Real-World Creative Learning: Embedding Arts Curricula in Festivals and Exhibitions

By Dr Sue Gillett

“Quilted Ned”, by Exhibiting Culture student, Helen Hindson exhibited at the Shepparton Festival 2016. The work was  inspired by the Sidney Nolan painting titled “Quilting the Armour” (1947) which was on display during the Imagining Ned exhibition, Bendigo Art Gallery, 2015. Photo credit: Sue Gillett

“Quilted Ned”, by Exhibiting Culture student, Helen Hindson exhibited at the Shepparton Festival 2016. The work was  inspired by the Sidney Nolan painting titled “Quilting the Armour” (1947) which was on display during the Imagining Ned exhibition, Bendigo Art Gallery, 2015. Photo credit: Sue Gillett

The current trend in Australian universities has seen the proportion of enrolments in Arts subjects declining over the last decade, with regional universities and campuses more significantly affected. According to the 2015 Mapping the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Australia report "entry scores are dropping and numbers declining in HASS programmes in regional universities." (Dobson 2015, Executive Summary, p. 2). The report also notes that regional campuses are reducing the range of Arts disciplines, which raises concerns about the equality of opportunities for regional students. Aiming to re-energize Arts offerings, especially in the regional campuses, I began in 2012 to design a new, flexible curriculum model which provides an immersive learning experience focused on the creative arts industry and practices. To date this model is applied to four subjects delivered in second and third years of the Bachelor of Arts and Creative Arts degrees at La Trobe University: Writers in Action: Writing the Festival and Exhibiting Culture.

Consistent with the ‘place-based' experiential underpinnings of the model, the student experience in these subjects is immersive and embedded in Creative Arts events where the event itself is at the core of the curriculum. In Writers in Action: Writing the Festival,  regional writers' festivals frame the learning experiences, while in Exhibiting Culture students' experiences are shaped by active participation in an exhibition located in a regional art gallery. This curriculum model engages students in learning activities that are based on participation in the festival or exhibition event, and assessment is aimed at heightening awareness of processes and practices in the Arts that support public dissemination of these activities. Learning activities and assessment are therefore adaptive and context-specific. The role of the teacher is largely to facilitate students' engagement with the event and support them to interpret it and understand how it operates. In this framework, students spend the majority of their time in the subject located at the event, with more formal classroom based activities and practicums delivered in ‘block mode' to accommodate the event itself.

This curriculum model engages students in learning activities that are based on participation in the festival or exhibition event, and assessment is aimed at heightening awareness of processes and practices in the Arts . . .

Writers in Action embeds students in the real-world daily creative tasks required to run a festival. I encourage students to think about the subject as a writing adventure. They think about the type of project they would like to pursue in relation to the range of professional and creative writing activities that a festival generates, celebrates and needs. I also liaise with festival staff and the local media to find potential projects for the students and to establish links between the students and these professionals involved in promoting and running the festival. From year to year previous Writers in Action students elect to mentor current students, adding another bonus through peer learning.

Exhibiting Culture Students students reporting on the Ink Remix exhibition in the Bendigo Art Gallery, 2015. Photo credit: Shane Carey.

Exhibiting Culture Students students reporting on the Ink Remix exhibition in the Bendigo Art Gallery, 2015. Photo credit: Shane Carey.

Three words stand out in the consistently positive student evaluations of these festival-based subjects: challenge, opportunities and experience. The same is true of students' responses to the gallery-based subject, Exhibiting Culture. Students highly value the experiential elements of the learning offered, highlighting learning from peers which is encouraged in the subjects; meeting personal and career needs; and challenging and stimulating on-going learning. As with Writers in Action, project-based student assessment provides an opportunity for students in Exhibiting Culture to produce a creative response, this time in relation to an art exhibition rather than a writers' festival, and to have their creations displayed in a mixed-media student exhibition which I curate after subject assessments have concluded.

The student exhibition is additional to their assessment requirements and students can opt-in. Most do. To date we have held two student exhibitions – "Re-Imagining Ned" (which responded to the Imagining Ned exhibition in Bendigo Art Gallery, 2015) and "Ink Remixed" (a response to the exhibition of Contemporary Art from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, also at the Bendigo Art Gallery, 2016). The latter exhibition was visited by a delegation from the Confucius Institute, who sent the following words of commendation: the students' exhibition embodied the bold, lively spirit of Chinese-Australian heritage. Each artwork provided a special peek into the artist's creative soul. "Re-Imagining Ned" was picked up by the Shepparton Festival and re-exhibited there in March this year. This recognition of the quality of students' work by industry leaders and the public was a great confidence booster, and also enriched their experience of the art circuit.

A key aim of this curriculum model in Writers in Action and Exhibiting Culture is to support students to enter work in the arts and creative arts sectors. . . students have achieved employment, valuable work related experiences, including internships, and public exposure via publications as artists. .

A key aim of this curriculum model in Writers in Action and Exhibiting Culture is to support students to enter work in the arts and creative arts sectorsOngoing analysis of students' public achievements resulting from their participation in these subjects has identified a range of awards and publications, from 2013-2016, either while enrolled in the subjects, or subsequently. As the table (right) shows, students have achieved employment, valuable work related experiences, including internships, and public exposure via publications as artists as a result of their engagement in the subjects. These outcomes are the directly linked to students having been given the chance to demonstrate their competencies to industry, while also gaining credit points towards their Arts or Creative Arts degrees.

 

Dr Sue Gillett is a senior lecturer in Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University. She is the author of Views from beyond the mirror, the films of Jane Campion (2004), Cassandra in Red (2013) and Landlines: an anthology of regional poets (editor, 2012). Her most recent publications include a memoir-essay in Mothers in Others (Pan MacMillan, 2015) and a chapter on poetry, grief and healing in Poetry and the Trace (Puncher & Wattman, 2013). In recognition of the value of the curriculum model described in this article, Sue received a National Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student learning in 2016.

OUTCOMES : Measures of student success No. of students
Publications in regional newspapers 64
Paid employment in the Arts, Media and Comms fields 15
Internships with media and festival organisations 15
Awards for writing 12
Volunteering with Galleries and Festivals 3
Involved in exhibitions of their work, either in group shows or solo shows 54
Stories published on the ABC Open website 8
Selected to exhibit at the Castlemaine State Festival 3
Employment as the official Writers Festival photographer 2
A Television screening of the half-hour film, created as assessment project in Writers in Action, (channel 31). 10
10 minute student-made documentary of Mildura Writers Festival being used as promotional material on festival website. 2