What place does socially-engaged art practice have in degree shows, and is the format fit for purpose when it comes to this kind of work? It’s a question that Karen MacKinnon finds pertinent to her own situation as director of Artes Mundi, the Cardiff-based international art prize for artists who engage with ‘the human condition, social reality and lived experience’.

“It’s an interesting point because, although it’s obviously not a degree show, you could ask the same thing about Artes Mundi as an exhibition,” she says. “Look at an artist like Theaster Gates [winner of the 2015 Artes Mundi Prize] and the Dorchester Projects [involving the renovation of abandoned buildings on Chicago’s South Side].

“That isn’t gallery work, but in the exhibition we show something that is fit for the gallery purpose. So for students doing process-based or participation-based work you might show documentation, but you could also invite people to a participatory event or maybe it could be more of a long-term project?”

MacKinnon concedes that there aren’t any easy answers, and that the notion of an expanded practice is not something that a rigid approach to the degree show can easily accommodate.

“It’s difficult – maybe there just isn’t the money and resources to do something that can sit outside the degree show’s set spaces,” she says. “But perhaps there’s enough there to point at something that could happen on a much larger scale or with more resources in the future.”

New partnerships

Artes Mundi 6 was MacKinnon’s first as director, and the exhibition saw new partnerships with venues across Cardiff – National Museum Cardiff, Chapter Arts Centre and Ffotogallery’s Turner House. Less publicly, the organisation has been strengthening its relationship with universities in South Wales; MacKinnon is particularly proud of an event at Cardiff Met just prior to the announcement of Gates as winner, which saw all ten of the shortlisted artists discussing their work.

So what, in an ideal world, would she like to see more of from universities and degree shows? “It would be great if, for the artists who it makes sense for, more degree shows could seep out of the purpose-built gallery spaces; things could be happening outside of the building that you could be invited to see as part of the degree show.”

For this kind of approach to percolate through on a large-scale requires a change in mindset, she adds. “There would need to be more of an acceptance that the gallery space doesn’t work for some young artists. Universities could work in a much broader partnership across a locality, using the area around the university more and being led by the work. But I think it’s got to be thought about from an early stage; I can’t say that I’ve seen much of that.”

Yet while she recognises the need for some new thinking, MacKinnon remains enthusiastic about the degree show season. “For me, degree shows, MA shows – they’re where you start to see new ways of thinking about art, new ways of working.

“Outside of my role at Artes Mundi I have a much broader, expansive way of looking and engaging with what’s on at a degree show. I’m not looking for any particular medium or way of presenting, I’m just interested in exciting new ways to see the world and produce work.”

Artes Mundi 7 will take place in Cardiff from late 2016 to early 2017. www.artesmundi.org

This article was originally published in the a-n Degree Shows Guide 2015. Featuring interviews, previews and listings for degree shows across the UK, you can view it as an ebook or download the pdf


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