided to work with an artistic director for a period of five years. The first director to start in this new system was Hans Martens in 2006. His appointment coincided with the move of the HISK from Antwerp to the Leopold Barracks in Ghent. In 2011, Hans Martens was succeeded by Oscar Van den Boogaard. At the end of his term, it was decided to switch to a period of two years per curator. Elena Sorokina was HISK curator in the period 2017 - 2018. Daniella Géo succeeded her in 2019 - 2020.
In 2019, the HISK moved once again. While the administration and studios remain housed within the complex of the Leopold Barracks, the workshops have been moved to another building in Ghent. In addition, in 2020, the HISK acquired a department in Brussels in the former Gosset factory in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. This modernist Art Deco building will become an events and exhibition centre.
From January 2021, the HISK's operation will be led by an artistic advisory committee and several curators. The artistic advisory committee is appointed for a period of three years and is tasked with recommending the curators and guest lecturers, and rethinking the artistic-educational functioning of the HISK. As of this year, three curators are appointed who prepare HISK candidate laureates for their position as professional artists. In 2021, Pieter Vermeulen, Sam Steverlynck and Anne Pontégnie were added to the list of HISK curators. In 2022, Luk Lambrecht and Yann Chateigné Tytelman were appointed.
Although the HISK has undergone several changes over the years, the principal aim remains the same: to give artists the opportunity to further develop their practice in a balanced programme of studio-bound work and professional advice, guidance and training.