It has long been an argument used by those pushing commercial interests and traditional industry related disciplines, that study of the arts is a luxury. The message of arts as ‘optional extras’, subservient to the now core STEM curriculum undermines the aspirations of those young people wishing to develop their creative talents. Such rhetoric was enshrined in the introduction of the EBacc which fails to include arts subject as a prerequisite. This is significant step in education policy has the potential to lose generations of creatives by undermining the potential impact of these subjects and devaluing their skills. What counts in public policy is what is measured and if arts are not encouraged in mainstream education, the contribution of the arts will not be part of that important barometer, the likelihood of which is a further weakening of the case for creativity.
For those who wish to pursue these interests in schools, colleges and universities, and for those of us to work to support the development of these skills for public as well as individual benefit, what makes this all the more frustrating is the hypocritical hyperbole of those in positions to mitigate this impending disaster. David Cameron was often quoted in praise of the creative industries, notably describing them as ‘the driving force of the UK’. This echoes his former colleague George Osborne who, in his opening speech as Chancellor, rhapsodised that they were ‘one of the best investments we can make as a nation’ as he envisaged ‘a Britain being carried aloft by the maker’. And with good reason: the creative industries are the fastest growing economic sector in UK, responsible for 5.6% of jobs worth £76.9bn to UK economy.
Artists, musicians, designers are not born skilled. The acknowledgements of the strong social and financial benefits of the creative industries come thick and fast. The problem is that not only are they empty in terms of translating to advocacy and practical support for the sector but also clearly lack foresight: it is a bitter pill to swallow. This is exemplified in a demonstrable lack of understanding with regard to how artistic skills permeate and influences other sectors. The case for ‘arts for arts sake’ has long been made and is one I wholly and unquestionably support. Creative subjects have a unique ability to tap into talents that other, more prescriptive subject areas fail to: they not just allow but encourage individual thought and responses.
Nonetheless, in an attempt to speak the language of those who are accelerating a path to a weakened creative sector, it may be worth reiterating the interdisciplinary exchange between those who study the arts and other sectors that require creative skills and thinking. As catalysts for creating students who are independent thinkers and resilient to criticism, arts subjects create reflexive and responsive tendencies which frankly all forms of working, as well as social life can be inspired by. These benefits we instinctively associate with the arts, are beginning to be acknowledged quantitively. A collaborative report by NESTA and University of Sussex ‘The Fusion Effect: The Economic Returns of Combining Arts and Science Skills’, analysed the contribution of employees science and arts skills in relation to companies’ performance. Whilst unsurprising, in an age where what can be measured carries greater weight, the findings were important: those that combine both arts and science disciplines within their workforce were found to deliver 8% higher sales growth than science-only firms. Similar thinking was succinctly addressed in the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Values (2015) which stated, “ministers are obsessed with siloed subject-based curriculum. We need creative scientists as much as we need artist who understand the property of materials and affordances of new technology”.
Without action, we are in grave danger of creating a highly unbalanced workforce, let alone communities. Culture helps create active citizens, agency, participation and civic pride: aspects of modern life we should demand, nurture and contribute towards. At present, the discouragement of studying the arts will no doubt create a two-tier system in which only the most advantaged youngsters have access to wide range of experiences and opportunities. Studies of this area are already clear in their findings: young people born into poor families with few qualifications were the least likely to work and be successful in the creative industries and are less likely to take an interest in and appreciate the arts as part of the school. In short, the educational system is not focussing on the future needs of the creative and cultural industries and the broader needs of innovation and growth, both individual and societal.
It is crucially important for the creative industries to respond by rallying together to show collective spirit and tenacity. And to this end, I was heartened and energised by a training session I attended last week by the charity Arts Emergency. Founded in 2013, their work was a direct response to the cuts to culture. Their core aim is to raise aspiration of young people and help counter the challenges imposed by higher tuition fees and a competitive job market through mentoring and advocacy. With a team of two full-time members of staff, in just three years, they have developed a robust and vast network of over 4,000 professionals aiming to help 100+ London-based disadvantaged students pursue opportunities in the creative sector. The vision, enthusiasm and ambition were clear for all to see both amongst the attendees seeking to mentor and the Arts Emergency team.
A quick head-count revealed approximately fifty people at the event prepared to commit to the principle of one-to-one mentoring for a period of one year. The variety of professions- a sport commentator, staff of London’s flagship dance and visual arts organisations, journalists and artists- came together united by a desire to widen access to their field. Not only is it encouraging to the sector aware of the pitfalls afoot for young people without strong support structures and enablers in place, it was a fascinating insight into the professional paths of peers.
The breakout sessions were organised to prompt reflection of our own careers, notably upon turning points which have altered, accelerated or halted the journeys. The mentees will be aged between 16-19 and thinking back to this period, I was reminded of the fact that I was far from knowing where or how I would work. On reflection, this seems to have set in motion an instinctive approach which has led to a convoluted, or at least unconventional, path. More important however was the reminder of the two people for whom I will always be grateful to for shaping my experiences and helping me refine my interests. It became clear as we shared these stories, that for the most part, they had a strikingly similar feature: people who had taken a punt and offered us opportunities whether we were ready for them or not and in doing so, had catalysed our worklife in ways which we are only now able to fully appreciate. In identifying our privileges- the people or circumstances that have been significant in enabling us to move forward- was incredibly helpful in understanding the barriers facing young people and we may best pass these privileges on. The magic of Arts Emergency is that not one person is expected to have all the answers. On the contrary, that is the very point of the network. We hear often of the importance of knowledge and skill sharing, of collaboration and proactive advocacy in the sector. In Arts Emergency, we have not only rhetoric but the mechanisms in place to enact this.