NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Transforming Visual Art Education to Benefit Students’ Wellbeing

As the landscape of higher education continues to shift in response to COVID-19, alternate art schools have become a competitive option for prospective university students. Comparisons between alternate art schools and Australian university degrees may focus on economic and structural differences, yet another key consideration necessitates that education systems support and protect students’ wellbeing.

By Dr Eileen Siddins

As the landscape of higher education continues to shift in response to COVID-19, alternate art schools have become a competitive option for prospective university students. Comparisons between alternate art schools and Australian university degrees may focus on economic and structural differences, yet another key consideration necessitates that education systems support and protect students’ wellbeing. Earlier this year (2021), I released findings from my doctorate research that explored Australian creative art undergraduate students’ wellbeing needs and ways to address these needs within university settings. Although the research data were gathered before the pandemic, the participating students shared perspectives that apply to the current climate of creative art education in Australia. Many of these perspectives aligned with extant research literature and raised valuable insights that could be applied in Australian university settings. The following points briefly summarise some insights relevant to current circumstances and possible future options.

Further details about the research and research findings are available through open-access reports at wellartist.org

Further details about the research and research findings are available through open-access reports at wellartist.org

Sensitivity to Context

Some of the creative art students who participated in my research viewed conversations about wellbeing as overly clinical, irrelevant, or meaningless in university settings. To negate creative art students’ disengagement from positive transformation, wellbeing-enabling strategies need to align with student motivations and disciplinary aspirations.

Implementing positive change to benefit creative art students’ wellbeing requires careful consideration. Students are primarily responsible for their wellbeing, yet their efforts to improve their university experience can be disempowered or hindered by existing systems, including the university learning environment and culture, students’ families and workplaces, and local creative communities. My research shows that active transformation within university settings needs to be cultivated by empowering students to enhance and protect their wellbeing, while also responding to students who are experiencing educational challenges and mental health difficulties. This approach necessitates a multi-levelled model that emancipates students from harmful power structures, accommodates diversity, and cultivates a sense of inclusion, belonging, and agency. Rather than implementing immediate change, I propose that creative art academic and professional staff ease into new aspects of their roles by implementing and evaluating the effectiveness of change in manageable increments. As an initial step, creative art academic and professional staff could identify the nuances of each cohorts’ demographics, their wellbeing needs, opinions on their university experience, and disciplinary strengths.

Building upon Students’ Disciplinary Motivations and Strengths

Positive change enacted by creative art educators and students is enabled or restricted by the decisions of key stakeholders, including senior university staff. Consequently, strong leadership and long-term commitments are required to direct all members of the creative arts and university community towards transformation that supports student wellbeing.

Some of the creative art students who participated in my research viewed conversations about wellbeing as overly clinical, irrelevant, or meaningless in university settings. To negate creative art students’ disengagement from positive transformation, wellbeing-enabling strategies need to align with student motivations and disciplinary aspirations. The participating students’ creative practice was often a key motivator that was linked to experiencing higher levels of engagement, wellbeing, mental health, or resilience. Other research literature has similarly identified the wellbeing benefits of creative practice (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) for artists and wider Australian communities (Fielding & Trembath, 2019). In addition to participants’ motivations to practice art, many were also interested in qualifying for work in their field and found it meaningful to gain recognition from professionals in their creative arts community. By learning from authentic, meaningful and wellbeing-enabling content in the context of creative professional development, students may be more inclined to cultivate their resilience within university settings. Some examples of wellbeing-enabling content are provided next.

Weaving Wellbeing Topics into the Fabric of Visual Art Curricula

It is possible to position wellbeing as a key feature of creative art education. For example, students’ resilience and awareness of strategies to manage university and creative work pressures could be prioritised as learning outcomes. Classroom discussions could highlight research evidence and anecdotal examples of relevant artists who managed challenges during their education and creative careers. Furthermore, complex wellbeing topics may be more engaging for students if they are given the freedom to research and articulate their knowledge using creative practice. Students could develop creative tools, artwork, or campaigns reflecting ways that artists foster healthy work lifestyles and manage mental health difficulties. Extant research literature provides relevant examples including students’ collaborative critical practice to interrogate how media reinforces stereotypes (Roxburgh & Caratti, 2018), and an exhibition contextualising what is described as mad art (Reid et al., 2019).

Some insights from the research

Some insights from the research

A Community Effort

Positive change enacted by creative art educators and students is enabled or restricted by the decisions of key stakeholders, including senior university staff. Consequently, strong leadership and long-term commitments are required to direct all members of the creative arts and university community towards transformation that supports student wellbeing. Professional and academic staff, healthcare services, creative art practitioners, alumni, and students can partake in efforts to establish learning environments that are ethical, safe, and supportive. As many in the university community are keenly aware, change in the interest of improved outcomes does involve some level of risk and expenditure of resources. However, I believe that the costs are far outweighed by the benefits of enhancing creative art students’ agency and wellbeing, to ensure our creative art students are well equipped to navigate the current climate of the Australian arts sector.

References

Fielding, K., & Trembath, J. L. (2019). Transformative: Impacts of Culture and Creativity. https://humanities.org.au/our-work/a-new-approach

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues. Oxford University Press.

Reid, J., Snyder, S. N., Voronka, J., Landry, D., & Church, K. (2019). Mobilizing Mad Art in the Neoliberal University: Resisting Regulatory Efforts by Inscribing Art as Political Practice. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 13(3), 255-271. http://dx.doi.org/10.3828/jlcds.2019.20

Roxburgh, M., & Caratti, E. (2018). The Design of Stereotype and the Image. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 37(3), 454-468. https://doi.org/10.1111/jade.12140


Dr Eileen Siddins has experience as an artist, educator, and researcher at James Cook University. Eileen’s research has contributed knowledge regarding the wellbeing needs of Australian visual art students in higher education, to inform future curriculum design. You can find more information about her research at wellartist.org.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Professor David Cross — School of the Damned is not the type of anodyne name we usually associate with international art schools. With faintly Hammer House of Horror overtones, this alternative educational programme was founded in 2014 by a group of UK-based students “as a reaction to the increasing financialisation of higher education”.[i]
By Professor Cat Hope — I am always glad to hear a representative from the Australian Academy for the Humanities (AAH) in the media, speaking so articulately for better support of the humanities in higher education and demanding recognition of the humanities as key to a healthy society.

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“What is to be done?” is a provocative demand employed by a number of diverse actors to call for change. Vladimir Lenin’s political pamphlet (1901), Barry Jones, our own former politician on the state of modernity (1982), and the Russian art collective Chto Delat, with a mission to combine political theory, art and activism are a small smattering of manifestos calling for change.

Reflecting upon the current state of higher education in the arts, the pre-COVID lyrics from Inertia Creeps, a song by Massive Attack in 1998, come to mind. As the songwriter, Robert “3D” Del Naja, explained of the lyrics, “It’s about being in a situation but knowing you should be out of it, but you’re too fucking lazy or weak to leave”. The inertia of online learning has been “creeping up slowly” on creative arts programs for more than 20 years; indeed, the University of Phoenix Online offered the first online degree program as early as 1989.

This text is an edited transcript of an interview between Swedish-based academic and artist Maddie Leach and David Cross. It specifically examines differences between the Swedish and Australasian art school models and questions whether the pre-conditions exist in Scandinavia more broadly for alternative education models to flourish at the expense of the current university-based system.

One of the noticeable disconnects between creative arts higher education and industry is that we train many more artists than our sector can support. For our graduates, this situation is often experienced as a personal failure … Recent research on musicians’ mental health and well-being tells us that training and industry cultures can be detrimental to musicians’ health both during their studies and after graduation. We might have continued to gloss over these limitations were it not for COVID, which has highlighted how unworkable many people’s creatives lives became without the option to work as normal.