Should art schools be doing more to secure the future of their students?

Sep 1, 2020

With higher education institutions forced to shut due to COVID-19, it brings us to the question, “Why has it taken a global pandemic for arts universities and colleges to rethink how they showcase their student’s work?” 

‘The Degree Show’, the final exhibition represents the culmination of multiple years of study and the development of one’s art practice. It provides students the opportunity to present themselves to a wider audience, showcase their portfolios, network with the wider industry and make sales, sustaining their practice at a critical point as they initiate their careers as professional creatives. 

As an art industry professional and curator, I’ve worked over the years to champion and shine a spotlight on young graduates and emerging artists. At Acrylicize, we work to provide these artists with the opportunities for their work to be made visible by commissioning bespoke artworks and installation for public display. With a background in both the commercial sector and non-profit organisations, I advocate the importance of the online archive and how we can democratise the art world to make it more accessible for everyone. However, after all these years, I still find accessing recent graduates and current student portfolios challenging. 

Are these traditional modes of presentation outdated and how can universities globally remain more competitive while offering value for money with education fees? I’ve examined a number of digital grad shows to understand the successes and challenges that have arisen from this year’s circumstances. My aim is to explore the imaginative new models that some universities have engaged with, to ask important questions about what more we can be doing to support students during this critical time in their careers.


Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen: Virtual Degree Show

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gray’s School of Art, Look Again and design agency Design and Code partnered to create an immersive degree show in collaboration with the 2020 graduating students.

Vice Chancellor Professor John Harper in the opening ceremony video talks about the student’s and staff’s resilience during this challenging period. In spite of this, the degree show, usually an annual affair for the local community, has now through creativity and a propositional approach become a globally accessible art show. 

The design and aesthetics of the online show are considered, innovative and propositional. The personal touches that run through the functionality like the ability to chat to a graduate, programmed live events and Q&A sessions all make it participatory and feel like a ‘live event’. I found the virtual spaces on view full of potential, but the most engaging were the students practicing film, photography and sound, who created experiential spaces with no limits financially to what was possible in terms of scale, space or budget. It’s still difficult to translate the immediacy of a painting or drawing into a virtual context, but this approach to the degree show certainly captured the imaginative ambition of the 2020 student cohort.

Liverpool John Moores University: Degree Show on Mars 2020

With the world in chaos due to the pandemic, students from Liverpool university decide to move their show to an alternate planet, ‘Mars’. In search of new and/or parallel realities, they transport us to the gale craters on the planet, having taken inspiration from 3D scans from NASA. In the craters, we’re presented with a littered and scattered showcase of visual detritus, each object representing both a graduating artist and a wormhole which leads us back in time and space to an exhibition in Liverpool, staged by the students one week prior to the UK lockdown. 

The students also collaborated with a range of external selectors, including Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ryan Gander and Miranda Sawyer. In their collective statement, it reads:

“The planet is currently broken. We are doing our degree show on Mars” 

This propositional intent reimagines the format of the degree show entirely. Co-existing in a physical and parallel reality could be the future of degree shows to come, and this interpretation serves as a poignant reminder of the many challenges we’re now facing back on Earth.

University of the Arts London: UAL Graduate Showcase

This year’s UAL graduate show examined the future of creative industries, by welcoming audiences to exchange in ideas on contemporary issues from climate change, decolonising the arts, the role of the media and technological change in and beyond the context of COVID-19. Their showcase celebrates the next generation of creative talent on a global scale, for the first time connecting all 6 colleges under the umbrella of the UAL. 

In UAL’s Chancellor Grayson Perry’s welcome speech, he iterates the importance of the degree show in art students lives and careers and excitedly communities the opportunities that this year’s virtual degree show will provide, by working with IBM to create custom platform dedicated to students work that can be accessed by by the entire world. Work is now easier to buy, hire, share and promote more than ever before, implying the innovation behind this show will fundamentally improve the access and opportunities their students will have for years to come.    

IBM’s statement for the showcase explains that their platform has no intention of replacing physical shows, and the UAL intends to return to them as soon as it is safe and possible to do so. However, it acknowledges that the pandemic will have a lasting effect on the ways that we live and work, and this virtual platform is a step towards a hybrid approach to the degree show where digital platforms will need to become a necessary component moving forwards.

Columbia University: Visual Arts Senior Thesis Show

Columbia University’s Visual Arts Senior Thesis Show, meanwhile, presents itself as a virtual Zoom call. Each participant on the ‘call’ is an artist in the exhibition, and viewers are encouraged to click the animated profiles to see the works. In the chat section, it reads: 

“Creating the first online show in the department’s history was no small feat. We’re excited to exhibit our work in this newfound way.” Spanning a variety of media, the works range from sculpture and painting to digital video and photography. “Between anxiety and uncertainty, we found a crucial liminal space where spontaneous creative production was still possible”.

The virtual zoom call is accompanied by a digital catalogue produced by the students, that takes a more traditional text-and-image approach to the exploration of the students’ respective art practices. The combination of the familiar and foreign compliment each other well here, resulting in an experience that feels current and innovative, while still being digestible.

The BFA Show 2020

The BFA Show 2020, a global, student-organised, digital art exhibition featuring works by undergraduates from over 65 art schools, was born out of the determination of School of Art senior Ben Werther. Disappointed that due to the worldwide pandemic he was unable to hold his physical senior show, a rite of passage for School of Art students, Werther had an idea to showcase his and other students work, approaching alumni Lucien Smith A’11 for assistance. He thought Smith’s Serving the People (STP), an online platform for creative inquiry and experimentation, might be the ideal space to virtually display student work.  

“The goal was to bring together as many students as possible, and this was the perfect excuse to do that,” Werther continues. “I might as well try to get all the art schools – and it would be super cool if it worked. I spent a day reaching out to everyone I knew at different schools and that was how we came up with the student representative at each school who would enlist their friends.”

Final Thoughts

It’s clear that many students now face a very real and uncertain future. With increasing unemployment, it’s going to be harder than ever to break into the art industry, and the financial burden and anxiety that comes with studying the arts continues to increase, year after year. Many arts students have challenged their institution’s decision to go virtual. Royal College of Art Tim Stoner said it is ‘an utter disgrace’. He adds:

“Denying this year’s artists the opportunity to experience what EVERY student in the past has done is cheating them out of one of the most important things the college offers. Art is to be seen, jpegs are for Instagram; and that’s FREE, not 20k+.”

Following my research, I still have many questions to ask. Studying fine arts is an amazing opportunity, but does it do enough to prepare you for working as a practitioner? Professional expertise and knowledge should be at the forefront of all courses, connecting you with organisations, experts, galleries and agencies also operating in the art industry, creating real and meaningful links to the outside world. Is this the case with our educational system? Should we be archiving more and focusing on the legacy and development of student work? Have the ways we have been doing things previously been enough, or should education fees go into investing in the artists before the final degree show? 

While we can all agree that the pandemic has caused considerable pain, difficulty and hardship in everyone’s lives, we can’t ignore that it has been a powerful stimulus for change, completely restructuring global industries, careers and economies in a matter of months. Our uncertainty is set to continue but what is clear, is that arts schools and universities have a responsibility to innovate and must do more with their degree show presentations, to secure a healthy future for their students where their careers can thrive in our rapidly changing world. Some executions have been more successful than others, and certain fine art disciplines such as painting and drawing struggle to create an impactful experience in a virtual context. If these challenges aren’t overcome in the near future, the careers of the next generation of creative talent may be at even greater risk of insecurity and hardship.

Written by Chantelle Purcell, Curator at Acrylicize.

Find out more about our educational outreach from our recent work with Edinburgh College.

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