Durham is a haven for thespians, apparent not only from the abundance of profile picture frames on my Facebook feed, but also from the success of events such as last week’s Durham Drama Festival. Music, too, gets its fair share of Facebook cover photos and well attended showcases. Fashion shows abound, and a quick look on the Overheard Facebook page reveals plenty of student photographers and graphic designers keen to get involved in Durham’s creative worlds. However, as a fresher last year, I was struck by the apparent lack of visual arts interest.
When the role of Visual Arts Editor at Palatinate opened up, I saw an opportunity to dig into the sometimes elusive world of student art here in Durham. I hoped to investigate both for myself and for others who, like me, were interested but didn’t know how to get involved.
In the role I have learnt that the University houses a valuable and diverse Art Collection, including works by Andy Warhol and Guerrilla Girls. I’ve been to student-led art shows and discovered local artists exhibiting in the area. Most importantly, I’ve been able to meet like-minded students from across colleges and year groups who are interested in all aspects of art, from life drawing and set design to photography and exhibition curation.
As I move on from the position of Visual Arts Editor, it seems fitting that my final article is the one I needed when I was a fresher.
I spoke to four student artists to find out what’s on offer, the challenges faced by student artists and art societies, and their hopes for the future of the Durham student art scene.
- Amie Kirby is president of Trevelyan College Visual Arts Committee. Established 50 years ago, TCVAC is one of the oldest college art societies.
- Alice Lefrancq Frojd is president of both Durham University Art Society (DUAS) and Hild Bede Art Society.
- Triffie Axworthy is on the executive committee for DUAS and runs the weekly drawing sessions.
- Sarah McAllister is president of St. Cuthbert’s Art Society, which runs weekly sessions and trips to galleries.
While the students I spoke to had different personal interests and goals, there were common recurrent themes: art being limited due to lack of studio space; the difficulties of striking the balance between seriousness and inclusivity; the image of art as “niche” or “specialist”.
The problem of a lack of studio space was noted by all of my interviewees. While drama students have professional standard venues, including The Assembly Rooms Theatre and the Mark Hillery Arts Centre (in Collingwood College), lack of studio space limits artistic capacity to “crafts”, which require fewer materials. Triffie notes that this contributes to the perception of art as simply a hobby, something done for fun but not taken seriously. Cuth’s Art Society uses a conference room in college, which is open to everyone for use whenever they like, but it is not a purpose built space and suffers from bad lighting. Alice describes the Undercroft in Hild Bede in a similar way.
It is clear that Durham lacks working venues for art; most of the University Art Collection is in storage due to lack of display space, and student art societies struggle to find suitable locations for art sessions.
However, Alice tells me the Principle of Hild Bede, Simon Forrest, is keen to support the arts. He and Alice have been working to make sure art studios are given serious consideration in the college’s extensive development plans. Hild Bede would be the first college to include such facilities, putting it in a unique position to advance the student arts scene in the future.
While the “crafts” nature of art society sessions might be off-putting to students who have come from art foundation courses or fine arts backgrounds, Triffie and Sarah stress that they are essential to keeping sessions inclusive. Art in general, not just in Durham, suffers from being seen as niche, specialist, elite.
As Amie puts it, “people believe “good” art needs to be realistic, that there is a method to creating art that needs to be taught.” Triffie agrees, and furthers the sentiment noting that viewers might be “intimidated” by art because they feel they cannot interpret it. Modern art, especially, has tended to focus more and more on viewer interpretation, requiring long, off-putting justifications at gallery entrances explaining meaning.
Fun, informal sessions, such as the embroidery workshop run by Cuth’s Art Society last term, or the poster-making sessions Grey and Trevelyan held ahead of the student climate strike keep art accessible to all levels of ability, experience and interest. Furthering the Durham arts scene therefore depends on improving provisions for more “serious” artists, rather than getting rid of crafts altogether.
Furthermore, all the students I spoke to were keen to collaborate with other societies. They were convinced that this would help increase the reach of art to students who might not think art is for them.
Last term, inspired by Durham EcoSoc and the student climate strike, DUAS hosted an exhibition, Drop the Veil: Art and the Climate Crisis. It was an opportunity to explore different ways of thinking about climate change, and our individual roles in it.
I was (happily) surprised when Sarah told me that members of the public at the exhibition had asked if the work had been done by the “art students”; they “were shocked to find that [Durham] doesn’t offer that degree.” Sarah says, “this is a testament to the talent that we have at Durham”, but the University does not give this the recognition it deserves.
Another collaboration that might broaden the art related activities on offer would be talks by artists or art historians. The University’s Modern Languages and Cultures department has a Visual Culture postgraduate course; last term, Amie organised for Hazel Donkin, one of the lecturers, to give a talk about Surrealism at Trevelyan. More events like these would engage students who are more interested in the academic aspect of art and art history.
What I learnt from Amie, Alice, Triffie and Sarah is that there is abundant student interest in art here in Durham, but it is not supported by a cohesive community. While theatre and sport require collaboration and teamwork, the creation of art is often a solitary process.
Alice tells me that the DUAS life drawing sessions are always full to capacity, but she wonders if the regulars know one another, as people tend to work in silence. The key to ensuring that any society survives beyond the three year degrees of a few dedicated leaders is the formation of friendships and teams – a community which is inclusive to new members. Sarah says that gallery trips to Newcastle encourage conversation; Alice talks about establishing “mingling time” before the start of the session, as is done before the classes at Outstanding Art (where Ian Cowan, the owner, attempts to get attendees tipsy… it’s certainly one way to get everyone chatting!).
It is a shame that to someone not in-the-know, Durham’s arts scene can seem hidden. The University does not give visual arts the recognition or support it needs and deserves.
However, student art in Durham does exist. It bubbles away in conference rooms and empty lecture theatres, driven by enthusiastic and talented students like Amie, Alice, Triffie and Sarah. The fact that it is arguably still in its infant stages makes it all the more important to get involved now.
Images: Alice Lefrancq Frojd; Amie Kirby