Soraya Rodriguez and Doug Fishbone: the education problem, or, how art schools could encourage more diverse ways to be an artist

Do art schools promote too narrow a vision of what an artist’s career is like, to a narrowing range of students?

With Soraya Rodriguez and Doug Fishbone.

The art world is changing – the role of artists is changing. Creativity and the creative industries are new watchwords for business and politics, with artists increasingly invited to take part in regeneration, community, education and healthcare improvement projects. Within this, how can art schools balance the education they provide between a protected time in which to grow a creative practice, and providing the real-life skills artists will need to earn money in their future careers?

Art schools have long had a problem with how to teach – or whether to teach – about the business side of being an artist (so-called ‘professional development’). Provision of more than a few basic talks on what to do after art school can be driven mostly by individual tutors and their interests, with most professional development not being part of the assessment for a degree. Even where professional development exists, it tends to focus exclusively on the work of being an artist, to the exclusion of all the other jobs that the art world provides – the very jobs most artists actually rely on in order to survive, at least during the first decade or so of their career. The art world is awash with artists working as gallery technicians, tutors, education programme providers, as well as in jobs unrelated to the arts – jobs that most artists from lower socio-economic backgrounds will need to afford a career in the arts in the early stages. A large number leave the arts altogether while using their ‘transferable’ skills to carve out successful careers in technology, development, games, music and fashion.

Anecdotally, teaching the ways to be an artist – rather than sticking to teaching the making of art – has been accused of flattening a student’s understanding of their skills, encouraging the belief that there is only one ‘correct’ way to be an artist. More than this, it also encourages a pervasive feeling that arts graduates who don’t become artists have failed.

One aspect of recent art school development to impact on professional development programmes is the rise of higher education fees, with UK public universities now the most expensive in the world with average fees of $9,019 each year. Art schools are increasingly becoming higher education institutions so that they can access the research income that replaces now non-existent teaching grants, and must provide annual statistics on the employment success of their graduates. With this increased scrutiny and ‘customer-oriented’ education comes a pressure to create courses, and graduates, who respond to employment and career opportunities in a way that is still novel in the visual arts. Many artists struggle with the terminology of careers and business planning that some of this relies upon.

As a result, art school professional development programmes are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of an artist’s ‘job’. The traditional model of artistic practice is being challenged: too focussed on exhibitions in galleries instead of transferable skills and employability. But what do we risk in this business-oriented view of being an artist? How can art schools continue to educate great artists while acknowledging that most of their graduates won’t enter the arts at all?

This conversation event may touch on some of these issues; come along to have your say and help shape the debate and our responses to it.

More reading and Artquest projects on this include:

Biographies

Soraya Rodriguez is­ Diploma Leader at Central St Martins for the BA Fine Art Diploma in Professional Studies, which supports students on a self-directed sandwich year identifying and undertaking work placements that inform their artistic practice as well as personal and professional development. From 2004-2009 she founded and directed Zoo Art Fair, a non-profit platform that showcased emerging art organisations including galleries, project spaces, artist collectives, curatorial groups and publishers. Alongside Zoo, she initiated and collaborated on independent curatorial projects and worked for Chisenhale Gallery, Max Wigram Gallery and Royal Academy of Arts.

Doug Fishbone is an American artist living and working in London. He often uses satire and humour within his film, performance and installation works to examine consumer culture and the mass media in a critical and disarming way. Most recently, his projectMade in China at Dulwich Picture Gallery saw Dulwich temporarily remove one of its paintings from its frame in the Gallery, replacing it with a replica commissioned by Fishbone and produced by one of China’s numerous exporters of handmade oil paintings. He teaches professional development at a number of art schools around the UK.

This talk was originally part of System Failure, a series of in-conversations looking at the systemic failures of the art world in its wider context. Held on Wednesday 2 December 2015 at Block 336.

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