This should be a time for many young people to celebrate, having reached the end of their courses, surrounded by family and friends all ecstatic at what they’ve achieved. But it couldn’t be a more different story for current students, in any discipline or layer of the graduate strata. For art students, however, who’ve for months now been denied (actual) access to their sites of learning, their educators and each other, the physical world – the production of work on-site and its resulting final showing – is particularly crucial to graduation and their career evolution.
In my art-school day, back in the nineties, our outrage was directed at the impact of financial cuts, and yet we had the ability to organise and mobilise our protests with no threat to our health. And, while some of us worked a range of odd jobs to help pay our daily way, there were no tuition fees and access to a fairly generous grant system. Imagine accruing huge debt for a course you can’t attend, in a hands-on practical sense, and also having to worry about existing flat rental arrangements, or moving home/elsewhere with no access to workshops and technicians, viable working space and face-to-face critical input.
Yes, some colleges have more cultural cache than others and of course it’s always helpful to have this or that one on your CV. But, as any former art student will tell you, it’s the connections you make with the others you study with that often end up forming the backbone of future projects and developmental trajectories. The relationships you build and the feedback you give one another as students and makers going forward is invaluable. This can’t be maintained with anything like the same weight, meaning or significance over WiFi.
Then there’s the difficult issue of what working scenarios (the necessary side hustles required to support studio practice and the existence of affordable studio rental), access to funding and professional opportunities await them in a cash-strapped cultural sector.
Clearly the art schools and university art departments are all under enormous pressure, and some under fire, to facilitate provision for course continuation and completion, as well as provide the all-important visibility. And without the ability to gather people easily, anywhere. So, there is an onus on the rest of us, those who've mostly skated through a generally good art education with comparatively few real-world concerns, to pay attention to* and help promote the current crop of art students working through an impossible situation. And, to bang the drum about government support for the arts, with a focus on those emerging into working life, when we’re all feeling the (financial) strain on the other side.
With these points in mind it’s been interesting to see how this year’s graduation process and the concerns that surround it are being facilitated and amplified online. It would seem the colleges and art departments have largely approached this period as very separate ships, albeit navigating the same storm and after the same safe position in the harbour. While there is some evidence on social media of umbrella-thinking in order to highlight the output of this year’s makers and maximise traffic, at the time of writing #degreeshowsunited and #degreeshows2020, for example, had 392 and 23 Instagram posts, respectively.
While I have been heartened to see how individuals and organisations are using the online space to shine a light onto this unprecedented situation, the websites of the colleges and art departments remain the best way to find and view what’s out there. Of course, what they can offer in terms of a slick promotional internet platform is as dependent on available budget as creative drive and ingenuity. But most have gone full-tilt into action, creating impressive-looking themed exhibitions and presentational strategies (and even working with arts marketing agencies) to support the class of 2020**.
This is not an exhaustive list of those in support (and I am always interested to hear about such actions and ventures), but a brief look at some of the ways and means graduating artists are gaining visibility and traction. We may not be able to physically attend the shows, but with this kind of signalling, we can least get onboard with the cause and acquainted with the makers of the future. For a critical view from the student perspective (beyond the unions) follow IG account @pauseorpayuk, which highlights the key issues, relevant press coverage and the forms of mobilisation being undertaken to contest the situation for those enrolled on courses (in a time of restricted movement).
Likely there will be some coverage and listings in all the major art magazines and culture pages, but the best-produced bespoke offering so far comes from the Artists’ Information Company. I am a long-time fan of the a-n and all it does to inform on what’s being made, where it’s being platformed and, principally, how it connects working artists in the field. Its undergraduate degree-show focus is a regular annual feature, but carries particular significance this year in re the signposting of exceptional artists and where we might find examples of their work.
The a-n Degree Shows Guide 2020 is available to download as a pdf or an issuu document from its website and the organisation is showcasing a variety of the artists highlighted in the publication on its Instagram page. These include a significant number of exciting painters, most notably, Rithika Pandey, a truly stand-out BA Fine Art student at Carmarthen I predict great things for, also Charlotte Guérard on Brighton’s BA painting course, and Torin Baguley on the painting and printmaking pathway of the Fine Art BA at Manchester School of Art, as well as intriguing sculptural enquiry from artists such as Poppy Jones-Little, BA Fine Art University of Leeds and Adonia Hirst, a Fine Art student at Newcastle University.
Sadgrads2020 is one of the best Instagram accounts to have come out of this situation. While the platform essentially exists to promote the work of forthcoming graduates across the art and design spectrum, it’s a good place to visit for a sense of the current situation for young makers. The feed is littered with talent, but some personal picks include: Enôre, MFA in Fine Arts at Goldsmiths; Gwyneth Machin, BA Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art; Benjamin Rostance, BA Fine Art, Nottingham Trent University; Gabriela Cohen on the Fine Art course at the Arts University, Bournemouth; Ellie Dragone, MA painting at the Royal College of Art; and Husk Bennett studying BA Fine Art and Art History at Manchester School of Art.
Of course, it’s not possible to replicate the exhibition scenario via screen grids of jpegs or a VR walk-through. But, from the evidence I’ve seen so far, it’s clear the new breed, out of necessity, is fully in touch and working inventively with the limitations currently imposed upon them and changing every notion of the ‘real-life’ experience.
* Which includes observing the decisions of those who have decided not to take part and therefore accept the radically altered terms of the courses they've paid for.
** There will be follow-up posts focused on the colleges and the art to see
Images (clockwise in second box) © the artists:
Rithika Pandey, Charlotte Guérard, Torin Baguley, Enôre, Gwyneth Machin, Benjamin Rostance, Gabriela Cohen, Ellie Dragone, Husk Bennett