Fine Art students face unique challenges amidst the cancellation of their Degree Show
Marte van der Graaf
Image Description: An exhibition by Sophia Wee
The closure of physical spaces has presented difficulties for students of all subjects, with History students losing the libraries and Chemistry students losing access to labs. But Fine Art students have not just lost access to their studios, they have also lost the opportunity to physically exhibit their work at the Ruskin’s annual Degree Show. The Degree Show is an opportunity for Fine Art finalists to exhibit the culmination of three years of developed studio practice. It is a celebratory event and a collective effort, with students fundraising and planning throughout the year in order to showcase their art to a much wider audience.
However, the show is not just a fun event, it is also significant in helping young artists gain recognition and support in the crucial early stages of their careers, acting as a launchpad to further opportunities for many. It is attached to monetary prizes, including the Platform Award where one finalist receives a solo exhibition at Modern Art Oxford and has the potential to win a £2500 bursary and mentoring from a professional artist, which will now have to take place virtually. It is clear that Fine Art finalists have been hit hard by losing the opportunity to exhibit their work in this setting.
The show is not just a fun event, it is also significant in helping young artists gain recognition and support in the crucial early stages of their careers
The pandemic hasn’t entirely stopped all hopes of a Degree Show taking place in some form. The Fine Art finalists are in the process of looking at what an alternative Degree Show could look like, whether this is by releasing a publication, putting on an exhibition at a later date when it is safe to do so or by organising an online exhibition. This idea of an online exhibition is an interesting one as it poses the question of how suitable art really is for this new virtual world. The Degree Show has always run in conjunction with a website and an awareness that not everyone will be able to physically attend, but a purely online exhibition certainly does present some new limitations.
A purely online exhibition certainly does present some new limitations
Art exhibitions, and perhaps especially the Degree Show, depend on their physicality. Installations are developed with spatial and temporal dynamics in mind, the materiality of sculpture cannot be fully experienced through a screen and, most importantly, exhibitions, especially a more intimate one like the Degree Show, thrive off engagement with the audience and public. The show was based in Cowley and as a result, a wide range of people unrelated to the university and Fine Art in general visit and have conversations with the artists that wouldn’t happen otherwise. A physical Degree Show is able to foster a sense of community and intimacy that an online show would simply never be able to achieve.
Furthermore, a physical audience plays a noteworthy role in access and outreach for both the arts and the University. It is easy for both to become insulated and shrouded in mystery and privilege and having local people and prospective students see what is being produced inside the Ruskin goes a long way in breaking down these ideas about art and Oxford.
A physical audience plays a noteworthy role in access and outreach for both the arts and the University
Speaking to some Fine Art finalists, there was also a sense that a crisis throws into question the use and the importance of art in the first place. A group of finalists published a collaborative document with Auto Italia sharing their experiences of lockdown, in which one wrote, “the uncertainty and stress of this situation make it difficult to focus, let alone acquire the mental flexibility to approach a radical alternative to conclude my degree. I don’t know how to continue a practice right now, or if I even want to”. This isn’t just about figuring out how to exhibit art virtually, it’s about how art and creativity can and should continue during a time of crisis.
“The uncertainty and stress of this situation make it difficult to focus, let alone acquire the mental flexibility to approach a radical alternative to conclude my degree”
The lack of a physical Degree Show reflects the sadness, frustration and anxiety that artists and audiences around the world are feeling about the closure of physical galleries. Moving art to purely online spaces is restrictive. Although the demand for art around the world has not decreased – galleries everywhere have reported record traffic on their sites – the way that audiences will be consuming and experiencing this art has been fundamentally altered. And, as the lack of a physical Degree Show demonstrates, we really are losing something in this new purely non-physical interaction with art.