Last month this year’s batch of new fine art graduates left their institutions for the last time, ready to start their lives as professional artists, or not. I wrote the following text as an accompanying essay for the UWIC Fine Art Degree show and thought that it might have something to say to other graduates, so I’ve updated the useful links and will happily add more if anyone wants to send me some.
At this time of year the art school trees are thick with pupating artists, preparing to fall off their twigs onto the hard ground of the outside world. Some will land gently, with just enough bounce to propel them up into the air again, stretch their new wings and take off. Others will fall harder, languish in the long grass for a while, then begin a cautious climb upwards, wings slowly unfurling. A very few will never recover from the drop and remain locked in their chrysalis. Such is the way of nature. So it is with the life of an artist.
Before the fall though, anything is possible and art colleges hum with unleashed potential – the excitement and trepidation are palpable. The run up to the degree shows is the beginning of the end of one stage and the start of something new.
Graduating from Art College is a peculiar process. One day you’re a student, the next day you’re a … a what? An artist? Not necessarily. In some ways the journey to becoming a professional artist can only begin after the art college training has finished. It’s just one of those things. How can you decide what kind of artist to be in the cocoon of college? OK, so you’ve followed your specialism, but how does that translate out there? Perhaps you’re not even meant to be an artist at all.
I decided to conduct a not-very-scientific bit of research into the career destinations of past CSAD Fine Art graduates through the power of Facebook. Friends and friends-of-friends circulated my request for information and back came the responses, thick and fast, with respondents spanning several decades and many cohorts of Howard Gardens graduates.
So here, for your edification, is a sample of what happens to those pupae when they hit the ground.
Out of what we’ll call Cardiff Art School, as it’s changed its name several times over the years, have come artists, naturally, and/or:
Arts administrators, scenic artists, film editors, sound technicians, project managers, journalists, magazine editors, press officers, gallery interns, gallery managers, gallery technicians, gallery directors, gallery invigilators, gallery educators, clothes designers, bronze founders, community artists, artists-in-residence, artists working in the public realm, art therapists, teachers, lecturers, film directors, workshop leaders, course leaders, social agitators, social workers, transport co-ordinators, play workers, studio managers, festival coordinators, shop keepers, film animators, museum workers, theatre managers, cultural entrepreneurs, creative producers, TV camera operatives, commercial photographers, rock musicians, artists’ mentors, shelf stackers, art handlers, research fellows, civil servants, arts development officers, arts consultants, strategists, pundits, pet portrait artists, environmental/animal rights campaigners…and a few who are still working out what they want to be.
Howard Gardens alumni have gone on to become: The Pioneers, ArtStation, tactileBosch, Open Empty Spaces, Milkwood Gallery, Cinetig, Fox Studios, Clock Performance, Underworld, The Threatmantics, The Wave Pictures, The Victorian English Gentlemens Club, Islet, Radioactive Sparrow, The Sound of Aircraft Attacking Britain (S.A.A.B.), British Racing Green and Mermaid & Monster but this is a tiny and certainly not definitive list. Some of these have just set up, some older ones are still going, while others had their shining moment and have faded away.
And that’s just from a non-scientific trawl and doesn’t include the MA graduates or the artists from other courses at Howard Gardens. Nor does it encompass the myriad initiatives started by the Fine Art teaching staff that are fed and energised by successive generations of new graduates.
The creative impetus, which starts in the college studios and workshops, spills out across the city, the country and the globe. Cardiff Fine Art graduates are exceptionally good at using what’s available, working their networks and creating links with each other and with artists and arts institutions across the world. That this is often unremarked seems a shame, that it isn’t captured and waved in the faces of the politicians, the cultural strategists and the money-brokers is more worrying.
But the point is graduating is just the start, and not everyone can go on to be a professional artist (do the maths – it’s unsustainable). But a Fine Arts training can set you up for all manner of things. It’s trite to talk about transferable skills I know, but the ability to problem-solve creatively is incredibly valuable across a multitude of careers.
And it’s natural to pick up the degree and wait for the future, and wait, and wait. I did – one nice write up in a glossy mag and I thought I’d just have to sit by the phone and choose the opportunities that would surely come my way. But they didn’t and they don’t without a bit of proactive engagement and some derring-do.
While the Cardiff Art scene is quite different from the day when I left Howard Gardens in the mid-80s, it’s still the same in many ways: no commercial sector to speak of and a dearth of critical attention from the national or even the local media. However it’s still characterised by the collegiate nature of the arts community. Alright, there are little gangs that cluster around certain institutions, but there are performance, exhibiting and studio collectives; project clusters; communities of interest that pool their resources.
Survival strategies vary from individual to individual. Some chose jobs that will pay the bills but demand little of their creative juices. Others attempt to combine both, although those who go into teaching often find themselves drained by the increasing layers of measurement and evaluation. The only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is the wait-by-the-phone one.
Cardiff graduates are lucky to have the excellent mentoring services of WARP Welsh Artists’ Resource Programme) and the test beds for emerging artists at g39, Milkwood, Oriel Canfas and tactileBosh, while ARC (Artists’ Resource Cardiff) offers networking and a promotional platform and Ffotogallery’s Forum provides an opportunity for much needed discussion and debate while, online, Culture Colony is linking up the creative communities of Wales with its Beyond TV initiative. Chapter Arts Centre is a major employer of artists, and the bar is where some of the most interesting creative collaborations are concocted. The Arts Council of Wales has, in the past decade, refocused its attention on supporting creative individuals and now offers grants and other support at significant levels.
There are new things popping up on the horizon every month and opportunities there for the taking for the enterprising new artist – empty shops, green spaces, festivals, international projects, local projects, group exhibitions, performance platforms.
Soon this year’s grubs will be fluttering into our lives, adding the annual blast of colour to the arts scene. And I can’t wait.
Some useful sites for networking and/or kick-starting a career as an artist in Cardiff and beyond:Welsh Artists Resource Programme (Warp); g39; Milkwood Gallery; Oriel Canfas Gallery; tactileBosch; Artists Resource Cardiff (ARC); Ffotogallery Forum; Culture Colony; Chapter Arts Centre; The Arts Council of Wales ; Engage Cymru; Bloc; Art Tawe; Elysium Art Space; National Federation of Artists’ Studio Providers; Axis; A-N; AiR
Image: Rose Attewell, from Addiction Library. CSAD Degree show 2011