From portfolios to portfolio careers: are arts students prepared?

Institutions must cater for the reality that graduates of arts-based courses are likely to work in ‘arts in the community’, says Judith Hills

January 22, 2015

Like careers officers and students, many arts departments and institutions are unaware of the realities of working life for artists

In a world of £9,000-a-year tuition fees and a market-driven higher education system, improving graduate employability is a challenge we must all face. This is as true in arts education as it is in any other discipline. Graduate employment is a major concern for parents and students researching arts-based courses.

A recent independent survey of 1,000 artists, commissioned by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, shows that a substantial proportion of them have ended up pursuing portfolio careers, with a large part of their income coming from work in “participatory settings” – the more inclusive term for what is also known as “arts in the community”.

As one artist said: “More and more of my peers have gone on to do an MA in community music because, when they started, they didn’t realise what they were actually going to be doing. Of course, they all wanted to be concert pianists, but you can’t actually earn money that way.”

If so many artists end up pursuing portfolio careers like this, why aren’t we, as higher education institutions, doing more to understand how we can cater for this reality?

One reason is that, like careers officers and students, many arts departments and institutions are simply unaware of the realities of working life for many artists. But it is equally clear that arts in participatory settings has a major image problem. When it isn’t denigrated as secondary to the primary artistic function, the subject is often dismissed as unteachable because – the critics allege – there is insufficient common ground between the different artistic disciplines involved.

But art in participatory settings is both teachable and important. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation survey was part of a national project called ArtWorks, established by the foundation four years ago to explore the support needed by artists working in such settings.

My institution, the University of Sunderland, leads one of the five “pathfinder” groups heading the research. We already offer a successful degree in community music but, in response to focus groups exploring what practising artists across all disciplines identified as their development needs, we have also run pilot courses co-taught by teams of artists and lecturers that combined practice, theory, debate and reflection, supported by online learning resources. Independent evaluation showed that these were valued by students and teachers as a rare opportunity to learn and discuss alternative approaches.

In another ArtWorks project, the University of Hull built a creative postgraduate and continuing professional development programme. Six local artists acted as “associate artists of the university” and were supported to develop and lead a two-hour workshop where ideas and skills could be shared with peers.

One of the most exciting discussion points was around ideas and methodologies that are transferable between disciplines. As one of the associate artists said: “Although each associate artist came from a different discipline, there was a clear affinity in issues and discussion that rose in each session.” This confirmed that there are common skills and learning across the enormous range of settings and artistic disciplines that can and should be taught, and Hull has decided to pilot a modular, part-time professional doctorate in arts and society directly aimed at artists in participatory settings.

Meanwhile, in London, another ArtWorks pathfinder, the Barbican and Guildhall School, has responded to demand from the professional arts sector and developed a cross-arts BA to prepare artists for work in participatory settings. The course, which gets under way next autumn, will include “real world” apprenticeship placements and off-site sessions, as well as models for training and reflection.

But more universities need to follow suit and grasp the opportunity to meet the demand for courses that reflect the realities of working life for artists, instead of preparing them only for a stereotypical career that will remain beyond the grasp of most.

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