As students we have all been part of the university environment for a couple of years at least. Have you ever asked yourself if you would like to work in one? If so have you thought about what kind of work might be available and how you might go about getting it? These questions are regularly floating around my head at the moment so when I saw this conference coming up I got rather excited!
Initially it wasn’t quite what I had expected – I had imagined that looking at how artists work in higher education related to artists in art colleges but this was not the case. Discussions throughout the day revealed how artists work within a range of faculties – for example history and science – and how these connections enable them to work with other artists, academics, university staff, librarians, curators and the public in exciting and imaginative ways.
The day was incredibly informative and here is a review, from a student perspective, of the conference held in Manchester organised by Castlefields Gallery and a-n.
Under the canopy of the governments’ Connected Communities body the conference looked at ways in which universities and artists currently work together, illustrated through a series of first hand- experiences shared by academics and artists.
Kate Pahl and Steve Pool explained the role of Connected Communities as an ongoing programme of work and research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council which is looking at working relationships between artists and universities and communities. Universities see engaging with their local communities as being very important .
Jeanie Scott talked about the work of a-n and its research into the working patterns of artists. She made the point that 4,380 art and design students graduate from UK art colleges each year – what happens to them all ? What work do they find? This question is fuel to my already burning question – what do we do after graduation? – where and how do we start to make steps as artists? Jeannie showed a really interesting diagram commissioned for a-n by Emily Speed called the Ecology of Visual Arts which lays out in very visual terms the lay of the artists landscape currently. Full of interesting and surprising facts and figures I recommend you take a look at it. Here is the link:
With the background covered we heard from academics and artists working together in a variety of ways – events, residencies, exhibitions and collaborations.
Professor Vanessa Toulmin talked about her role as organiser of Sheffield’s Festival of The Mind. Her talk was dynamic and exciting and she revealed many ways in which academics, artists and local communities came together in a range of events in the 10 day festival. Whilst there was plenty of evidence about community engagement – crucial for the universities – I was more interested in the imaginative ways that the creative activities were initiated and delivered. The ethos of the festival is to take an open-minded approach to activities which clearly gives artists autonomy and scope in their work. Some artists were paid and some volunteered and their involvement has in some cases led to further work. A quote from Vanessa “working with artists brings back the joy of discovery – the reason I became an academic (originally)” makes me think – this is what artists do – they inspire people and help to make and re-kindle connections.
Subsequent speaker James Oliver made this point in a slightly different way. James was talking about how researchers work with ideas in a binary, parallel way and how working with artists disrupt these patterns creating new ways of seeing and interpreting. Artists are shaking things up – acting as catalysts for new perspectives and challenging the status quo.
Steve Swindles form Hudderfield University made a great analogy – artists are the’ foreign guest in the family home’. They bring with them new customs and unfamiliar habits that can unsettle the home. Ultimately though they lead to new ways of seeing things and an enrichment of everyday life.
So in working with universities artists perform the role of initiators of change – Steve Pool described artists as creating “spaces of opportunity” – just think how valuable these must be to large institutions and communities that may struggle with change.
Paul Evans, Leeds based artist talked about his residency at Cardiff University funded by the Leverhulme Trust in which he worked closely with zoologist Dr Jaqui Mulville. Paul approached the university himself motivated by his particular interest in the subject matter and the residency led to a popular blog and a major series of drawings.”It is important that you have a passionate shared interest with your academic partner.”
What Paul did was really interesting when thinking about the question how do artists get work? He initiated the project entirely.
I’ve talked about these examples because they show how artists can work with university faculties with science backgrounds to bring new ideas and perspectives to research, find new subjects to explore and create new opportunities for making and exhibiting work; writing blogs and developing networks.
The day itself provided opportunities to network and I talked to several artists about their work . Its clear that these city based artists (Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield) have many more opportunities for work than an artist would in our rural Herefordshire. But whilst there are more opportunities there is also greater competition. I asked one mid career artist if the art ecology in the North was competitive – very competitive was his answer and I could sense from the manner in which he replied that was a very real experience. I remember meeting a London artists 18 months ago who has moved to our area and who made a comment about students at our college being very relaxed and not perhaps aware of the level of competitiveness outside our happy little art school and county bubbles. The comment made at the conference has focused my mind on this fact. So when we graduate I think we have to at least acknowledge that not only are we stepping out into the big wide world of work we will be swimming around the art ocean with many fish more hungry for work than we are – by the nature of geography.
I met curator and art writer Rachel Marsden and she expanded on this point – she felt that you have to go to the work you want and not be limited by geography – the work isn’t going to come to you. This is a really important point to bear in mind when thinking about life beyond graduation. We have to be proactive in finding work; of inventing work and inevitably be prepared to and be capable of promoting ourselves effectively (social media etc).
Some other useful advice given to me for the time after college – plan a strategy – aims; networks; area of work to explore; finding a mentor; and think about building or linking to a peer group too.
So I have come away with a greater understanding of how artists work within universities on a range of projects and the importance of engaging with local communities within this creative work. It is very clear to me now that artists are seen and see themselves as many more things beyond being creators of work. Artists are and need to be communicators, catalysts, disrupting things around them and reflecting their unique vision of the world. In order to find work they need to have a strategy and focus; and have an ability to communicate and build relationships.
In answer to my initial question about working with universities I now know its possible and clearly rewarding – will this be part of a postgraduate strategy for you?
Professor Kate Pahl is from the University of Sheffield and is principle investigator on the Connecting Communities project.
Steve Pool is an artist and co-investigator.
Jeanie Scott is Executive Director of a-n.
Professor Vanessa Toulmin is Director of the National Fairground Archive and Head of Cultural Engagement at Sheffield University.
Steve Swindles is Professor in Creative Practice at Huddersfield University.
The conference was free, with travel bursaries available for artists and free refreshments throughout the day.