The art of innovation report, NESTA, London

On Monday I attended the launch of ‘the art of innovation’ report at NESTA, they’ve been looking at how fine arts graduates contribute to innovation throughout their working lives. The research was conducted via a survey and one-to-one interviews with over 500 graduates from the University of Arts London from the 1950s to the present.

Chris Powell – Chair at NESTA, introduced the event, he said this research was commissioned in an area ‘where there aren’t any facts’ – the question is what becomes of fine arts graduates after they leave education and how they contribute to innovation. It was mentioned how creating art is one of the only careers where the innovation has to be unique. It’s an important area and as in turn artists feed the creative industries and the creative industries feed the world with ideas.

The study looked into what happens to fine arts graduates and how this disseminates into the wider realm of innovation.

Professor Kate Oakley, writer and policy analyst, specialising in the creative industries, cultural policy and regional development at University of the Arts London and City University talked about investigating the changing careers of fine arts graduates.

She mentioned that this project was a genuine pleasure to be involved with, how people in arts love talking about their work and she heard lots of stories from students of the last 50 years. There are a lot of arts graduates, but not that many go on to carve a full-time career out of fine art – so if there is an oversupply, where are they going and where are they being employed?

They were investigating 3 hypotheses

1. Fine arts graduates are highly skilled in innovation: there are two approaches to innovation – one is a rational approach and other is willingness to take risks. They say that the second approach is highly developed in artists.

2. There’s an argument that the way artists work and cultural innovation is the way we’re presently heading: there’s more casualisation of work, more project or portfolio work. Question: do the way artists’ work resemble other ways of working?

3. Notion of aesthetics is now everywhere: lots of products have a high aesthetic component, from running shoes to what you drink. For example, people buy a particular brand of shoe because of their aesthetic taste.

How does artistic labour get into the economy and take its place in innovation? They had a notion of where people were absorbed in other careers – right across the board. They didn’t find that many people had given up their artistic work, but were supplementing it with other work – the artists felt very strongly about this. Is culture everything and ‘work’ changing? The notion of culture being everywhere, which is especially portrayed through the media: arts graduates strongly resisted this – they regard a strong distinction between products and art work – for example they didn’t regard designer running shoes as cultural pieces. Ex art students make a distinction between work and their personal work – they don’t see the fruits of their day job as art. Many of them work in casual, portfolio and project work. The reason for this might come down to arts graduates having transferable skills.

Some policy could help fine arts graduates feel more confident about their skills and prepare them to consider options in the wider labour market, as well as encouraging businesses to think of them when recruiting.

Some snippet observations about fine arts graduates and innovation pulled from the survey:

* Work in a interpretive, innovative way
* Are adaptive, risk taking and problem solving
* Are likely to be lifelong learners
* Characterise themselves as brokers across disciplines
* Use process of discovery, aided but not directed by experts
* Willingness to change, adapt or try new things
* Keen to keep their personal art going as well as career
* Those who list their primary occupation as within the arts, 40% have a second job
* Are adept at switching jobs between sectors

Matthew Collings, writer, critic, artist and TV presenter
Hasn’t taken part in the survey, but feels like someone who is a specimen who went to art school, survived and is in some ways still innovating. His experience of art school was unstructured and art some times frightening and difficult to cope with. He had an experience like a lot of art students, of an unstructured existence – i.e. you’re left to get on with your work. His experience was not negative, but found this out only after leaving and he feels this experience gave him permission to be himself. Some people go to art school because they’re not very good at the other stuff, certainly in the 70s – but it’s very different these days with very business orientated art students emerging from schools such as Goldsmiths.

Panel Q & A session with the audience

Q: Who is the audience for this research? A: Apart from the fine arts grads themselves, it is the innovation policy people in the context of how art links with work. How the flow of creative services flows into work.

Q: Is there any crossover? A: If you look at something like video games, music – you see art school graduates in abundance here. They saw lots working in the broader creative industries. Didn’t find many working outside this, they bend over backwards to stay in the creative industries

Q: Chap from St Martins School of art asked how different do you think your findings would be if you’d engaged with designers instead of fine artists?
Yes, we would have found different answers, but we wanted to do a specific survey with fine arts graduates because they’re the most far removed from the generic work ethic and in some terms are considered ‘the most useless’ graduates and who weren’t being trained for anything specific.

Q: An independent researcher asked: you said that fine art needs originality, but all areas have originality – there’s a difference between invention and innovation.
A: Not many interviewees use the word ‘innovation’ when describing how they work – you have to look at how they are describing their own innovation and inventions.

A lady from Goldsmiths made a point of saying: don’t romanticise the art schools! They’re state funded institutions. People who have excelled due to exceptional pedagogy. Some have a fantasy they hope they will get famous or it’s a brand or a way of bringing uniqueness where they are competing for work. Confused about policy objective – what are we trying to create?

Reflections from another fine arts graduate…

As a fine arts graduate, I found this research really compelling. During my student days, fine art wasn’t going to get you a career unless you had a contact in the galleries or were one of the tutors’ favourites and got a push. Some went on to be art teachers, but not many. We didn’t have any careers coaching anyway! For those who went on to do MAs, artist in residencies, etc, I feel that favouritism played a huge part in who got introduced to the right people or got the best grades. All the tutors over my 3-year degree, bar one part-time female were male, and there was a tension over what was regarded as ‘proper’ art.

I definitely feel that there’s a connection between fine arts graduates and innovation. One my first day of my fine art BA I was given a studio space and left to get on with it for three years, so although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, it did make me schedule my time and efforts to become an independent worker.

It’s interesting the survey went on to find that many fine art graduates go into the broader creative industries. I remember very well that graphic design was frowned upon in a very snobbish way by fine arts students. When I left my BA, I worked for a couple of years teaching art, but it wasn’t really for me and I ended up going back to university to study multimedia. This lead me to a career in making interactive multimedia and exploring my personal creativity though digital artworks. Oh yes, I still paint too!

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