It’s that time of year. Degree shows are, for a BA Fine Art student, supposed to be the accumulation of everything you have worked for throughout your education; the beautiful and resolved results of your hard work which confidently asserts: I am An Artist. I am ready for you, world!
Everyone in art school knows the legend of the Young British Artists (YBAs), who hosted the notorious Freeze exhibition which attracted the attention of Charles Saatchi—all while many of them were still students studying at Goldsmiths.
‘Oh, you’ll nominate me for the next Turner Prize? You flatterer!’
I think many of us secretly believe that we will be snapped up at our degree show Private View and will be whisked off our feet by some Scandinavian gallery manager who wants to photograph our work for big coffee table books; or perhaps the editor of Frieze magazine; they might want to feature you in an article about the next generation of art graduates…
‘What’s that? You want me to represent England in the next Venice Biennale? You charmer!’
You may think I’m exaggerating, but the little mounds of bespoke business cards bearing websites and contact details illustrate my point. And of course, we’ve worked so hard and overcome so many obstacles,(and painted so many bloody boards white!) it feels only fair that we should be rewarded for it.
According to David McLeavy, an ex-Hallam Fine Art student, the truth of the matter is that the sudden rise to artistic infamy doesn’t really happen, at least not very often in regional cities like Sheffield. The YBAs are an exception. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t still be success for us, the recently graduated. I first met David McLeavy when we both worked at Lush Cosmetics: I had just started my first year in Sheffield and he had just finished his degree and was working in order to fund his studio at S1 Artspace which he had won through a bursary scheme. That year, Dave learned how to juggle working at Lush with his artistic practice, alongside setting up a new exhibition space in Sheffield, Snig Hill Gallery. Since then, Dave has curated shows, facilitated new collaborations between artists, and founded Young Artists in Conversation (YAC), a project where interviews with up-and-coming artists are recorded and archived online. Dave, with several exciting projects already under his belt, typifies ‘successful graduate’.
When we leave the relatively comfortable safety net of university life (cheap bus fares, 10% student discount at Topshop…), it can be hard to adjust to life outside the bubble. We have to get jobs, pay council tax, be grownups. Nationwide, there are schemes through university or galleries which can help graduates to bridge the transition from art school into the real world, and for those who have secured schemes like this, you may already have contacts and even an upcoming show. But sometimes art practices can be forgotten while we get our lives sorted out; sometimes we fall in love or start a career in a totally different sector; perhaps we can’t afford to rent a studio and dad’s garage just isn’t hitting the spot. But there are different kinds of success, there are different races to be won.
I felt more satisfaction hosting the Degree Show Private View, handing out cocktails and icing fairy cakes, than I did actually making and installing the artwork in the show. Success should come hand in hand with happiness, so for me, success will not be as an artist—it doesn’t make me happy. Out of all my peer group, I think only a small handful intend to make art in the future: many are going on to teach, some have got jobs lined up already and one is starting a family. But in different ways, we have all succeeded; we have all found out what art means to us and we are all closer to finding out what brings us happiness. It’s the time for existential thinking, but also the time for end-of-degree parties—maybe you can’t have the former without a healthy dose of the latter.