How are students prepared for life beyond art school? It’s a straightforward and well-meaning question on the face of it, but one fraught with difficulty as the recent symposium at Glasgow School of Art titled Transitions out of Fine Art Education proved. Over the course of the day it became clear that a more critical question underpinned the debate, namely whether or not art schools should be preparing students at all.

The problem is to do with language. Words popped up through the day that some speakers visibly flinched at. “Professional development”, “entrepreneurialism”, “creatives”, “flexible working”, and “industry”: when not handled with caution this business-speak can undermine values at odds with a language of fixed outcomes and financial success. On the other hand, it seems obvious that a frank discussion is needed if we’re to give all students – not just those who arrive at art school with the necessary resources – a fair chance “out there”, without facing poverty.

Preparing fine art students for the exit door has long been a contentious issue, but currently it faces increased scrutiny due to rising tuition fees and governmental policy that forces an emphasis on employability, hence the potentially corruptive business-speak infiltrating schools. This isn’t to say there isn’t support among fine art staff to provide opportunities that look beyond their institutions, quite the opposite in fact. But they are rightfully wary of manufacturing an environment that will churn out hundreds of industry-savvy artists ready to fight tooth and nail for a share of a diminishing art funds pie — not least because plenty of art school graduates don’t want to make it in the art world at all.

As Vicky Gunn, head of Learning and Teaching at the Glasgow School of Art put it so succinctly: “We as higher educators need to find a way of pulling realism and aspiration together.” In other words: yes, let’s prepare our students; let’s look at professional practice, but not at the expense of students’ pursuit of something bigger, something braver. And for artists and art students this often doesn’t equate to carving out a sustainable career – at least not initially.

The issue of self-suffiency

When art education was free and grants were available, the issue of self-sufficiency didn’t threaten to impinge on an artist’s noble aspirations the way it does today. Many artists – ‘creatives’ – will be denied the opportunity to flex their creativity within a supportive and stimulating environment with £9000 tuition fees now so commonplace. And the majority of those would-be artists are the very ones art schools should be working hard to convince art education isn’t a gamble.

We cannot afford to dodge the issue, but how to introduce professional practice to students without alienating them? Some tutors at the symposium spoke confidently about the transferable skills and professionalism imbedded within art education more generally. Professional practice is simply there; it doesn’t require further enunciation.

Bella Kerr, foundation course leader at Swansea College of Art, described it as being integrated: “I think there’s a problem with giving it that name: for me it’s part of artistic practice, it’s thoroughly embedded; you cannot pull it apart. If a student’s going to make artwork then they’re going to show it somewhere. As an artist after art school you’re not going to think: ‘today I’m going to do my contextual studies’. I prefer not to make that distinction.”

Similarly, Dr Stephen Felmingham of Plymouth College of Art thinks professional practice should be present from the very beginning, and prefers to introduce it to his first year students “by stealth”: “We tend to call it professional practice later,” he said, “after the students have already been introduced to it. Otherwise it tends to frighten them.”

Beyond the studio walls

Through reflection, collaboration and exhibiting, students gain valuable transferable skills, but more can be done to outline how this will translate practically beyond the studio walls. Some tutors encourage students to look for opportunities beyond the institution; some courses dispense with the safe space of the studio altogether.

Soraya Rodriguez leads a professional studies year at Central Saint Martins where students must devise and carry out their own placements in professional contexts. “They’re not required to make artwork during this period. I think they are two different headspaces: the studio space, and the contextualising – out in the real world – space. They don’t need to make work during that time. If they do then great, but they are absolutely required to carry on with their artistic research.”

University of Brighton’s three-year BA in professional practice also removes the possibility of the studio. Course leader Professor Matthew Cornford sees the value of studio spaces, but also acknowledges that it doesn’t paint an altogether realistic picture in preparation for life after graduation. “They can be a bit of a bubble; a very warm bubble to be in for a few years. But most students won’t go from their BA course into a studio situation. They may do, but it’s unlikely. So on my course we’re also interested in going outside.”

With a nod to the Artist Placement Group, and perhaps owing something to Glasgow School of Art’s environmental art course that was set up in the late 1980s, Cornford’s students must see themselves not only as observers, but as active citizens if they’re to succeed. During the symposium he cited one of the course’s successes: Art Fare took place in 2014 and was a multifaceted project incorporating artworks on public transport and a gallery shop where artworks relating to the project were sold. Perhaps ironically, the shop component achieved a level of conventional success by being featured as a summer show at the De La Waar Pavilion.

For students unable or unwilling to bend their practices to incorporate collaboration and/or community engagement, exploring this branch of contemporary art really isn’t an option, but such artists still have plenty to offer the world beyond their art practices. It seems a waste that many of them would support their work with insecure underpaid employment. The impoverished bohemian artist living hand to mouth isn’t a virtuous intellectual: she or he is simply poor, and aside from the fact that living such a lifestyle does nothing to further equality, it is unnecessarily uncomfortable: artists need to be able to afford to go on holidays.

In praise of other careers

No doubt art schools are proud of their students whose careers diverge from art altogether, but they should do more to praise their musicians, social workers, technicians, gallerists, journalists, teachers and, as was cited at the Transitions symposium, Masterchef finalists. Having a career should not be in opposition to an elitist notion of authenticity, but sadly it can often feel that way.

While this dichotomy is often touted at grassroots level, our institutions are not entirely without blame. Let’s hear about students’ successes in social enterprise alongside successes with the Turner Prize; the vast majority will not come close to being awarded the latter, nor do they necessarily want it.

Like universities, art schools have deep roots in their communities, and hold the unique potential to bring different disciplines, groups and causes together. Rich in resources, they can give students a platform and a voice. As Glasgow School of Arts’s head of Fine Art, Alistair Payne, puts it: “We have tried to achieve a porosity between the studio and the city beyond it, where the artist in practice becomes reflective of the environment or state around us. This porosity is vital to the interlinking networks across the city including the council, prison services and housing associations among other things, and alongside galleries, museums, studio developments and graduate networks.”

The social, economic and political climate that surrounds art schools should not be lost on students. Not only does such awareness enhance students’ practices, but it can also help students form useful relationships.

When considering how art students are prepared for life beyond art school it is important to remember that Fine Art does not offer a vocational degree. Like studying Maths or English, it isn’t always clear to students what direction their life will take after graduation. What art schools should excel at though is allowing students to identify values that will inform those decisions later on, and this cannot be achieved in a vacuum.

Conversations need to be had about the role of the artist in society, both past and present, to allow students to place themselves within that narrative. Perhaps also – and this wasn’t mentioned a great deal at the symposium – students should hear more of and from alumni who achieved various forms of success both within and outside the art world. We are not giving students the best chance possible by ignoring the wealth of opportunities out there that might utilise, enhance or complement an art practice.

Transitions out of Fine Art Education was organised by Glasgow School of Art in collaboration with Q-Art and took place in Glasgow on Saturday 25 June 2016

1. Transitions out of Fine Art Education Symposium, Glasgow School of Art, 25 June 2016. Photo: courtesy Glasgow School of Art
2. Film students at film screening of This-That, March 2016. Photo: courtesy Constantine Gras
3. ‘Free Range @ Truman’. Photo: courtesy Elin Karlsson
4. Wolverhampton School of Art group shot in Melissa Brookes degree show installation ‘Plot 55’ Photo: courtesy Gavin Rogers

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