The Net Gallery was proud to work with University of the Arts London (UAL) to scan the 2019 degree shows at Camberwell and Chelsea Colleges of Art. Twelve months later, the environment for students graduating in 2020 is very different. With almost all university campuses closed-down because of COVID-19 and physical degree shows cancelled or postponed, we asked arts journalist Jo Caird to explore how institutions across the UK have reacted.
Art schools and universities were quick to respond to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement in March that the UK would be going into lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With no way of knowing how long the lockdown would last, physical degree shows due to take place this summer were cancelled and online versions scheduled.
What should have been a period of feverish activity was instead a time of intense frustration and disappointment. Students on studio-based courses were unable to access the space and technical expertise required to complete and consolidate their portfolios ahead of graduation. Those with installation-focused practices were faced with having to radically adapt their work for a virtual audience. Post-graduates on short courses have had it particularly hard, the shutdown affecting a greater proportion of their degree than students on three-year undergraduate courses.
Many students felt let down by the way their universities responded to the crisis, coming together to launch campaigns such as Pause or Pay, which calls on schools nationwide to guarantee degree shows and preparatory support for 2020 graduates or offer partial refunds of tuition fees. On a more local level, a petition objecting to the Royal College of Art’s (RCA) decision to move its degree show online attracted over 8,000 signatures, while the entire cohort of second year MFA students at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) refused to take part in its online degree show until their concerns are addressed.
Universities’ hands were tied as a far as physical degree shows this summer are concerned but many schools have agreed to host or otherwise facilitate exhibitions at a later date. The University of Loughborough, for example, is offering graduating students at its School of Design and Creative Arts the opportunity to physically display their work at next year’s degree shows, along with via an online showcase that has been adapted to allow students greater flexibility in terms of the work they’re showcasing.
The RCA and GSA have both announced that funding will be available for students wishing to present their work when it is safe to do so, though details of how graduates will access that sponsorship hasn’t yet been published. In the meantime, the GSA graduate showcase went live in May (and students will be able to add work to the platform until May 2021), while the RCA’s online degree show will be available to view from 16 July.
How to make the most of virtual platforms is certainly a more pressing concern than physical shows for universities at this point. University of the Arts London (UAL) has partnered with IBM to create a digital graduate showcase (launching 27 July) for students across its colleges, which include Central Saint Martins and Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon art colleges. In previous years some UAL degrees shows have had an online presence, but “this is the first time all colleges and courses have united under one platform”, explains a spokesperson from the university.
The Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts (LICA) has gone one better and launched a ‘festival of online degree shows’ to run alongside its own digital showcase. The dozen or so universities and schools sharing work using the social media hashtag #degreeshowsunited are “being advocates, not only for our own schools but advocates for the quality of work being done at degree level”, says Nathan Jones, Lecturer in Fine Art: Digital Media at LICA and one of the organisers of the 2020 degree show.
Another way in which LICA has innovated is by creating a fully customisable digital platform to enable students to represent themselves online not just via their work but with how it is presented too. There has been plenty of support available to ensure students feel able to make the most of the website, with a series of webinars replacing the tutorials that would, in the normal course of things, focus on aspects of preparing for a physical show.
Such support will certainly stand graduating students in good stead when it comes to presenting themselves online in the future. There are other benefits to a digital showcase too, such as being able to engage with more, and more geographically disparate potential employers, collaborators and gallerists. UAL is hoping to capitalise on the “global reach” of its online show via a programme of live online events that will seek to replicate the sort of networking that would usually take place at its physical shows.
The cancellation of degree shows has also been the catalyst for action outside the remit of art schools and universities. Creative responses to the crisis range from Instagram accounts like @sadgrads2020, which acts as a showcase for work from all over the country, to industry-backed endeavours such as the Nationwide Degree Show, whereby dozens of graduates have exhibited work on billboards. More local, collaborative efforts include Show Off, a crowdfunded catalogue of work by 102 students at nine institutions across Scotland.
Once institutions are in a position to physically exhibit students’ work again, 3D-scanning of exhibition spaces and works – such as that undertaken by The Net Gallery – offers the potential to more closely integrate digital offerings with the more traditional degree show experience.
“Going beyond the purely virtual and largely static web-based image galleries that institutions have been able to offer during lockdown, The Net Gallery’s scans mean a true exhibition experience can be offered online, with remote visitors able to navigate freely around the exhibition space as if they were there in person,” explains Richard Unwin of The Net Gallery. “In that way, the university and college buildings – which are so integral to the feel and character of many degree shows – can also become part of the online experience.”
None of the solutions initiated during lockdown can make up for the loss of this year’s degree shows, events that students had been working towards for years that offered the chance to celebrate with peers and launch into professional life. But that’s not to say that there won’t be lessons to take from this difficult time. As Jody Mulvey, the fine art post-graduate student behind @sadgrads2020, puts it:
“This melding of digital and physical platforms will enable a greater outreach for art students and ensure that our work is able to be accessed by a broader audience rather than just those who can physically attend degree shows. I believe this could be an important shifting point in conversations surrounding how artworks can be made more accessible.”