As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted during his daily pandemic briefing on April 17, “Since the beginning of the current crisis, artists have been bringing comfort, laughs and happiness into our lives.” He’s right: the arts are important, particularly during a pandemic. In fact, COVID-19 has proven the arts are a social necessity. Creativity is always an assertion of hope.
But how and where are artists trained? In addition to exposure to the arts in elementary and secondary schools, the fine arts degree programs offered by many postsecondary institutions across Canada are crucial to the development of the next generation of artistic leaders.
A fine arts education – be it in music, theatre, dance, creative writing, visual arts or art history and visual studies – is not always an easy sell. The social utility and financial feasibility of the arts are often underrated. This is an erroneous view at best, given the more than 700,000 jobs and nearly $60-billion direct economic impact the cultural industries have in Canada.
As they write novels, sculpt, create digital art or compose music, our students are also learning transferrable skills that are essential for countering situations defined by uncertainty. Innovation and adaptability are an essential component of any fine arts education. The arts community was one of the first to pivot online after the sweeping cancellations of performances, concerts, readings, exhibits and arts-related events and conferences.
Here in the faculty of fine arts at the University of Victoria, we teach our students to think critically and creatively, to problem-solve and adjust to quickly changing circumstances – often with an audience watching. When you are performing in a play and the sound system suddenly cuts out or you forget your next line, you have to think on your feet. You have to perform under pressure. The show must, of course, go on.
The abrupt end of the term meant most students could not complete their creative projects as originally planned. I was delighted – though not surprised – to see how our graduating students responded to the pandemic by recording their recitals or shifting exhibitions online. Some assisted in repurposing equipment in our buildings, using sewing machines to make face masks and 3D printers to contribute to UVic’s face shield initiative.
Organizations and corporations are built on a combination of individual achievement and teamwork. Studying the piano or any other instrument requires dedication and self-discipline; playing in an orchestra, jazz ensemble or singing in a choir develops attentiveness to others around you, while providing the kind of satisfaction that only comes from collective accomplishments. To write a poem is to distill emotion and ideas; it’s an art form where precision is demanded and the power of words heeded – excellent training for careers requiring meticulous and thoughtfully written communication.
Will there be jobs for fine arts students when they graduate? Maybe. This is the same answer I offered before the pandemic. Some of our graduates will enter the arts sector while others will pursue other options. All, however, will be well-positioned thanks to their education in the fine arts, because we train our students to be creative entrepreneurs, to be aware that they need to generate their own opportunities. We teach the importance of thinking creatively for the moment we are in … and the moments yet to come.
I often muse that that the faculty of fine arts should really be called the faculty of social engagement. As we move forward, artists will continue to respond to social calamity as they have for millennia: their performances, paintings, movies, stories and curatorial activities will invite us to consider the significance of the pandemic, both personally and communally. Ideas are already percolating in the imaginations of many fine arts students at my university.
The community-engaged and Indigenous-related research and creative activities that many students in fine arts are currently pursuing promises to build intercultural alliances and to help decolonize academic institutions through the arts. They will also foreground the impact of the pandemic across diverse populations while using the arts to dismantle systemic racism.
Fine arts graduates will not only teach us new ways to create art online, but their design capabilities and inventiveness will help us explore the potential of our increased social reliance on interactive technologies. Will online streaming of performances, concerts and gallery exhibits become the new normal? It’s too early to say, but the COVID-19 generation of artists will be well prepared to do so.
As we wait to see what September brings for a postsecondary fine arts education (will we be leading online orchestras or creating new Zoom plays?), we will also have to wait for today’s students to show us what artistic ingenuity truly looks like in a post-COVID-19 world. I am confident that fine arts schools across the country will remain vital incubators for our future creative leaders within the arts community and beyond.
Allana Lindgren is the acting dean of the faculty of fine arts at the University of Victoria.