The “degree show”. The exhibition of work at the end of every art student’s course. For thousands at Britain’s art colleges, it’s the highlight of their years of study, the goal towards which they work. It’s their first big chance to display their work, make some sales, possibly attract the attention of one of the commercial galleries who regularly go talent-spotting at these shows with an eye to signing up promising newcomers.
Immense care, imagination and high-spirited attention go into the curating of the shows, which are often very entertaining in themselves, drawing large crowds far beyond the artists’ family and friends, a magnet for enthusiasts interested in new art.
This year, however, the colleges are closed and the shows abandoned, postponed or gone virtual.
Most students are miserably disappointed, and some of their tutors are equally unhappy. One professor describes the final show as “an important rite of passage”; and as it’s also the main assessment tool for awarding degrees there are complicated practical implications for teachers as well as their pupils.
There’s unhappiness, too, because so many art college graduates face a very uncertain future burdened with large debts, and the selling opportunities and exposure of the final shows can be career-defining. The Royal College of Art’s decision to hold a virtual degree show, rather than waiting to hold a physical exhibition when possible, as some other colleges have done, prompted an angry petition; one former student’s Instagram post accused the RCA of “cheating [students] out of one of the most important things the college offers”.
Other colleges have taken a more imaginatively proactive approach. At Liverpool John Moores University the dozens of graduating BA students decided that, since they can’t exhibit their work on planet Earth (“currently broken”), they’d show it on Mars. Using NASA’s 3D scans to transport the viewer to the Gale crater on Mars, where random objects depicting each student’s work fly past, their website invites us to dive down wormholes and explore individual displays.
For many other colleges, it’s a longstanding online platform, New Blood Art, that has risen to the rescue. Founder Sarah Ryan established the site some 16 years ago to give “the first hit of oxygen”, as she puts it, to graduating students at the very start of their career, when they are completely unknown and their work is “as cheap as it’ll ever be”.
Her yearly routine has been to travel the UK browsing those very degree shows that are now cancelled, especially at the colleges outside London and other major cities where exposure for new artists is even more difficult, choosing talent for her website.
Now the platform has a renewed purpose, and is playing host to virtual degree shows from 13 of the UK’s art colleges, including leading names such as Chelsea College of Art, Central Saint Martins, Wimbledon and Glasgow. On the New Blood Art site, each college gets a section, and the individual works of the 2020 graduates are displayed. It’s hardly a replacement for the celebratory shows, with their high-octane atmosphere, but it’s a professional and vital selling platform, as well as “a channel”, Ryan adds, “to publicise their work”.
Ryan says: “it reminds me of all those years ago, when I set up the business; there’s a real sense of need, a sense of purpose — this situation has reignited that.”
Work from the well-regarded Falmouth School of Art — always one of the first to stage its final show — was among the first to appear on the site post-lockdown, and what Ryan describes as “a run of sales on the Falmouth artists” must have proved some compensation for the cancelling of their exhibitions.
“At the start of the corona crisis,” she says, “the reaction was slow, across the site in general. As if people were in shock. But over the weeks since then there has been a considerable increase in people browsing, enquiring and buying.
“Scouting for artists around the country has always been the bedrock of what I do; this takes it to a different level. For everyone concerned it’s a silver lining. Almost.”
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