How innovative thinking is future-proofing arts education

As digital disruption changes the world, almost before our eyes, arts educators are instilling creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial skills in the arts and arts workers of the future.
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Digital disruption is changing the world. Old forms of media are quickly becoming obsolescent, and new technologies are reshaping the way we interact, relax – and learn.

While some sectors are shrinking and faltering as a result of such rapid change, the creative industries are growing, and experts are united in their belief that creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial skills will become increasingly valuable in the years to come.

Instilling such traits in the artists and arts workers of the future is thus an increasingly important aspect of contemporary arts education.

National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) Director/CEO Kate Cherry says: ‘We encourage our students to become responsible and resilient artists, who leave NIDA equipped with the skills to thrive in what is becoming an increasingly competitive industry. We’re producing creative leaders and business-minded artists.

‘Our lecturers and guest tutors are professional artists. Naturally they inspire innovative and unique thinking from our cohorts. They also keep a constant flow of industry information coming into NIDA, so that we can adapt what we teach in the various disciplines to any changes in the outside industry – quickly and effectively.’

NIDA encourages students from different disciplines to work collaboratively and grow together throughout their training, Cherry says.

‘Collaboration also arrives in the form of our partnerships with external organisations, enabling students to work with people not typically associated with performing arts, in order to have them utilise their skills for unique challenges, which promotes innovative thinking and allows them to work on projects in the real world,’ she continues.

‘Another way we look to prepare students for the future is by providing them with high-spec technology, like the equipment we acquired through our recent partnership with Canon Australia. This has students accustomed with industry standard technology and, as Australia’s leading training institution for the dramatic arts, we’re now on the cusp of imaging technology advances in screen and theatre.’

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At the Academy of Design Australia, a focus on interdisciplinary practice gives students they edge they need to face the future.

Academic Dean Terese McAleese says: ‘The interdisciplinary model of our program gives our graduates a significant edge when they join the creative workforce or set up their own businesses.

‘We know that creative designers need to rapidly adapt to different projects and clients, and many are keen to manage multiple “careers” at the same time. Our project based assessment; professional placements; focus on digital literacy, and opportunities for student-driven projects help students develop a robust range of skills that prepare them for diverse futures.

‘A student may arrive at the Academy passionate about fine art, but will be exposed to the problem-solving process of design thinking, and extend their skills in complementary areas such as communication design or film and photography. Graduates leave us ready to work, with a range of options as to which path they will choose to follow,’ McAleese explains.

Read: What is Design Arts?

Expanding students’ skills sets and broadening their thinking is also part of the process at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), says Andrew Lewis, Associate Dean – Performance.

‘It’s a tough industry anyway but these days you have to have more than one skill – you have to be multi-skilled,’ Lewis says.

He points to the changing structure of WAAPA’s screen directors course as an example of the way education is keeping pace with technological change.

‘It’s no longer directing for television, it’s also for directing online. It’s directing web content, webisodes, corporate, adverts. Everything now is moving to online.’

The rate of change in recent years has been extraordinary, Lewis continues.

‘It was only a decade ago we were working with VHS and then to DVD, now everything is downloadable – and also the delivery of education via filmed lectures, Skype calls or Skype interviews around the world … So it’s about preparedness in such an ever-changing industry.’

But while technology is changing the world, some things stay constant, Lewis opines. ‘What we do is ultimately about storytelling and the need for humans to connect with other humans via narrative and the great thing about directors and performers is what we do won’t change. 

‘So the interesting thing is if you can find a niche, there is that need that is still there – even though the world and technology have changed so much. We just have to deliver it in a slightly different way. The need for story and human connection via creating empathy and pathos and rapport with others is just going to be via different mediums,’ he says.

Read: Elevate your directing career through authentic learning

Instilling innovative thinking in future practitioners is also a key aspect of teaching at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama.

‘Innovation is a key part of the school’s ethos and can be felt throughout all of our programs – through key figures from industry coming in to talk to students as well as the encouragement we give to students to explore new areas of thinking. What’s more, we have a very healthy number of PhD students creating new knowledge in areas of performing arts and theatre which are shared well throughout the school,’ said Central staffer Scott Bellamy.

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Professor Mark Considine, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne, says no single program or course can be fully across the magnitude of change the creative industries will experience in the coming years. Nonetheless, ‘there are two separate but related things that can give you skills to navigate into the future,’ he explains – skills which are honed in the University’s Executive Master of Arts (EMA).  

‘One set of skills are relatively obvious, but often not included in our kinds of programs, and those are things around business and finance capability; understanding leadership very clearly and learning to be a leader yourself; and ethics and communication skills. They will all build an ability to launch yourself or your group into action. That part is not unproblematic, but it is not terribly mysterious either. That’s the first bit. 

‘The second bit that I think is often missed or misunderstood, is that the EMA is predicated on the idea that people also need a deep knowledge and passion of a discipline or a competence that nourishes them personally and builds their own intellectual capability. So someone who has a background in, let’s say history, literature or philosophy, we want them to continue to develop that and to see that their future as a person building new ideas is all the better if they keep nourishing that part of their profile.

‘It’s a joining of those two attributes, and when you talk to people who are very successful, you will almost always find that they have a combination of those two. Something that drives their passion, their emotional capability, their outlook, and something that is nourishing and developing their skills as a leader and a builder,’ Considine says.

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Andrew Herpich, Student Liaison Officer at Adelaide Central School of Art, has a surprisingly simple answer to the complex question of future-proofing a new generation of Australian artists.

‘Increasingly, the world is a visual world; we rely less on written documents, constantly clicking and swiping. What an art school can do – especially in terms of how art participates in the world – is we are breeding very visually literate thinkers – people engaged in that future. In a way it is a hieroglyphic future, and these graduates are really sophisticated interpreters of hieroglyphic,’ he says.

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Recognising that our art forms themselves can be key in preparing resilient creative thinkers is also entrenched in the teaching methods at Melbourne’s National Theatre Drama School.

‘Giving them the skills and the assets they need to survive in the future as the world changes – traditional acting training already does that,’ says Trent Baker, Director of Drama.

By way of example he points to the body work and improvisation classes students undertake in their first year of the School’s three year, full-time Advanced Diploma in Acting.

‘Basically first year is about getting to understand how they work, what their patterns are, to know themselves, to get in touch with the body. So I think on a more traditional level that serves just to know yourself as a human being, to get to know yourself and how you operate, and to know that you don’t always have to go into that habitual state. You can choose. You can go, “Oh, I’ve been that up to this point, now I’m aware of it so it can be a choice. As an actor-performer I can do other things that I want, I have options.” So that’s a great way to future proof the students, that adaptability,’ Baker says.

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In terms of personal preparation for the future, voiceover artist and musician Nathan Leigh Jones stresses the importance of personal reflection.

‘The best steps I’ve taken in planning my future career have all involved setting aside time for some deep personal exploration,’ he said. ‘Our internal selves can often be a messy and scary place. I know mine was! The thing is, until we really spend a lot of time asking ourselves the tough questions, it’s hard to find a career that aligns with the core of who we are.’

Read: Planning for your future

At the National Art School, skilling up graduates so that they’re capable of responding to changing scenarios with adaptive thinking is a key part of the education process.

‘Many of our graduates go into these interesting portfolio careers, and we know there is value in the diverse opportunities they bring to that broader career field,’ says Simon Cooper, Head of Studies.

‘We retain confidence that the studio art process is about adapting to situations as come up – that speculative capacity of making. It means that artists are comfortable in fluid situations and have an ease with contemporary change, and the confidence to respond.’

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Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts