Best in Show

The changing face of graduate exhibitions

Each summer, between the months of May and September, British art schools stage public exhibitions of works by their final year undergraduate and postgraduate students, a practice that is echoed, with variations in pitch and timbre, in écoles, schulen and accademie across the world. While Britain’s first degree shows proper only opened in 1974 – the year in which the Council for National Academic Awards scrapped the rather artisanal-sounding Diploma in Art and Design in favour of full Honours and Masters degrees – comparable exhibitions have been taking place for far longer. Were a temporal exchange programme to operate between art schools in early 18th- and early 21st-century London, a student from the artist-led (and brilliantly named) Academy for the Improvement of Painters and Sculptors by Drawing from the Naked could negotiate the structure, if not the content, of the concluding term of a Central Saint Martins MA with relative ease.

So familiar is the degree show, then, that it’s easy to forget what a peculiar kind of exhibition it is. When else do artists find themselves obliged to take part in a group show in which the curatorial logic begins – and, in most cases, ends – with the decisions of a college admissions panel, taken months or years before? Where else are the works they display ascribed (the impossibility of measuring the numinous be damned) a precise numerical score? Then there is the matter of the degree show’s public. A humanities student’s thesis is read by his or her supervisor, examiners and, perhaps, a particularly indulgent parent, before being immediately deposited in the dim basement of a university library, where it remains untroubled by talent scouts from academic publishers, or the attentions of weekend history buffs or philosophy dweebs looking for the Next Big Thing. Degree shows, however, actively court an audience, often employing professional-grade marketing paraphernalia (the art press advertisement, the celebrity catalogue forward, the commemorative tote) to ensure that the ‘right’ people attend. Given the high concentration of gallerists, collectors, curators and critics in the capital, this is clearly easier for the London colleges than for those further afield. Significantly, a number of provincial art schools now tour their graduate exhibitions to hired spaces in the city’s more fashionable tourist districts, although in many cases this is as much about promoting their courses to potential new students – especially lucrative non-EU nationals – as anything else; holidaying teenagers from Seoul or Shenzhen are far more likely to stumble across the University of Loughborough’s BA show on east London’s hipster thoroughfare, Brick Lane, than they are on its campus in suburban Leicestershire.

Given that the degree show traditionally operates as a kind of threshold between the art school and the art world, between studenthood and maturation, it’s unsurprising that some celebrated British artists have used it as an opportunity to present works that test institutional boundaries – examples include David Hockney’s print The Diploma (1962), made in protest against the Royal College of Art’s refusal to let him graduate without first submitting a written essay (the examiners eventually capitulated in the face of Hockney’s growing fame), and Gavin Turk’s blue heritage plaque Cave (1991), commemorating his time studying at the College as though he were already a sculptor of national standing (Turk was not awarded a degree, although the ensuing press hoopla thrust him to prominence). If there is little evidence of such straining against the leash in this year’s crop of degree shows, it’s perhaps because it is now not unusual for students at some British art schools to begin building a profile well before graduation – for example, the 2013 Royal Academy Schools Show, which opens 18 June, will contain works by Eddie Peake, Mary Ramsden and Prem Sahib, artists who have already exhibited in leading commercial galleries and public institutions.

Increasingly, many art students are approaching the British MFA and its equivalents as a kind of ‘taught residency’ (something long offered by Amsterdam’s De Ateliers and Rijksakademie, neither of which award official qualifications), a particularly intense phase in their lifelong education as artists rather than its apogee and end. Add to this the growth of practice-based PhDs, many of which are pursued by mid-career artists of established reputation, and initiatives such as Open School East – a free alternative London art school (co-founded by frieze associate editor Sam Thorne) that launches this September, which has no formal academic entry requirements – then the degree show seems less like a threshold, and more like a revolving door.

Such exhibitions remain, however, a vital moment in many young artists’ development. To support their 2013 degree show, Goldsmiths’ MFA cohort mounted a campaign on Kickstarter, the website that enables crowd-sourcing funding for everything from tech startups to self-published Steampunk comics. While their efforts were successful (£5,677 was pledged, happily exceeding their £3,000 goal), it remains shocking that students already paying hefty tuition fees are forced, in the current higher education funding climate, to throw themselves on the mercy of the digital version of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. Clearly, this is not a sustainable or scalable model. Goldsmiths, with its global renown, may be lucky enough to kickstart the next few graduate exhibitions, but is the same true of, say, Hereford College of Arts? Given the resourcefulness of art students, the degree show, or something like it, will endure. Where, and on whose terms, remains open to doubt.

Tom Morton is a writer, independent curator and contributing editor for frieze, based in Rochester, UK.

Issue 156

First published in Issue 156

Jun - Aug 2013

Most Read

If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018