Last week I visited Atlanta in the United States, a thriving and exciting city that is rapidly becoming an international hub for creative endeavours. Not only because CNN, Coca Cola, Delta, The Home Depo and many more firms installed their headquarters there many decades ago, but because the film industry is slowly migrating to the city with increasing enthusiasm and levels of capital investments.
I was invited to Atlanta by SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), a relatively young but thriving and cutting-edge art and design school that operates over four campuses, from Atlanta and Savannah (both in Georgia) in the United States to Hong Kong and France on the international scene. I was very much inspired by my visit and thought that it would be a good opportunity to dedicate today’s column to the pursuit of the study of art and design, in all its forms and ever-evolving manifestations.
In recent years there has been significant growth in international student enrolment figures for art programmes. From fine arts to complex digital design, it seems millennials are drawn to the arts and they are stubbornly increasing its relevance in the market place. The Internet, of course, has created an explosion of possibilities for digital designers. For example, in the United Kingdom in 2014, creative arts and design ranked second only to business studies as the most popular course of study for Chinese students in higher education. Today, the United States leads as a provider of these courses – it is home to more than one-third of the global top 50 art and design schools in the world.
As recently as 10 to 15 years ago, I often had the feeling that choosing a career in the visual arts was the sort of thing only the very talented or the very wealthy could even begin to contemplate. Some odd students chose it no matter what, but most were quite aware of the old “starving artist” cliché and often they went in with a plan B in the back pocket.
I can recall many occasions when an excited adolescent declared they wish to attend an art school. Their statement was often followed by an immediate parental reaction, one that warned how tough life can get, inquiring as to how their offspring planned to get by and pay the rent. Sometimes, parents straight out refused to support such plans, negating the financial support necessary to undertake such a “travesty,” as one parent called it. This scenario became even more heart-breaking when the student in question was a male. In our society it is still often expected that the man should assume the role of the breadwinner. Women, everyone supposed, could afford the luxury of an art career if they “married right.”
For this current generation, things have changed. Millennials have little doubt about whether to pursue careers in the arts or whether they should attend art schools, if that is what is in their hearts. They also seem to care less about material rewards and are more in tune with their own passions, what motivates them. The world they have walked into, or the world they have created, depending on your view, is also less gender stereotypical and more tolerant to differences and diversity. All these factors are ‘music to the ears’ for those who run art programmes, which in turn also feed off the fact that the marketplace appears to be more in need of the creativity, in ways and volume we have not seen before.
In Argentina, the concept of comprehensive art schools may not be readily understood because they don’t really exist here in that sense. Yes, art is taught in universities and, yes, there are institutions that only teach arts, but they are limited in number, in scope by comparison to what has been developing in some countries. There are fewer alternative choices.
Collaboration and imagination
Imagine, if you will, a university campus with thousands of students, where everything you see, touch, hear and smell breathes and screams art. The halls are filled with student-produced paintings, photographs and sculptures, the furniture and spaces are designed by students – from the carpets, through the chairs and tables and down to the last decorative ashtray or lamp. The classrooms – informal and very relaxed, with music playing in the background – are filled with students doing their own thing, projects, experiments and exhibitions, at their own pace while simultaneously pursuing a shared group vision. There are state-of-the-art audiovisual devices – computers, projectors, editing consoles and what not – in every classroom for daily use by students. Professors are not lecturers but more like advisers. There are sporadic exhibitions in every corner, from fashion to dancing robots and digital displays of the latest digital games.
Collaboration is the magic word these days. In the arts this represents a paradigm shift from a traditional, individualistic, talent-based endeavour, to a model whereby talent counts but so do relationships and the ability to work together, creatively, to enhance the overall quality of the work. Much of the artwork created today in schools – as in real life – is a group effort, demanding multidisciplinary contributions, group cohesion and flexibility. The (somewhat romantic) notion of the egocentric, lone artist is no longer centre-stage. The vision art schools wish to promote is directly opposed to that image. In the workplace, people will always need to work together. In industries such as film and stage productions, video-game design, architecture and interior design, web design and many more, collaboration is key. It is the essence of the work.
For prospective students, modern 21st century art and design schools such as SCAD, Parsons in New York, University of the Arts in London, Polytechnic di Milano or the Royal College of Art in the UK, will most likely include very diverse offerings of courses and career options, with a wide range of collaboration options and multidisciplinary skills. Most probably these programmes will highlight skills over titles and will know that their students are being prepared for careers that do not yet exist, in a world of professions that are slowly disappearing.
Likewise, art schools operate with total awareness that the concept of ‘art’ itself is no longer confined to the classics we were all accustomed to for centuries, if not millennia. The fine arts are but a fraction of what art schools are dealing with today. For example, thinking that sculpture is limited to ceramics or marble, rather than conceptualising it as a broad field where materials are manipulated with a specific purpose – including 3D printing – is a 20th-century mindset. Likewise, that interior design aims at the selection of a couch and a curtain for the wealthy, rather than thriving artists that design using space maximisation techniques and conceptualise the person-environment interaction.
Art schools must also show up for a special date with technology. In today’s world of cyberspace, the Internet, film production, entertainment, robotics, artificial intelligence and so on, art and technology are a match made in heaven. Not only do art schools reflect that fact, the market rewards it. Digital design, game design, film set design, animation, multimedia… the list is endless and growing. Art specialists are here and they are needed and well received by the labour market.
I walked out of my SCAD visit feeling inspired and hopeful. A project by their students on how to create a sustainable living environment in a space of 11 square metres – featuring engaging artists and designers of all disciplines from architecture to jewellery design – showed me that together we can overcome anything.
This is the state of the art and design. And it is good.