Drawing on experience to find out what's next

February 13, 2004

It's often hard for fine-art students to see a clear career path. David Butler and Dawn Weatherston led a project to help them visualise their future.

Degree disciplines are highly transferable. English or history graduates may work as charity officers, television researchers or management consultants, but fine-art graduates are different. Many just want to be artists. Most accept they will not make as much money as fellow graduates and brace themselves for lean years. But, with debts of £10,000 on graduation, attitudes are changing. It is no longer acceptable for institutions to provide students with a fine-art degree but to take no responsibility in preparing them for life after graduation. As a result of recent widening participation initiatives, students from non-traditional backgrounds can be seen in the studios of universities and colleges across the UK. Many are mature students pursuing a long-held ambition. They are also concerned about "what next"?

Self-employment is a characteristic of the visual arts. For example, there are about 2,900 creative businesses in the northeast representing 4 per cent of all companies. An estimated 80 per cent of the cultural sector in the northeast and Cumbria is made up of micro-businesses. Any course claiming to enhance the employability of fine artists would need to be serious. The aim of the Life, Work, Art project at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne is to help students make the transition to a career.

The project takes on board that many students are likely to be self-employed or freelance and many hope to remain in the region.

Like many short-term projects, getting started was tricky. But by summer 2003 we had a team in place and decided to give the project a kick-start.

We felt students graduating this year needed some immediate support. They should be able to network, know where to go for help before and after graduation, and understand what it really means to work in visual arts. A regional event had been included in the original bid for money from the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning. We decided on a conference for students run by students.

We had already set up a consortium comprising Newcastle, Sunderland and Northumbria universities, Cleveland College of Art and Design, the Northern Cultural Skills Partnership and Arts Council North East. They all backed the event.

Our first success was securing the Gateshead-based contemporary arts centre Baltic as a venue because it was both high-profile and neutral territory for students from four very different institutions. Our first problem was use of student volunteers. The tight 12-week timeframe made it unrealistic for them to organise alone. We pitched in and involved some penultimate-year students who could use the conference as a model to organise a second conference the following year.

On a crisp November morning, 150 students were milling around in the entrance to Baltic. During the course of the day, participants managed to drink the caterers out of tea and coffee and by the evening, the bar was packed with networking students, artists and tutors. Visitors remarked on the buzz. The organisation was by no means perfect but there was atmosphere.

Most of the workshop facilitators were practising artists who had graduated recently. It is very unusual for students from different and often rival institutions to meet, talk and, ultimately, work together. One student said it was "reassuring to discover that students from other universities had the same worries about their futures". At the next consortium meeting, tutors reported that the conference had marked a turning point in the way they would work with students. One university project coordinator said: "My relationship with the fourth-years has changed dramatically - they now understand what I am trying to do to help."

A conference is no quick fix for fine-art students' employability but it is immediate and visible. Students can hear first-hand the experiences of other artists and see how fundraising is likely to play a large role in their work. We now have a cross-institutional group of students keen to organise a conference next year. They will be speaking to artists, negotiating venues and fundraising. In time, it may be that this activity can form a pivotal part of their university experience. After all, in some universities students run events as an assessed activity.

David Butler is project coordinator and Dawn Weatherston is project manager for the Higher Education Funding Council for England's FDTL/4 Life, Work, Art project based at Newcastle University.

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