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The state of the arts

28 October 2010

Opening of the 11th ELIA Biennial Conference // Interesting things happened in 1990. Mandela was freed. Thatcher resigned. Germany was reunified. And ELIA was born.

We are two decades further now. At the opening of the 11th Biennial, all the past Biennials passed by on the screen: Amsterdam, Strasbourg, Berlin, Lisbon, Helsinki, Barcelona, Dublin, Luzern, Gent, Gothenburg - and now Nantes.
Each delegate was given a balloon for every Biennial he or she attended, and in the end there were three with eleven balloons (among them two past presidents). Air traffic control forbade us to let them go in the open air, so instead, in the end, they cluttered against the ceiling of le lieu unique.

Now is maybe not the best moment to celebrate, with budget cuts in culture all throughout Europe and ever more uncertain prospects for art school graduates. Two years ago in Gothenburg, keynote speaker Peter Sellars welcomed the exciting moment when the old financial system was going the way of the mastodonts – though he also warned that the crisis so far was a media event, and the real cruch was yet to come. That moment is now indeed. But we are not dancing on the volcano. Even though the crisis could become a Fawlty Towers joke – don’t mention the crisis! – there is more than that to mention about the current state of the arts.
Two decades after ELIA was founded, we now inhabit a landscape with Universities of the Arts and institutions that have undergone massive mergers; with Masters and PhD programmes all throughout Europe; with ArtsScience and New Media departments; and we are already talking about the post Bologna period. And two things are gone from that landscape: the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain.

Being asked to summarize the future of higher arts education in four minutes, Chris Wainwright joked that this was a hard thing to do, and all the more dangerous if dinner is waiting. But there are real challenges at the moment. “The future of state funding as a core or significant core of our funding is in serious doubt. Over the next few days we will no doubt swap our stories. Will we see a future where much of arts education is in effect privatised and market led, and if so what will that mean for many of us and our future generations?” Chris fears that, no matter how much we have articulated the importance of higher arts education and its contribution to the cultural and creative industries, the voice of the arts is still largely unheard and ignored. Even if the term “cultural industries” has to be used with caution as it is a term that does not always clearly articulate the specific values of the arts, Chris feels confident to claim that Higher Arts Education graduates have created the cultural industries – we are the future of this important sector.

Jean-Pierre Simon, Head of the Visual Arts Department at the French Ministry of Culture, marked the year 2010 as a crucial turning point in the history of French art schools. Their autonomy has now been legally reinforced, and they are licensed to grant Masters Degrees at last. This marks a recognition of art schools as independent cultural institutions in their own right, on a par with art centres and museums. It is a further step in linking art and higher arts education, bringing the dynamics of contemporary art life into the academy and shaping the figure of the artist as teacher – one that was initiated in a previous reform as far back as 1972.

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