Building Resilience in Visual Artists

By Eileen Siddins and Ryan Daniel

As Bourdieu describes in his text ‘Firing Back’, the modern world has moved into a work situation dominated by employment precariousness, constant insecurity and downsizing to increase profits and therefore shareholder return. While artists have in general faced employment stresses for centuries, the impact of the broader economic move towards dominant players and markets is affecting the art world as well. Museums, galleries, performing arts companies and the like are under increasing pressure to justify spending, to evidence public value and return, and to demonstrate innovation in their work.  Opportunities to seek funding are arguably in decline, as governments attempt to reign in public spending, with the arts often the first area to be hit and hit hard. Tensions also abound in relation to art for art’s sake (elite) and art in a commercial context (popular), with these added tensions affecting creative practitioners and those attempting to establish a career in the area.

The research literature demonstrates that artists are vulnerable to a broad range of risks. These hardships include underemployment and an oversupply of labour, suggesting that only the most brilliant, or lucky, aspiring creatives succeed (Goldsmith & Bridgstock, 2015). After securing work, most artists are unable to control and predict their career trajectories and often need to maintain more than one job to support their creative work (Goldsmith & Bridgstock, 2015). Artists’ mental health needs are noticeably unique, with many romanticised references to their true inspiration being sourced in vulnerability, or even madness (Morton, 2012).  

There is an opportunity, if not a responsibility, for artists’ unique mental health needs to be met by increased support platforms, whilst embedding practical resilience building strategies in tertiary art curricular

Despite these career risks there seems to be little emphasis on resilience building education to prepare Australian tertiary art students for these challenges. This is particularly the case for visual artists but is not limited to these creative disciplines (Siddins, Daniel, & Johnstone, 2016). There is an opportunity, if not a responsibility,  for artists’ unique mental health needs to be met by increased support platforms, whilst embedding practical resilience building strategies in tertiary art curricular. For example, art students could gain awareness of ‘real-world’ competitive experiences through industry simulations in the classroom, and learn to apply resilience-based knowledge to these scenarios (Duening, 2008).

Taking into consideration the limited extant research relevant to resilience in visual art education, a study was conducted in 2015 to explore how tertiary educators in Australia fostered resilience in their students (Siddins et al., 2016). Data was collected via interviews with a sample of 17 tertiary educators in Australia, who taught across four visual art disciplines: illustration, design, film, and photography. During interviews, participants were asked to provide their perspectives on students’ vulnerabilities, resilience capabilities, and their current strategies used to foster resilience through various curriculum-focused activities. The findings from these interviews suggest that although resilience was seen as integral for student development, clear strategies that fostered resilience were not regularly implemented into the curriculum or learning for students. For some participants the word ‘resilience’ was not used in the classroom, whereas others described resilience as more implicitly woven into their teaching.

. . . although resilience was seen as integral for student development, clear strategies that fostered resilience were not regularly implemented into the curriculum or learning for students.

When questioned about the use of industry simulations, participants described effective resilience-building exercises like studio-based programs and graduate exhibitions. These exercises helped build students’ experience of real-world hardships and learn from them. However, some participants expressed concern that this type of strategy would be manipulative and difficult, particularly for younger students. Other strategies were utilised instead, including the following classroom activities: peer feedback sessions; presentations; group work; guest speakers; classroom discussion; and self-paced online training. Other suggestions included industry mentors, work integrated learning, networking events and field trips.

The study also uncovered educators’ grievances and restrictions to fostering resilience in their teaching. This included a lack of relevant psychological qualifications, resources, opportunities to put students in ‘uncomfortable’ environments, and the students’ general lack of engagement due to fear of failure (Siddins et al., 2016). Such implications, and any potential solutions, require further exploration through additional research, extending past tertiary educators to art students, emerging artists, seasoned practitioners and employers in the creative industries. This is particularly important given the broader challenges that visual artists face when they transition into the creative industries.

 

We would welcome further discussion on research possibilities with colleagues in creative arts disciplines.  Please contact: eileen.larsen@jcu.edu.au or ryan.daniel@jcu.edu.au

 

References

Duening, T. N. (2008). Five Minds for the Entrepreneural Future: Cognitive Skills as the Intellectual Foundation for Next Generation Entrepreneurship Curricula. Journal of Entrepreneurship, 19(1), 256-274.

Goldsmith, B., & Bridgstock, R. (2015). Embedded creative workers and creative work in education. Journal of Education and Work, 1-19. doi:10.1080/13639080.2014.997684

Morton, B. (2012). The Madness of Art. Dissent, 59(2), 81-82.

Siddins, E., Daniel, R., & Johnstone, R. (2016). Building Visual Artists' Resilience Capabilities: Current Educator Strategies and Methods. Journal of Arts & Humanities, 5(7), 24-37.  

 

Authors:

Eileen Siddins is a design lecturer who will shortly begin her PhD at James Cook University. Her research is now published in Journal of Arts and Humanities.

Professor Ryan Daniel is a senior researcher at James Cook University and has authored over 50 peer reviewed publications. His research is published in Studies in Higher Education, Journal of Australian Studies, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, Creative Industries, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, CoDesign, International Journal of Music Education, Music Education Research and the British Journal of Music Education.