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Visual and Creative Arts Research: An animated country
The UK is brimming with activity, energy and new ideas in the creative arts. And it provides all kinds of possibilities for showing your work and learning from like-minded people. Gill Sharp investigates...
For a snapshot of what is going on, let us look at one recent event – the eighth Animex International Festival of Animation and Computer Games held at Teesside University in February 2007. Over several days, it hosted animators, directors, film makers, students, artists, designers, writers and educators from all over Europe and beyond. In fact, one of the prize winners was Jacques Khouri, who studied at Savannah in Georgia. He had travelled all the way from the US, describing the Festival as ‘a lot of fun’ and a humbling experience in terms of meeting so many great artists.
Home-grown achievements were also celebrated, with a keynote speech from top British animator Andy Lomas. You may not know Andy’s name, but you will have seen his innovative work in film and TV programmes, such as Walking With Dinosaurs . (See the box accompanying this article.)
A range of possibilities
The Animex International Festival of Animation and Computer Games
The Animex International Festival of Animation and Computer Games takes place every year at the University of Teesside in Middlesbrough in the northeast of England. Animex came to Teesside because, in the 1990s, the University ran one of the first-ever courses in animation. From small beginnings, the University has now built up a whole department specialising in IT-generated design, including computer games and 3D visuals.
Animex is a single example of the range of arts-related events that take place in the UK throughout the year, attracting creative people from across the globe. It itself is only one of several animation festivals taking place in the country during 2007.
The others include London (an acknowledged centre for animation, where Dreamworks and Framestore CFC, companies for which Lomas has worked, are located); Bristol (another base for much successful work of this kind and home to the studio of Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park); and Norwich (a cathedral city with a well-established art school).
However, the animation scene is not the only place where there’s plenty going on! There are regular events, awards and competitions across the full range of design disciplines, and universities encourage their students to become involved with these, entering their work as individuals and as part of group projects.
Prestigious prizes and opportunities to show work are available through a range of local, national and international events, such as those offered by the Jerwood Foundation for fine art, the BP art and photography exhibitions, the D&AD Awards for creatives in advertising – and others too numerous to list here. The high-profile London Fashion Week is a twice yearly showcase for young designers as well as big names, while, every summer, Graduate Fashion Week highlights the work of those just starting their careers. New Designers, another annual event, searches out excellence in all types of craft and design, from product to jewellery to furniture.
All of these represent a fraction of the many possibilities open to you if you are studying art-related subjects in the UK. There is no better place to be seen and to meet those who can help and inspire you.
What about the performing arts? This is another sector full of huge potential. Each year, events like the Cardiff Young Singer of the World and the Edinburgh Festival bring international performers to Wales and Scotland. In fact, Edinburgh, and particularly its Festival Fringe, has long been a magnet for student drama, dance and music: numerous well-known artistes have started out here. There are also university-specific events, such as The Sunday Times newspaper’s Student Drama Awards, which have been the foundation for all kinds of success in acting and production.
These opportunities are open to everybody who has the talent and the motivation to succeed. So, how important is it to go to one of the UK’s more famous art schools or leading conservatoires in order to move your career forward? To study somewhere like Central St Martin’s College of Art, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art or the Guildhall School of Music is certainly not going to hinder your chances.
But, in the end, employers and agents will be looking for creative graduates whose work shows personality, originality and skill, rather than selecting them on where they trained. Andy Lomas’s background illustrates this and a host of other hopefuls are following in his footsteps.
One graduate’s story
Rich Crowe recently graduated from Teesside himself. A mature student, he decided to return to university when his career in web design no longer gave him the challenge that he wanted.
‘I was working in Leeds, but originally came from the Teesside area and it was this, plus its reputation, that was the deciding factor,’ explains Rich. ‘I was interested in both 3D modelling and animation, so I took a course in creative visualisation, which gave me a lot of scope. I knew how difficult it was to find work in this field, but I thought that it would at least provide me with new skills.’
Did the course live up to Rich’s expectations? ‘It was everything I wanted and more,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘There were so many modules to choose from that I rarely worked with the same people, so this gave me lots of techniques and exposure to all kinds of different ideas. The quality of my classmates and the commitment of the teachers was fantastic.’
Rich thinks that the department went out of its way to celebrate individuality and took pride in running different events and bringing in guest speakers from the industry. ‘Hearing how these people love what they do really perks you up,’ he enthuses. ‘You really begin to understand what you need to work towards and the standard needed to produce quality work and to succeed.’
Rich himself is already looking ahead to collaborating with scriptwriter friends, and to working on freelance productions and personal projects. He agrees that the example of people like Andy Lomas is an incentive for the future. ‘When I see what he has done, I want to reach the same high level.’
Across the country
Let’s move away from Teesside and find out if it is typical of what is happening in the rest of the UK. I chose, at random, the University of Gloucestershire, a small, relatively new university in the middle of England. Situated in the quiet and pretty town of Cheltenham, which is surrounded by the Cotswold Hills, it is very different from Middlesbrough, but its Art and Design Department is thriving.
Paul Rosenbloom, Head of Fine Art, points out that his graduates have gone on to complete PhDs and have exhibited their work regularly, one student recently alongside Turner Prize nominees Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Careers adviser Susan Bray confirms that the Department is friendly and supportive, and that ‘this has a powerful impact on the students, some of whom have switched career or moved from other creative disciplines’.
Then we go further south to London to see if the performing arts are as buoyant as their visual counterparts. But, instead of checking out the big-name institutions in central London, let’s go first to the suburban outskirts of the city and St Mary’s University College in Twickenham. Well known for training teachers, it also has an innovative Drama and Physical Theatre Department, offering Master’s degrees in both Performance and Directing.
Trevor Walker is Director of Drama Programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate level. He points out that: ‘Theatre courses in the UK have traditionally been divided between university drama departments and drama schools. The drama schools (academies) focus on training actors for a profession. Universities have focused on a general education in drama, with little regard for later employment. In recent years, although the academies have moved closer to universities by offering degrees, the university drama departments have responded by moving away into cultural studies and live art.’
From Trevor’s description, it seems as if universities distrust craft, while drama schools distrust ‘intellectualism’, so, at St Mary’s, an experiment is underway to bridge this gap with a new model of theatre training. Trevor explains: ‘The lecturers are all industry professionals working in partnerships with some of the top theatre companies. A professional training is delivered, but the difference is the focus on creative thinking. We want to develop creative artists and independent thinkers rather than unemployable intellectuals or fodder for the mass entertainment industry.’
What benefit will this have? ‘With all employers increasingly demanding creative thinking skills, St Mary’s graduates will have a future both in commerce and the creative industries.’
In the past few years, these graduates have already established themselves as performers, writers, directors and dramaturgs and have taken a proactive approach to their career. This year, the Department ran a drama forum where recent alumni and local arts professionals shared their experiences with current students, and passed on advice and expertise that should hopefully help them in their working lives.
The last word
A European student who has trained and studied here can have the final say. Muriel Regensberg is an exceptional singer who moved to the UK from her native Netherlands and has taken her master’s at Goldsmiths College, a well-regarded London university for the visual and the performing arts. She is now doing a PhD at the smaller-scale Roehampton University, not far from St Mary’s College.
‘I came to London because it is one of the cultural capitals of Europe, and I wanted to measure my strengths as a musician, a performer and an academic against the best of the best. In the Netherlands, courses focused on the academic, not the practical, and I was unsure of how good I was. Here, in this cosmopolitan environment, I’ve been able to test myself against talented people from all over the world.’
So the evidence suggests that, for vibrant, cutting-edge exposure to the arts, the UK is still very much the place to be. Wherever you plan to study and whatever the field in which you want to specialise, there should be something here for you.
Gill Sharp is a freelance careers consultant and writer with a specialist interest in the creative and performing arts.
Read other Visual & Creative Arts Research, including 2006 research on Intelligent Fashion and research from 2008 about the Creativity of the UK.