Interview with Anthony Schrag
Anthony Schrag is senior lecturer in arts management and cultural policy at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, and a practising artist. His research focuses on the relationship between artists, institutions and the public.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Zimbabwe in 1975 and grew up in Oman, England and Canada. I came to Scotland almost 20 years ago. When I was younger, my family was travelling constantly and I think this forced me to reflect on cultural diversity and different ways of being in the world. My dad was in the military and for a while I lived in compounds in the Middle East. I would spend my days balancing on top of the tall, breeze-block walls that separated the Western army communities from the local populations. I think the idea of being physically balanced between different groups of people framed my passion for working with distinct and different communities, and probably my interest in what I call “productive conflict”.
What kind of undergraduate were you?
I really hated school and was a solid C student. But when I went to university I found that I didn’t have to learn in the way that teachers at school said I had to. In fact, I could learn the way I wanted. I was suddenly allowed to be excited about the weird and uncomfortable things. This freedom was so liberating and invigorating: I suddenly became quite a good and dedicated student when I could focus on the things I loved learning about.
What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Friends. Endless conversations and far too many pints. I also took up a role working at the university radio station, which gave me so many wonderful opportunities to meet strange people and do fun things. Like finding myself interviewing an Icelandic band and later ending up in a drag bar with them on stage. The liberating freedom of university was so formative.
Why did you decide to pursue a career as both an artist and researcher?
I didn’t. I did the things I found fascinating and looked up 20 years later to find that I’m getting paid to do the things I love. I would advise any student to do the things they love; do the things that they are passionate about and make their own career path from that.
How do you balance both?
Art and research feed into each other: they are both about asking questions about the world. They just require different formats.
Some universities have cut arts subjects, while prioritising science. Is this something that worries you?
For some, there is a feeling that the arts are somehow not an appropriate way of making a career or a frivolous subject to learn about. But reflect on the recent lockdown: in that difficult time, people turned to novels, to Netflix, to crafty or creative projects – all things that are part of “the arts”. They were essential in how we coped as humans with the pressures of Covid-19. The arts are going to be even more important in a post-Covid world because they bring people together. The arts allow us to imagine a different sort of world – paintings, films, TV, novels, puppet shows, installations, pottery, etc – the things that give space to utopian dreaming, of imagining the sort of world we want our children to have. Studying art is therefore not a frivolous subject: it is essential to understanding how to work as a society towards a better future. Considering the very complex and pressing issues we currently have – climate change, decolonisation, the economy – it is essential that we get people to think creatively to find solutions. STEM subjects alone might save the world, but they’re not going to make it a place that people will want to live in; or a place worth saving. The arts can help do that.
If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
Apart from free education and free transport for all students, I would introduce opportunities for interdisciplinary exchange. Not formal seminars, rather through mechanisms for academics to develop new conversations with each other. We’re often siloed away in our departments or schools, but the most interesting work happens when people from different areas talk to each other. Queen Margaret is a great example of where this works well: our kitchen is shared by the health and nursing staff and the creative folks like me. This kitchen is a hotbed of fascinating conversations between the two groups and has led to some really interesting research – and artworks – just because we talked to people outside our field of expertise.
What is the best part of your job?
The students. I know that probably sounds clichéd, but it fills me with no end of joy to meet interesting, passionate, exciting people who aren’t sure what they are doing, but are brave enough to try. It’s amazing to see them leave with a clearer focus and go out there and change the world. Recently I had a conversation with a former student who is actively changing the way museums work throughout Scotland, and it gives me such pleasure to know that we helped her to get to a place where she can start to change the world, in no small way.
What do you do for fun?
I like learning new things. Recently I taught myself how to knit – it’s not going great – but I’ve also become a bit obsessed with making my own yoghurt and that stuff is awesome.