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In my opinion

Art schools’ place in the global society

Art and design schools respond to demands of 21st-century education.


While artists and designers have always been concerned with the larger contexts of cultural production, in recent decades this concern has become systematically organized around specific fields and practices of inquiry that seek to address many of the pressing issues of post-industrial, global society—such as housing, health care, transportation, and sustainability. At art and design institutions around the world, it is commonplace for students to engage industry, government, non-profit, and community-based organizations as an integrated element of their studio-based educational experience.

Given their high degree of specialization, most art and design institutions are relatively small and nimble organizations that have a built-in focus on cultural and institutional transformation. As such, they have a powerful role to play within the larger higher- education sector as incubators for innovative research and pedagogical practice that is responsive to the complex demands of 21st century education and learning.

This innovation in social and educational practice was on display in December, when the European League of Institutes of the Arts (ELIA) held its annual Leadership Symposium at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. This gathering brought together leaders from 45 institutions in 22 countries across Europe, North America, and Asia to discuss the complex landscape and future directions of art and design education in the 21st century.

Concurrent with the symposium, students from Emily Carr organized a 10-day series of informal classes, exhibitions, and discussions that took place in several of the main public spaces at the university and across a range of social media. They conceived “QR_U (an open school)” as an artistic and organizational response to the leadership symposium, and as a way to connect the symposium to the educational and daily life of the Emily Carr community and the city of Vancouver.

An “open school” refers to globalization, market exposure, and boundary erosion that characterize the emerging environment of higher education. In this sense, the “open school” is both an aspirational vision and an organizational inevitability: our institutions will become more complex, diverse, student driven, collaborative, and permeable whether we want them to or not. And it is here that I believe art and design institutions can play an important leadership role.

At the ELIA symposium, participants discussed the changing economic, technological, and cultural contexts of education in the 21st century and the unique role that art and design institutions can play in responding to these (massive) institutional challenges. The symposium proceedings were live-streamed on the web and projected in the spaces of QR_U. Many of the faculty and students from QR_U participated in the ELIA discussions and a smaller group of students documented their observations on the symposium blog.

Looked at more broadly, this organized collision of formal events and informal discussions, of institutional leaders, faculty, students, and external constituencies, and of intersecting web-based and social media for hosting, broadcasting, and documenting these events, represents a rather natural evolution in the design of contemporary educational environments.

The ELIA Leadership Symposium/QR_U mash-up is, in fact, a practical demonstration of several principles that are essential to adapting our institutions to the demands of 21st century educational practice:

  • It models the complexity of the issues we face and the diversity of inputs — both local and global — we will need to solve them;
  • It acknowledges the emerging agency of students as reflectively engaged in their own education and in processes of institutional learning and development;
  • It provides a suite of tools, and methods, and models for enhanced collaboration among people of different experience and expertise; and
  • It addresses the increased permeability of our institutions to communities, agencies, industries, and other constituencies that are located beyond our physical walls.

The dominant intellectual and creative mood of art and design institutions is experimental, process-oriented, collaborative, and engaged with issues of context and community at all levels. More than just centres of creativity and innovation that can make significant contributions to the post-industrial service economy, art and design institutions are, at essence, about creativity and about the real-world processes by which innovative approaches to complex problem solving get done. As such, art and design institutions provide models and approaches to 21st century education that can lead to innovation across the higher education sector.

Dr. Bogen is vice-president, academic, and provost at Emily Carr University of Art & Design.

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  1. Glen Lowry / December 23, 2011 at 14:09

    Thanks for this mashup of QR_U (an open school) and ELIA. It was a rare pleasure to participate in both events, and to witness the collision of formal and informal concerns around shifting educational prerogatives.

    The collocation of the student-driven artwork (QR_U) and administration-focused dialogue (ELIA) provided for an interesting, at times provocative assembly of voices and ideals. As your post suggests, it was a good reminder of small art + design schools unique ability to connect and focus disparate or what might otherwise be dispersed discussions.

    The main lesson I take away from QR_U involves its powerful use of built environment, how with a relatively small budget and minimal interventions it was able to radically reorganize a main space of the university. The “open school” invitation challenged students, faculty, and local artists, designers, and curators to work outside the confines of the classroom or studio, beyond and between the pressures of standardized schedules and curriculum. In so doing, it provided a invaluable reminder of how basic changes—in this case to the spaces and routines we often take for granted—might create large impact.

    Placing sofas in the Emily Carr Concourse gallery effectively stopped passersby in our tracks. Rather than circling through, haphazardly taking in more or less autonomous art objects, as the space tends to have us do, we were encouraged to rest awhile, to listen and share the concerns connecting us. We were reminded that the best works of art are social.

    The fact that the space was beautifully designed and that there were well-placed microphones and large monitors available also helped create the illusion of an open, welcoming university. In times of fiscal and social restraint, this image of the open school functions as a strong reminder of what a university could or should be, a reminder of how much art + design have to contribute moving forward.

  2. Faye Wightman / January 1, 2012 at 12:01

    Although I was not able to observe or participate in the QR_U or ELIA, I read with interest Dr. Bogen’s comments as I see an opportunity for Emily Carr to play an even larger and more significant role in the social fabric of our city, particularly in partnership with one of our programs, Arts in the Downtown Eastside- providing a rare opportunity for artists in this impoverished neighborhood to recieve support to allow them to show their creativity. A great way for a university to get beyond their walls.

    Faye Wightman

    CEO, Vancouver Foundation