Art schools globally have been struggling with the new reality of shifting their atelier-style studio classrooms online. Think dance class, music pit, life drawing studio – there is a physicality and community required for much of the lessons that our emerging artists and practitioners need to experience for their professional development.
How then do you replicate that learning proximity in a digital pivot as an art academy?
Associate Professor Richard Chew, Director of Federation University’s Arts Academy said: ‘You can’t replace the experiential learning of studio-based practice online. However, as a university teaching arts practice, we can model what it is to be adaptive to the future, and to embrace the new look of this.’
Dr Chew continued: ‘I think what we are trying to let our students know is, this is the industry you’re looking at for a career – what it really looks like – so learning how to flourish in this environment of funding cuts and reduced opportunities as sole traders is a key opportunity.’
The Arts Academy is part of Federation University and is a cross-disciplinary studio-based school with campuses at Ballarat and Gippsland (VIC). Since the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions, it has taken components of its visual art, communication design, dance and performance classes online.
‘I think the key thing is that this happened so quickly; usually you have months of lead in time to develop contingency plans. We had weeks to reinvent how we do things,’ Dr Chew told ArtsHub.
With around 90 per cent of the Academy’s classes delivered in a studio environment, Dr Chew said the pandemic had, ‘forced us to look at how we deliver our programs, and how to make that online experience engaging and keep students proactive.’
ADAPT, IMPROVISE AND EVOLVE
Dr Chew credits the success of Art Academy’s digital pivot to the fact that, ‘we know our students really well. The sense of community going into this was very strong, and we have a really cohesive staff team who understood the kind of response we needed to create a meaningful teaching experience online.’
For students across the Art Academy, all courses transitioned online in some form, with the school’s productions postponed to later in the year when restrictions ease.
‘What we are looking at is training resilient artists to be prepared for this and capable of moving forward.’
‘The focus I have as Director is to promote collaboration among our students. We do that in our first-year courses. All students have the opportunity to work together – bringing our communication design students, visual arts and performing arts students to work towards a common goal.
‘That is really the future of our sector, and to “get” those relations early, is needed to understand practice as an emerging artist,’ said Dr Chew.
While isolation and restrictions have their many challenges, they also offer real life lessons for emerging practitioners.
‘The place where it will be critical is with our third year students. We usually present a graduate exhibition and performance showcase of their work. And there has always been a great up-take of our students by agents and promoters from this annual event.
‘We wanted to ensure we offer equivalency as much as we are able, with what they would normally do,’ said Dr Chew. The Arts Academy also offers classes in professional practice, which include everything from grant writing to producing their own projects.
A PHILOSOPHY OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP
For many, this is a moment of pause – to reassess careers and refine skills – while working in new ways from home has drawn out the entrepreneurial capabilities of students.
‘We are all going to be dulled in our senses by the plethora of online choirs, virtual tours and everything else,’ said Dr Chew. ‘So it is not so much about just learning the skills to be part of this new world order, but also the skills to navigate a way out of it – to look outside the box and do this stuff in an innovative way.’
He said that key for the teaching team was bringing the students with them in upskilling for a post-COVID world – lessons in resilience and flexibility that perhaps a regular classroom doesn’t offer.
‘Our students need to have a strong sense of themselves and what they have to offer, that is realistic, but are also capable of adapting to change.
‘So teaching those skills now, and managing expectations, is really important. The person who keeps going is not always the most talented. Not to give up is the key thing!’ Dr Chew told ArtsHub.
‘In terms of encouraging our students to be entrepreneurial, we want to be getting them engaged with the kind of online environments and the software they will need to muster in that space.’
Dr Chew concluded: ‘What we are looking at is training resilient artists prepared for this and capable of moving forward. Presenting new work is really going to suffer due to the funding situation, and if our students are looking more at how to develop online skills and presentation, then they have a chance.’
Dr Chew was proud of his students and team in how adaptive they had been. ‘We learnt a lot about the fact that we must rely on ourselves as a staff team to get across to the students, and to be really creative in the way we upskill. We have learnt from one another during this online shift.
‘The students have approached this really well and they have trusted the staff, and I think it has bought us closer together as a learning community.’