Contingency, instrumentality and social responsibility in creative arts education – what can we do?

By Dr. Abigail Gilmore

A contingent part of the creative economy, tertiary creative arts education has a responsibility to its community of students, alumni and partners, to the broader arts sector and the political landscape that surrounds it. We are therefore subject not just to the politics of cultural policy pertaining to the arts, which affect the forms of support and types of arts forms and practices we include on our curricula, but to education and economic policies which shape the conditions under which we teach and undertake research.

Arts and humanities academics have an ambivalent relationship to politics: it is near impossible to have a sustained engagement with culture and society whilst remaining arms-length and disinterested. In the UK, we have recently benefitted from the £30m cross-Council Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities funding which is opening up research and knowledge exchange collaborations between universities and communities, engaging in local heritage and often using creative practices. However when the fund was first launched there were initial concerns that funding was political under Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ approach, since the programme explicitly aims to support community-led development. This debate is an oft-repeated refrain concerning the contested role of cultural policy intellectuals, most famously played out between Tony Bennett, Jim McGuigan and others in the 1990s (see Sterne, 2002).

The desire for demonstrable research impact is of course only sharpening the debates about instrumentalism of tertiary institutions. So too are the rising fees for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, transforming education to a private rather than public good, and consolidating the marketization of higher education.

With rising fees, applicants to creative arts degrees do so with projections of lifetime of debt (which they may never repay) and with an understanding that only the few become stars. Little wonder the creative workforce is found to come from an increasingly smaller, less diverse demographic pool made up of those who can access resources from their backgrounds to navigate these systems (O’Brien et al, 2016).

For those hoping to enter creative professions, a progression route already riven by contradiction, structural inequality and class barriers (Campbell & Khaleeli, 2017), this is not good news. The traditional place of art schools as spaces for risk, experiment and transgression of both aesthetic norms and class boundaries is challenged by curricula aiming to improve employment outcomes (Banks and Oakley 2016) but in economies which are precarious and unjust (Banks, 2017).

With rising fees, applicants to creative arts degrees do so with projections of lifetime of debt (which they may never repay) and with an understanding that only the few become stars. Little wonder the creative workforce is found to come from an increasingly smaller, less diverse demographic pool made up of those who can access resources from their backgrounds to navigate these systems (O’Brien et al, 2016).

Furthermore there are economic geographies which shape and determine the outcome of these talent pipelines, causing great variety in the ways universities feed their hinterland creative economies. So London retains more of its creative arts graduates than any other city and draws in those from elsewhere (Comunian et al, 2013) but is far less affordable, adding to precarity.

University participation should be a means of both geographic and social mobility, of introducing and opening up new worlds, not only through taught curriculum but through fostering social capital and third spaces. For the early career visual artists interviewed in recent research (Gilmore et al, 2016) professional development came primarily through peer learning within a large studio collective in the regional city of Manchester, a place which is beginning to rival London in access to international connections and markets, and which outpaces the capital in affordable rents and liveability. The progression routes of the artists are complex (involving temporary periods in different cities, including London, for art school education) and intimately bound up with their habitats and their capacity for mobility.  Access to peer mentoring from people at different stages of their career, with different practices from those they were ‘taught’ in art school is crucial to post-graduation survival.

It is incumbent on tertiary education therefore to find ways to challenge inequality within the creative sector. As a programme director for a Masters’ in Arts Management, Policy and Practice programme, I’m fully aware of the need to teach more than core functional skills such as marketing, strategic development, finance and fund-raising, leadership. We don’t want just be part of mitigation, however, but to develop activists who will create more democratic arts worlds and change the conditions for creative artists. Our role is to nurture criticality, resourcefulness, the desire to change the status quo and to be pioneers for social responsibility, cultural democracy and creative justice.

It is incumbent on tertiary education therefore to find ways to challenge inequality within the creative sector. As a programme director for a Masters’ in Arts Management, Policy and Practice programme, I’m fully aware of the need to teach more than core functional skills such as marketing, strategic development, finance and fund-raising, leadership. We don’t want just be part of mitigation, however, but to develop activists who will create more democratic arts worlds and change the conditions for creative artists. Our role is to nurture criticality, resourcefulness, the desire to change the status quo and to be pioneers for social responsibility, cultural democracy and creative justice.

I’m aware of the biases towards those from better off backgrounds in our admissions, and know it’s a tough call when you are asking young people to risk their economic futures on a potentially precarious career. So we strive to give our graduates the resources to make their own work alongside skills which are transferrable to the wide range of vocations which require diplomacy, advocacy, case-making, strategic management and resource development.  They learn about ethical practices for community engagement and socially engaged practice. Their time on placement gives them new networks for peer learning, just as important as the classroom based seminars. We also connect students with alumni who have made their way in arts management roles in all parts of the world, and collaborate closely with local cultural institutions and policy makers to ensure that teaching is always based on current practice.

Perhaps most importantly, our curriculum is grounded firmly in the multi- and inter-disciplinary research base for arts management and cultural policy studies. Masters’ students incorporate theoretical perspectives into their own practice, which help them to critically analyse and challenge the contexts for creative arts. Just as the Arts and Humanities Research Council has recently advocated in its strategy for creative clusters, this research is on, with and for the creative economy.

Only this combination of practice-based research and socially responsible teaching can help change creative arts education and progression for the better.


References

Comunian, R. Taylor, C. and Smith, D.N. (2013) The role of universities in the regional creative economies of the UK

Connected Communities (2016) Connected Communities: Understanding the changing nature of communities in their contexts and the role of communities in sustaining and enhancing our quality of life. London: Arts and Humanities Research Council http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/documents/publications/connected-communities-brochure/

Banks, M (2017) Creative Justice: Cultural Industries, Work and Inequality. Rowman & Littlefield, London.

Banks, M. & Oakley, K (2015) The Dance Goes on Forever? Art Schools, Class and UK Higher Education, International Journal of Cultural Policy 22, 1, pp. 41-57

O’Brien, D. l Laurison, D. Miles, A. & Friedman, S. (2016) Are the creative industries meritocratic? An analysis of the 2014 British Labour Force Survey Cultural Trends Vol. 25 , Iss. 2,2016 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09548963.2016.1170943

Tom Campbell & Homa Khaleeli (2017) Cool Britannia symbolised hope – but all it delivered was a culture of inequality, The Guardian, 5 July 2017 available fromhttps://www.theguardian.com/inequality/commentisfree/2017/jul/05/cool-britannia-inequality-tony-blair-arts-industry

Gilmore, A., Gledhill, D. & Rajković, I. (2016) Staying and making it in regional creative cities – visual arts graduates and infrastructures for professional development, Comunian, R. & Gilmore, A. (eds) Higher Education and the Creative Economy, Abindgon, Oxon: Routledge available from http://www.tandfebooks.com/userimages/ContentEditor/1478516842596/9781138918733_oachapter9.pdf

Sterne, J. 2002. - Cultural Policy Studies and the Problem of Political Representation, The Communication Review 5 pp.59-89 http://sterneworks.org/culturalpolicystudies.pdf


Dr. Abigail Gilmore is Senior Lecturer in Arts Management and Cultural Policy, and Head of the Institute for Cultural Practices, The University of Manchester (see http://www.alc.manchester.ac.uk/icp/). Her research concerns local cultural policy, management, evaluation and participation.  She is Co-Investigator on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Connected Communities project, 'Understanding Everyday Participation - Articulating Cultural Values'.  Recent projects include AHRC Research Network 'Beyond the Campus: Higher Education and the Creative Economy' and the NESTA/Arts Council England/AHRC Digital R&D Fund for the Arts project, 'Culture Metrics'.