Art and employment: defining the culture of the future

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Art and employment: defining the culture of the future

Rob Pepper, artist and principal of Art Academy London, on why he believes in the importance of arts education in helping define the culture of the future

In a changing world of employment and the rise of artificial intelligence, there has never been a more important time to start training our young people to think differently and more creatively. As the president of North Western University Joseph Aoun argued in Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, creative problem solving is one of the few key areas that remains beyond the purview of machines in the near future. So when educators and business leaders such as Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma urge us ‘to teach our kids to be very innovative, very creative…and in this way, we can create jobs for our own kids’ – it’s time to take note.

In China, educators are answering this call from businesses by implementing a broader curriculum that includes arts, humanities and social sciences among traditional STEM subjects. Sadly, in the West, we seem to be moving in the other direction. In the UK, the government has promoted STEM subjects to the detriment of art, which is no longer counted in secondary school league tables or as a core subject in the baccalaureate. This is largely driven by a disconnect with the idea that studying art can be route to future employability.

As an arts graduate, Principal of an art school and a successful artist myself, I find this attitude short-sighted and inaccurate. I do still see, from nervous parents and society at large, the perception that studying art is the romantic – perhaps even naïve – choice. But studying at art school is an incredibly intensive process that can set people up for life: it teaches students to think creatively across disciplines and provides them with the tools to realise their artistic potential and gain future employment.

The UK has a rich history of art students emerging to define culture, one that we are in danger of losing if arts education isn’t championed and supported. For the last century British art schools have consistently produced not only some of the world’s most famous artists, but have also helped shape our most creative musicians – including Freddie Mercury, John Lennon, Roger Waters and Keith Richards – and some of our contemporary captains of industry: Jony Ive of Apple, Christopher Bailey of Burberry, Sir James Dyson and Brian Chesky at Airbnb to name a few.

There are a hundreds of jobs in the creative industries, including animators, advertisers, architects, fashion designers, film makers, illustrators, special effects and UX designers. In the UK, the creative industries are growing faster than any other sector of the economy, and have a worldwide reputation for excellence and starting new trends. We use products, wear clothes, watch films and listen to music designed and made by people who have studied art at university in the UK and US.

The cultural and monetary value of art to society is also at an all-time high. Never have more people visited art galleries, and seen art as a staple part of their leisure or tourism time. The art market is now a $64 billion business globally. Hitting the jackpot as an artist is rare, but it’s worth noting that it has never been a more lucrative time to be an artist, with art auctions seeing living artists making record amounts as never before: with artists such as David Hockney broking the record in 2018 with a $90 million painting sold at auction.

Artists are also increasingly valued by alternative industries. MIT, arguably the global centre of technological research, has long recognised the importance of dialogue between artists and scientists, enacting a visiting artists programme since the 1970s. As the Executive Director of the Programme, Leila Kinney, says, at a school like MIT which as at the forefront of science: “You’re asking questions that haven’t been asked before. When you put artists into that mix, those questions become larger, they become more speculative and they also take on a human dimension.” In recent years, Silicon Valley has been marred by controversy, but has begun to respond to criticism by examining its lack of diversity, not only in gender and race, but in educational background as well. Broader, more creative, liberal arts-based education is seen to be lacking in an environment where the cult of the engineer has reigned for too long. We will always need artists, both to take society out of itself, but also to push the boundaries of its thinking and to hold it to account.

One of the reasons art isn’t seen as sure-fire route to a successful career is probably due to the multiplicity of career options that are available. There is no ‘standard path.’ I studied at art school in the 1990s just before the internet became mainstream. This meant it was difficult to research careers in the creative industries unless you knew someone. And even now I still recommend that all art students research people who inspire them and look at how they achieved what they have. There are a broad variety of jobs after you’ve studied at art school and it’s a myth that it’s simply artists sitting in their studio painting. It’s a dynamic, ever-changing industry and as well as the potential to make good money, you can do something you love and have some great adventures too. I believe in the importance of arts education in teaching people to think creatively, fulfill their potential and help them get good jobs so that they can define the culture of the future.

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© Rob Pepper, 2020 | Website by Peter Loizou