Life After Art School

Art school education was first publicly funded in the UK during the reign of King Charles 1 in the 17th century, and developed in the 18th century through the establishment of academies of art supported by the likes of Reynolds, Hogarth and Gainsborough.

In 1836, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the UK Parliament voted £1,600 of Treasury funds to establish the first Government School of Design at Somerset House in London. Government had wanted to link art practice with design for industry in order to promote trade and the economy; it had therefore rejected the French beaux arts teaching approach in favour of the Prussian model: deliberately coupling art and industry, with the aim of infusing the latter with artistic excellence. Similar schools were soon established in burgeoning industrial cities such as Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. The UK’s first public exposition of student work, and first student prizes and scholarships, were given in 1851 – to coincide with the Great Exhibition. In 1857 the National Art Training School was established at South Kensington in London.

During the following hundred years or so until the second half of the 20th century, many government funded art and design schools gradually widened their remit also to admit students not interested in developing practical design and craft skills, rather to pursue purely artistic endeavours. Few art schools survived absorption into the UK’s Universities and Higher Education institutions during the late 20thcentury, and they now offer a wide variety of studio based undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses focusing on visual arts practice. What is their key purpose, and are they fit for it?

Their key purpose – what they do, who for, and how – has been the subject of hot debate in recent times, particularly about how they are performing. Public debate has been fuelled by publication earlier in 2008 of the results of the latest National Student Satisfaction Survey, which rated some studio-based courses poorly, and stimulated artist and former Royal College of Art tutor Graham Crowley (amongst other artists, educators, recent and current art students) to offer the media experiential criticism and reasoning:  ‘Tutors and course leaders work under conditions that are both stressful and unsustainable. They are undervalued and feel intimidated. Dissent, whether it’s from students, parents or tutors, is unwelcome. A culture of contempt has developed.’  Crowley also criticised the lack of appropriate student studio space and other resources, insufficient student tutorials, and generally low tutor morale.

One facet of this public debate has re-kindled the 19th century academic/vocational art and design school education dichotomy: what is the key purpose of studio based visual arts degrees – to offer courses that are chiefly academic, or mainly vocational? Since such courses are indeed studio- and therefore practice-based, and presumably for the aspiring practitioner, a pragmatic answer is that they should have strong vocational elements – albeit combined with academic investigations and discourse, and the development of appropriate techniques and skills for creative expression.

The Universities and Higher Education institutions now responsible for validating and delivering such degree courses have necessarily developed criteria for assessing the performance of students in the non-vocational academic, and vocational technical, areas. However, few such institutions have also developed criteria for assessing students’ performance in a host of other vocational areas that are essential for establishing and maintaining a studio practice: appropriate legal and business knowledge and skills. The 1997 report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, commissioned by the UK Government (the Dearing Report) included a major review of art and design education and qualifications. One of its principal recommendations was for holistic embedding into creative arts degree courses the delivery and formal assessment of professional practice knowledge and skills.

Professional practice studies – of the commercial dimension of creative practice – include the following. The difficult transition from student life to that of a freelance practitioner: registering for State benefits, and as a sole trader for income tax and national insurance exemption purposes; then moving towards the establishment of an economically sustainable practice. Developing income generation skills: for achieving grants, awards and prizes, bursaries, residences, sponsorships, and sales. Understanding and managing relationships in the global art world: how professionals and organisations operate in the commercial art market, and in the museums and galleries sector. Global marketing and promotion: raising awareness and critical interest in the media and academic art worlds, and attracting potential collectors and commissioners. How to negotiate and secure successful contracts: with collectors, commissioners, agents and dealers, museums and galleries; all in a potentially international context. A sound working knowledge of international and national laws that give artists intellectual property rights: especially ownership and management of copyright and statutory moral rights, their proactive entrepreneurial use for income generation and their use to resist or deal with infringements and abuses of artworks.

Such professional practice studies, although strongly recommended by the UK Government’s Dearing Report in 1997, did not lead to the enactment of legislation or central government policies making it compulsory for such studies to be delivered and assessed by publicly funded institutions. Instead, most institutions delivering studio-based visual arts degree courses have developed their own voluntary professional practice programmes, whereby external art business professionals visit to give talks and conduct workshops and seminars to the students – typically on subjects such as book-keeping and accounting, self-promotion and marketing, portfolio and curriculum vitae development, pricing of work, and artlaw. Students’ attendance for such visits is normally voluntary, and in the event therefore quite patchy – especially when these sessions are arranged for the end of the academic year, often in the final year, when students are understandably pre-occupied with finalising assessed creative work and projects.  And therein lies a real problem: invariably, undertaking such professional practice study programmes does not earn students credit units towards their degree awards, and does not therefore require students to submit assessed professional practice work in order to demonstrate their understanding and working knowledge of professional practice skills.
How could professional practice study programmes be delivered more effectively? There needs to be a serious commitment from art schools to deliver effective programmes, on a sustained and co-ordinated basis, throughout their studio-based visual arts degree courses, save perhaps during foundation and first years. Practical subject matter should be delivered by a balanced combination of visiting art business professional experts in their field, and appropriately trained and/or suitably experienced faculty staff. Teaching and learning techniques should include conventional talks and lectures, and inter-active workshops and seminars. Formal student assessment and academic credits should be established, preferably on a pass or fail basis (no grading); a pass being a compulsory academic progression requirement, with the usual re-submission arrangements for first failures. A formal assessment brief could offer students a choice of submitting either an individual written report/essay on specified professional practice areas, or a small group project report/essay or presentation. In these ways, student attendance at – and serious commitment to – such programmes would doubtless increase and, most importantly, they should be better equipped to face the inevitable rigours and challenges of professional practice.

Moreover, art schools and their faculty staff could and should derive substantial benefits from establishing such holistically embedded and assessed professional practice programmes. The institutions could rightly say to potential students, their supporting families, government and other funding bodies, that their studio-based visual arts degree courses aim – amongst other things – to equip students with the basic knowledge and skills necessary to establish and maintain a professional life after art school.

© Henry Lydiate 2008

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.