Stealthy steps to success

November 8, 1996

Art and design is a European growth area, but it remains bedevilled by conservatism, argues Katharine Crouan.

Over the past five years, surprisingly little analysis has been undertaken at a European level of the structure of higher education in art and design. Even the size of the sector has been misunderstood. Two years ago, the European Commission began to compile a database of centres offering higher education in art, design and the performing arts. As the list of institutions climbed to 4,000, it became apparent that the higher education centres recognised by national ministries obscured a vast hidden sector excluded from the major EC education programme development by virtue of small size or private status, regardless of quality.

The attention of the commission focused on higher education in art, design and the performing arts as a result of papers such as the 1994 Nouveau Gisements d'Emplois en Europe. These indicated that in a depressingly shrinking European employment market, the arts and cultural sector was one of the few areas of growth. But without some overview little progress could be made to remedy the poor participation of art and design in EU education initiatives.

In 1994 the commission established the Arts Education and Training Initiative to develop the sector by funding innovation in higher education in European art, design and the performing arts and disseminating the results.

Less a scientific survey than a hand-held snapshot, the arts initiative is nevertheless the only live information available on the sector. Its findings provide a vivid illustration of the pressures on art and design education to adapt to take account of the new opportunities available in professional life, and proof, if it were needed, that a European dimension to higher education can no longer be regarded as an optional extra, but an intrinsic necessity if higher education in art and design is to recognise the new transnationalism of professional life.

At one level, predictably, the arts initiative proved what most of us involved in art and design higher education already know; the sector tends towards the conservative. The teaching tradition of the atelier and its foundation on the premise of the long creative artist appears to be alive and well throughout fine art and design education in Europe, which is fine for the minuscule numbers who will graduate to practise their art in this time-honoured way, but is out of kilter with any other form of cultural production. The knowledge base of art and design is as eclectic as any other area of study, yet interdisciplinarity has come late to these subjects, possibly as a result of their isolation in the monotechnic culture of the conservatoire, which is often preserved even in a multifaculty institution.

New technologies are widely used as "new media" for the generation of imagery but much less so as a means of communication, or for resource-based learning. Perhaps as a result of this, there are few models of distance learning. The arts initiative research showed that these failings were heightened in the small independent institutions, particularly in southern Europe, where poor infrastructure and isolation help to preserve pedagogic conservatism. By contrast it became apparent that a "super league" of major European design colleges was emerging, well-resourced, innovative and entirely international in outlook, where design solutions arose out of social analysis and political economy.

The 1994 call for "demonstration project" proposals brought in over 300 applications in four weeks, (some 54 per cent led, much to the embarrassment of the commission, by United Kingdom centres). Some important themes emerged from these proposals. There was a widespread realisation in European colleges of the multinational economy of the art and design professions, and a corresponding urgency to reflect this by creating a more dynamic relationship between art and design education and industry or professional life. Many of the more advanced centres recognised the need to redefine the range of skills of an art or design graduate to enable them to operate in this transnational labour market, not only by providing practical skills such as languages or knowledge of digital media, but also by encouraging a more reflective, critical understanding of culture.

With this agenda, the arts initiative abandoned the funding of exchanges and placements on the Erasmus or Comett model in favour of cross-cultural workshops, master classes, design briefs and community-based initiatives that involved professionals from the industry. Many of the most revealing projects were those that required students from several member states to learn to work as a multinational team. Such projects highlighted cultural differences and communication was frequently hindered by the generally abject lack of language skills among students and tutors alike. Other projects turned out to be litmus papers for the pressing social concerns of contemporary Europe, and identified an appetite within art and design educators to establish a firmer ethical, socially-aware base for their studies. The initiative also considered the multiplicity of qualifications across the European Union and found that it is probably the least of the problems facing the art and design sector.

Political spotlights rarely rest for any time where they land and the special needs of art and design education will most probably be subsumed within the Socrates and Leonardo programmes in future, an uncomfortable fit since they sit uneasily within structures that divorce higher education from training. And although many of the issues identified in the arts initiative may be generic characteristics of higher education in Europe today, it has become very clear that without special support to develop the education sector, the true cultural and economic potential of the arts industries will not be realised.

Katharine Crouan is head of school at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.

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