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Why college art spaces need to be protected - Evan Wood

7th March 2024

By Evan Wood, HE Curriculum Leader Creative Industries at Barnsley College and Research Further Scholar

Further Education is a triumph. It has become a space that promotes the inclusivity of all, across ethnic groups, academic and creative ability, race, gender, age and class to create an environment where the reality of the social needs of individuals and communities is amalgamated into a space for all. It presents to us the vulnerability of our society in a way that schools and universities don’t.

I would argue, not at the behest of A level routes, that the college art space represents the best space to learn about art post-16. Art departments provide you with increasingly personalised spaces and freedom to access facilities across a range of media as you specialise and develop skills, developing a precedent of what students can expect as they envision strategies of being within an art practice.

But colleges are challenging institutions to work within, as aging workforces, cost saving narratives and the awareness of increasingly complex individual student need collide with “market forces”. Managers focus on economic narratives to justify the decommissioning of creative facilities often taking generations to establish with generational knowledge built into its fabric, lost because they are inefficient.

This setup doesn’t work for art subjects. Art is an expensive subject, requiring space, time and specialist knowledge. Students can’t put their work into drawers at the end of the day as it’s got to dry, is too big, or 3D. Yet teaching staff hear, time and again, that this room is empty, or teaching teams are inefficient, citing other departments with less resource need managing huge numbers of students.

Students need to be empowered by our institutions to encourage the problem-solving skills needed to rise to the challenges they face. It will be inefficient. It must be risky. Artists exist in this space all the time. They are not afraid.

The pervasive economic language of students becoming customers or stakeholders discredits the relationship between art teacher and art student - one of trust, vulnerability, risk, and shared growth – and turns students into consumers in the very space where education teaches emancipation from systems, promoting independence and a confidence to develop and speak a voice not become a product.

Artists, in their essence, develop skills to make the abstract unambiguous or project a vision that affect us all through joy, scepticism and a raising of expectation. A pertinent example is the recent documentary of the sub postmasters’ treatment within privatised market forces.

The creative industries have been central in publicly articulating how these pillars of our communities felt at the hands of a system that wouldn’t admit to its failings. Without the knowledge of the use of a camera, editing and postproduction, computers, an understanding of exposure, travel, script writing, photography, drawing, acting, lighting, direction, sound, communication, passion, vulnerability, imagination and confidence, this and every other tv programme wouldn’t exist, hold to account, or fill with joy. This is what creative practice teaches.

So, what happens next? Perhaps a space exists for FE institutions to think collaboratively. I appreciate that the following suggestion creates a series of problems but to paraphrase management speak, we’re “just going to have to get over that and move forward” and employ people who can see the possibility rather than the obstruction. This requires senior leadership to include people who understand the needs of creative departments beyond government policy and funding strategy. It requires dreamers, thinkers, and doers to influence policy right through to classroom design and have infrastructure that make the necessary education systems manageable for those artists, thinkers, and dreamers.

The inclusion of psychology within art practice could develop an introspective understanding of ourselves, embracing reflective practice, learning about coping mechanisms and developing mechanisms to think about why and how culture has become what it is. Art and psychology offer a space to scaffold creative futures that present internal and external healthy scepticism, confidence, and inclusive thinking instead of silo-based structures that promote competition.

Perhaps FE colleges could collaborate in skills and qualification delivery rather than compete. For example, the institution I work for has excellent fashion, graphic design, and workshop facilities, where other regional institutions have infrastructure that ours does not have. Could they, as they deliver the same programmes, with the same awarding bodies, from the same HE collaborative institutions, broaden the skills a student learns through a regional educational experience, developing confidence and skills outside the classroom or studio, placing them in the world, rather than a building?

The evolving landscape of education, particularly post covid, is going to change our educational contexts in ways we perhaps haven’t envisaged yet. People’s needs are becoming clearer as the impact of Covid exacerbated problems we already knew about and revealed new ones - particularly where social vulnerability is concerned.

Maybe bolder steps and interdependent educational vision from the top down to re-imagine and apply how we want an arts education system to be, could help articulate the vision that takes place in art staffrooms on a daily basis. As Sir Ken Robinson articulated in 2006, education systems need to be “seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are, and our path is to educate their whole being so they can face this future, by the way we may not see this future, but they will, and our job is to help them make something of it”.