Studio-based learning#1: Exhibition

I am reading Studio Thinking 2: the real benefits if visual art education by Lois Hetland et al. and I am surprising myself, as an art graduate, by how much of what I believe and  I know about learning spaces has been formed through a studio-based education. The book addresses the value of art education and it is convincing about the learner dispositions that are developed through studio-based practices.

If I wonder why I am so committed to developing authentic learning I am reminded that for a Fine Artist the exhibition, or even the continual act of working in public (i.e. the open studio method), is the overarching context for learning. It explains why process and product are symbiotic in Constructionist thinking. The art student is continually engaged in the act of making as a learning activity and developing their unique product: the exhibition, usually the culmination of study in the form of the degree show. It is the equivalent of the Phd viva where the student finally makes sense of everything they have thought. It is their ‘defence’.

For people who have not experienced a studio-based education, it may seem odd to describe the studio as a cerebral context. It is, in my experience, the perfect melding of  physical, social, and cerebral learning. The stereotypical notion of the eccentric, paint-splattered student is I think one based on a fair amount of truth (!), but that superficial judgement hides a deeper and richer reality; one that I think sets a standard for other disciplines.

Focusing on the role of Exhibition (as opposed to the other three structures of studio-based teaching: ‘Demonstration-lecture’, ‘Students-at-work’, and ‘Critique’) one of the respondents describes its importance – without the exhibition ‘it would almost be like rehearsing and never performing’. This comment struck me. For students who do not have an exhibition to develop and show, what is their overarching authentic equivalent? To begin to answer this it is important to understand that the exhibition for an art student is the culmination of their degree (though motivation towards this is further enhanced by the learner’s future thinking: what they might sell at their show, what they might make next, how ‘their ideas’ continue to develop, how the loss of studio creates a new context for practice, etc).

The exhibition demands that the student conceives of and makes a commitment to a statement. You could call this a hypothesis or the resolution of a research question. If you have been to a degree show you will know that each student’s statement is remarkably different from that of their peers. A naive student will show what they perceive to be their best work. Immediately we see a problem of subjectivity endemic in arts education: ‘best’ could mean so many things – technical execution, conceptual coherence, the most recent work, the work that took the most effort, the work that other people say they ‘liked’, the most commercial, the work demonstrating the most integrity… This subjectivity, nevertheless, has to be addressed by the student. They have to form a convincing argument. For an excellent student the exhibition will be decisive and coherent. It may bear little in terms of visual connect to earlier work, but ecologically the experience will have a strong connection to their current work and artistic identity.

So, these criteria (and many others) are continually swirling around the mind of the art student. One of the points of the degree show is to stop the ‘swirling’ and demand that the student tells their public what is important. And there’s another problem – who is their ‘public’? Their family, peers, people who they aspire to emulate, their tutor, the tutor group who will mark their show, people who might buy something..? The art student must make a commitment to a public that they believe offers them context for their work. Public, for many other students, is often clearer. It is the person who marks their work and this may explain why many academics and students are so preoccupied with surface learning where assessment is the prime or only driver.

The exhibition or statement presents a cohesive idea made up of a collection of ‘works’. Another problem – for conceptual artists (and when is a real artist not conceptual, though for some artists the idea of concept is as dominant as other artist identities) the exhibition may be represented in a single piece especially when that is a performance. It’s a risky business deciding what to include or leave out. Pinning everything on a single piece is courageous and demonstrates, if nothing else, determination and clarity of thinking; something that in itself has value. I had my work stolen a week before my own degree show. I often wonder what happened and I have always had this nagging thought that maybe my tutors ‘stole’ it, because the only thing I could do was to remake the show. I didn’t sleep for a week, madly creating new work. I did not attempt to reproduce the work – that would have been odd on many counts, but the loss of my work demanded that I reconceptualise my experience in a new ‘of the moment’ performance in which I created four new canvases. Technically it was quite different, but it was certainly a lot more cohesive than the relatively disjointed collection that I had brought together over the previous three years. 

I was a printmaker as well as a painter, so fortunately that practice involves working in multiples. I was able to remount some work. Printmaking is evidently a very process-driven practice. It is easy to understand that an artistic process demands continual decisions to be made: what am I going to do next? Why? How did that decision pan out? What are the consequences of that decision for what I do next? Kolb (1984) would recognise that as reflective practice demonstrated through the experiential learning cycle, but often this takes the form of a much more rapid form of iteration than in other disciplines. As an artist you are making decisions second by second (and often supporting year peers standing next to you in the studio to make decisions). Your next decision is likely to be about what colour and brush you should use (never mind medium, plasticity, etc) and how every stroke changes everything. Yes, really, painting is an utterly dynamic learning experience. The exhibition provides another longer cycle, as do each of the individual artefacts that are constructed along the way.

The studio, as a space, can also be understood as a technological process. Compare it to a weaving shed in which there is a clear purpose for how the collective paraphernalia should be brought to bear on the design thinking and purpose. Both are concerned with generating products. (This understanding of learner-generated content that also drives me comes from the authentic situation of design thinking and studio-based learning). 

Meta-cognitive learning is explicit in the associated metadata: the titles assigned to work and the collection and accompanying ‘artist statements’ and catalogue notes. It is through such notes or textual expressions that what is evident to the artist-student can be made explicit for the audience. Let’s be honest, it can be a mystery! Again this mystery says something about the importance of the act of making and process over the value of product. Many artists do not value product and are happy to rip up their work as they learn more and find the contradictions in their thinking. Or they may just have already moved their thinking onto what is next. While I was fraught that my work was stolen, I got over it. I became philosophical and recognised its ephemerality. And now, thirty or so years later, I continue to take little joy in product – it’s always about process for me, especially working with others. But we need to complete – that’s a reality of the real world –  and the exhibition serves to remind art students to get off their cloud and deliver or conclude and make sense of the world at this point in time.

Advocates of creative learning (e.g. Wagner, 2012) will often be found to say that failure is one of the most important dimensions of learning and innovation (learning it might be argued is only continual innovation).  Studio practice is all about failure or partial resolution. The best artists are critical thinkers personified – they demonstrate how being self-critical (and hopefully with a constructive rather destructive attitude) improves learning and leads to better things.

The exhibition is a form of portfolio: it is the selection of representative work with accompanying narrative. Then there is the other portfolio: the artist’s physical (or digital nowadays) portfolio case. This portfolio of work is a constant of their practice and always nearby. The case expands and gets heavy, whether you weigh it in KB or GB. It is a reminder of their productivity and of the constant mission to resolve problems. The exhibition is one projection or presentation of a longitudinal assignment physically, socially and cognitively curated over a period of time.

So the exhibition, as a learning space, is multi-faceted. It provides a fascinatingly deep, rich, multimedia, experiential learning context. Coming back to my original question, what is the overarching authentic equivalent for students who do not have an exhibition to develop and show?

I think we have seen that art students do what other students do in many ways. 

They encounter, critique and reflect on conceptual thinking continuously. They also continuously generate their own ideas and all this happens in an authentic context, a form of situated learning that is not at all abstract. Following on, this studio experience that culminates in the exhibition connects thinking and learning to life: past, present and future. I don’t sense that most other students experience such an immersive and authentic reflective experience. This is borne out by looking at the abstract learning spaces that most other students use: the lecture theatre, the seminar room in particular as well as the associated pedagogies. (Of course this abstraction has other virtues). Abstraction is addressed to some extent through social learning situations in which misconceptions are challenged through tutor, peer and self-reflection. The self-reflective act of the art student would terrify many other learners, being a n emotive roller-coaster construction of highs, lows and surprising vistas. Don’t ever think that the art student has it easy. (And if you’re an art student having an easy ride, check you’ve understood your mission).

There are many other forms of authentic learning. The placement, in its many forms, is an excellent example. But even here the experience is based on a disconnection from the formal learning space. The nurse or teacher, for example, learns through a pattern of theory and application whereas the studio and exhibition are more immersive and continuous. If there’s a pattern its chaotic or not discernable.

There is so much to reflect on in the studio-based learning experience. I hope to return to it soon.


Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veneema, S. & Sheridan, K. (2013). Studio thinking 2: the real benefits of visual art education, 2nd edition.  Teachers College Press.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning.and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Wagner, T. (2012). Creating innovators: the making of young people will change the world. New York: Scribner.

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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