Open Letter: 'We didn’t survive the art school to be given up on now'

Door SOTA Group Gap, op Thu Apr 14 2022 21:55:00 GMT+0000

Together with art students and alumni and professionals from the arts sector, State of the Arts organised a working group to discuss the large gap between higher arts education and the professional field. In this open letter, the group makes concrete proposals to close this gap. On Wednesday, April 20, SOTA and The Group Gap will organise an open meeting. The public is invited to participate and think along. You may find more information at the end of this open letter.

Dear art schools, dear art institutions, dear Flemish policy makers,

We have a problem. You often seem to think that it’s (just) our problem. But actually, we think it’s yours as well. Can we please work out some solutions together? Be welcome, as a start, at Monty in Antwerp next Wednesday. We have some proposals to discuss.

We, recently graduated students, have been studying at your art schools for four years. A great time we had, but it was also a tough nut to crack. Finally we crossed the finish line. Our school celebrated our Master in the Arts-degree with us, but then slammed the door behind us to concentrate on a new generation of artists in the making. From one day to the next, many of us are now confronted with a situation that is often explained to us as ‘the harsh reality of being an artist’. As if that is a given reality that we just have to accept?

We don’t. As graduated artists, we feel left alone in the wide gap between the art school and the working field. We experience this as carelessness of both art schools and institutions, and also Flemish policy makers. If you all are really serious about your missions of ‘guiding students to contribute to society in a creative way’, ‘supporting emerging talents’ and ‘the artist as our cornerstone’, you should invest (far) more in bridging this gap.

The depths of the gap

What we call ‘the gap’ is the liminal space between graduating and having your first production, exhibition, album, or performance: that crucial period of time wherein you have to start building up the foundations on which you will later build your career in the arts. We see it as a gap and not a bridge, because not everyone will be lucky enough to reach ‘the other side’ and begin working as an artist.

This gap, this period after school, functions as a moment of filtering out everyone who lacks the means and resources to succeed, such as money, social status, ability, studio space, a paid rent, a network through family… Schools fail to prepare their students and accompany them to stability in their work. The art field forgets to welcome new artists in their communities.

For many of us, the gap after school is a moment that reinstates the existing inequalities of our society.

So for many of us, the gap after school is a moment that reinstates the existing inequalities of our society. When you leave school, you lose many of the necessary conditions to organise your practice and make the kind of autonomous art you are taught that is valuable in school. You lose a space to work, you lose a community of peers, and you lose mentors and teachers.

This means that, in order to start working, you must recreate all of these conditions by yourself. This often coincides with the moment that your parental support ceases: from one day to the next you are expected to pay your own rent, your own bills and food before you can even begin thinking about how you’ll pay for a studio or rent rehearsal spaces. This means that you’ll have to work a part-time job, often unrelated to the arts, before you can even begin to imagine how you’ll practice your art.

Perseverance and faith in one’s qualities and abilities comes with a good support system around you.

In this period, you also realise you are lacking a lot of knowledge. Knowledge you never learned in school, but which is necessary to get your practice up and running: how to apply for funding, how to price and sell your work, how to get the attention and support of institutions, cultural centers and/or galleries. Because you are a young artist, you don’t know many other artists as you lack a community and a network. You don’t know where to turn to ask for advice, because your teachers are no longer there for you. Although there is solidarity among many artists, the door into these communities can be very difficult to find.

There is also a psychological toll to pay while traveling through this gap. It is easy to mistake the lack of attention you are receiving from the art field as proof of the poor quality of your own work. Receiving a ‘no’ - or even no answer at all - creates isolation and loneliness. Perseverance and faith in one’s qualities and abilities comes with a good support system around you. Isn’t that the better version of reality we should strive for?

The deeper problems

No, we are not asking to have our hand held all the time. Yes, we know that we learn most by doing it ourselves. Indeed, as students we need to take responsibility for our education, meet professionals, get tips and tricks from a course in ‘entrepreneurship’, subscribe for that practical workshop. We admit, a part of the problem is ours to tackle. But a bit more care and support could be essential factors to kickstart this.

Art schools, institutions and policymakers have the crucial responsibility to address their deeper issues.

Art schools, institutions and policymakers have the crucial responsibility to address their deeper issues. Art schools don’t (manage to) embrace the concept of aftercare. Too often, they only show interest in sharing success stories of alumni to promote their own institution in the rat race with other Schools of Arts. Instead, they should support less glorious, but more realistic stories.

The art field functions through informal networks based on privilege. Many art institutions have incorporated neoliberal and patriarchal beliefs about ‘being the best’, far more than they are aware of. Cultural and educational policies in Flanders gradually cut the subsidised budgets of art schools and institutions to tackle ‘structural problems’. Our ministers believe that entrepreneurship is the solution.

As long as 'the reality of making art' is about business and not about the surplus value of imagination, many of us will remain in the gap.

Dear Minister Weyts: the dark truth is that half of your ‘starting capital’, as you call us, never gets started at all. Dear Minister Jambon: your Vision Paper on the Arts shows your full awareness of this gap. 'Graduates of higher art education are currently insufficiently prepared for the ins and outs of the sector. (…) It is irresponsible not to pay attention to basic economic principles. Elementary business management, the social legal position of the artist, and administrative law should be included in the curriculum.' But you propose a bleak vision of the arts.

These ‘basic economic principles’ are not the solution, but exactly the problem of today’s art education and production. As long as ‘the reality of making art’ is about the simple business of being visible and successful ‘on the market’, and not a risk investment in the surplus value of imagining how to do things differently, many of us remain in the gap.

Instead of pointing fingers at each other, let's take our mutual responsibilities.

Instead of pointing fingers at each other, let’s take our mutual responsibilities. Let’s do it together. We know that every individual in this ecology is trying to make the best out of it, within the given circumstances. But we believe we can do better. Do you as well? How could this gap become a bridge? How can schools support their students to begin a career after they have graduated? How can the art field welcome newcomers into its ecology? How can this knowledge circulate better? Could this be an opportunity to strengthen the solidarity that already exists within the field?

Seven solutions

Only complaining is not in our nature. We are well-educated and can think of the possibilities. We have seven proposals for ourselves and our fellow emerging artists, even if they have never been in an art school. If you want to discuss and help to refine these proposals, please join us next Wednesday evening, the 20th of April, in Monty in Antwerp, during our Open Session with State of the Arts: How to bridge the gap between art school and working field?.

1. A mentor for every graduate for two years after leaving school

As newly graduated artists, a friendly hand on your shoulder can be a reassuring backbone to guide you in those first pivotal years of building a career. But where to find that hand? You can continue to beg important people for coffee dates by mail, hoping to set up some follow up conversation. But more often than not, these pleas fall on deaf ears and we are ignored or pushed aside.

We propose a mentorship system in which active people in the field take up the mantle of ‘mentor’ for art school graduates. They can advise us on how to work financially, artistically and structurally on our budding careers. They can share their network and lead us to the right people for specific questions. They can inform us about opportunities they see passing by or give feedback on an application. For every young artist, this mentorship can be different.

The added value of this mentorship is its tailored guidance and the dialogue.

Assigning these ‘mentors’ can be organised through the schools. For instance, a school can provide students with lists of people that are open for mentorship. If we contact them ourselves, we might have the chance to actually get an answer. Or perhaps an institution such as Kunstenpunt or Cultuurloket could set up a pool of arts professionals to be paired with graduate students?

The added value of this mentorship system is its provision of a personal and tailored guidance. Even the best workshop or information website can’t match this. Simply because it would be a dialogue. Perhaps the Flemish Minister of Culture and the Flemish Minister of Work, Economy and Innovation can set up a small fund for starters to pay freelance mentors from the pool? Anyone who can hold open the door for us, even in a tiny crack, is most welcome.

2. A self-organized peer support group of young artists in every city

Each city could have a peer support group of young artists who meet regularly and according to the needs present in the group. For instance, around the different times of application writing, young artists could gather once a week to work on applications in the same room, where experienced grant writers can provide support. Last summer, Timelab, Kunsthal Gent and Gents Kunstoverleg organised a Schrijfmarathon. How to organise this more structurally?

Another shared practice could be regular feedback sessions, where once a month artists can check-in on one another’s progress. They could follow up on certain goals and professionalise, gather contacts of institutions and share their growing networks. Or they could share experiences from the gap, to comfort and help each other. These gatherings resemble the online Morning Coffees and Night Caps of Kunstenpunt, but we’d rather do it live. More than just a helpdesk, these peer groups would be work sessions.

It could be important to have monthly rituals.

These groups could work in two ways: firstly, a yearly calendar should be installed, like a fixed schedule or curriculum, where each meeting deals with a particular topic for emerging artists. Secondly, to create room for flexibility, every meeting’s program should include a simple monthly inquiry on everyone’s needs.

These groups should be mainly self-organised, but an art school or a cultural institution could provide the space and support in coordination in their city. It could be relevant to meet once a week, but not everyone needs to attend each session. Nonetheless, it could be important to have monthly rituals, such as an emotional check-in and a progress round on projects. Everyone that wants to offer any support to realise this idea, can contact us via the information below.

3. One database with necessary information and informal knowledge

Much of the information and knowledge you need to begin your work in the art field is informal. This means that you cannot find it online or in a textbook, as it is shared by word of mouth. Often, this knowledge is also learned by doing and through facing challenges. Rarely, however, such knowledge is written down, collected or shared on a wider scale, because it seems irrelevant or there is never enough time. Of course there’s information available on different websites, such as Kunstenpunt, Cultuurloket, Flanders DC, Sociaal Fonds Podiumkunsten, trade unions (ACOD Cultuur, ACV Puls, …), and so on. But where and how can more informal knowledge or concrete experiences be shared and collectivised?

Where and how can more informal knowledge be shared and collectivised?

We imagine a kind of forum where all this knowledge exists in one space. Anyone could add content and personal tips and tricks. We would also think of a search option, so that the relevant information could be easily accessible. Who could take the first step here? Cultuurloket, the Schools of Arts or SOTA?

4. Easy access to affordable rehearsal and studio space

To make art, you need space to work. Art schools, municipalities, cultural institutions and residencies have that space. They also offer it to students and emerging artists. Nucleo in Ghent and Morpho in Antwerp, for instance, offer around 25% of their available atelier space and extra guidance to starters. Their long waiting lists make it very clear: there’s a growing lack of (affordable) space for (young) artists.

If cities care about their local cultural capital, they should engage owners of empty buildings.

At the same time, especially after covid, there’s a growing surface of unused space in every city, from empty office buildings to abandoned hotels. How to connect the dots? Municipalities and governments could focus more on the temporary use of empty buildings, especially for starters, as they are more flexible and dynamic. If cities care about their local cultural capital, they should engage owners of empty buildings on their local territory to free up their unused buildings for (young) artists.

If they make their property available for temporary use for least one year, the municipality offers them to cancel their obliged tax for unused property. In Ghent, for example, this yearly tax is between 2.800 € and 4.400 €, depending on the scale of the building. Only buildings with access to electricity, water and heating are taken into account. A standard contract could be signed between the owners, the municipality and the artist.

To make this proposal more concrete and implement it, the union of Flemish residencies UFO and VVSG, the union of Flemish municipalities and cities, could start negotiations?

5. An online list of affordable therapists

Mental health is an issue that goes beyond the art field, but it’s an important part of the gap. As access to mental healthcare is more open for the privileged than for those with a lower income, we feel it is important to share mental health resources. Indeed, being an artist is a challenging job that requires a great deal of sacrifice when it comes to stability, security and self-worth. We imagine a website with references of therapists (or their organisations) who offer affordable services. Schools of Art could offer alumni the possibility to consult the school’s psychologists up until three years after their graduation. It’s necessary.

6. A form of financial support for emerging artists

We hope that the current proposal of Minister Frank Vandenbroucke on the revision of the artist’s status will be embraced by the whole federal government in the coming weeks and months. This proposal foresees that, from 2024 onwards, all graduated students at Belgian art schools (and people with a similar experiences, to be defined) could receive the right to temporary unemployment compensation for starters for three years, during which they would have to follow ‘career coaching’. Graduated students could use this time to do fairly paid artistic work and meet the criteria to get an official compensation for artists. During this period, it would be possible to have 1bis-contracts.

It's about offering young artists equal rights to build up the same social security as other employed workers.

This federal proposal is a special support for starters and not about ‘receiving privileges’. It’s about offering young artists equal rights to build up the same social security as other employed workers in Belgium. Now, we try to understand why we have to wait until at least one year after graduation before we are eligible for application for the new Grant for Emerging Talent in the revised Flemish Arts Decree? Exactly in that first year, the grant would be useful to bridge the gap.

7. A yearly festival or celebration to welcome new artists into the cultural field

Each year art schools organise a graduation show: a big exhibit in which graduating students show the work they have developed throughout the year. It is a way to display their talents, their skills, their creativity and to introduce themselves into the field. Imagine now that the art field would do the same in response: organise a three-day show or a fair to introduce herself to new alumni. We would call it ‘The Warm Welcome into the Artist’s Life Fair’. Its purpose would be to exhibit all the necessary conditions to work in the arts and be a ritual to take care of the artistic biosphere together.

It would be a ritual to take care of the artistic biosphere together.

The fair could have different stands and a big party at the end. Graduating students and alumni could be interviewed at the entrance to help with their orientation towards the right stands, in accordance with their artistic practice, their need for a work space, their financial means, and so on. This interview could archive their talents, skills and desires as a contribution to our collective care for the field. The above-mentioned mentors could be assigned to the alumni during this Fair.

If you want to discuss and help us refine these proposals, please join us on Wednesday the 20th of April in Monty, Antwerp, during our Open Session with State of the Arts: How to bridge the gap between art school and working field?.

If you are not able to attend this open session, but if you are interested in the next meetings of our new SOTA working group ‘The Group Gap’, or you want to help us realise one of these proposals, please let us know. You can also subscribe to the SOTA-newsletter.