29 May 2020
Arts & Society after the Pandemic Crisis: Challenges and Opportunities in Higher Education
By: Iñaki Sandoval

Arts & Society after the Pandemic Crisis: Challenges and Opportunities in Higher Education

We are currently living in an extraordinary situation due to the global state of emergency originated by the infamous Covid-19 virus which has paralyzed and isolated the whole world. While fighting against the virus and its transmission among the population -especially between the most vulnerable groups and the elderly-, all non-essential activities have been canceled or postponed. This imposed and elongated situation will generate a huge social and economic crisis like the world has not seen during the last century and raises the following questions: How are we going to react to such unprecedented circumstances? Are we going to be able to rebuild our economic model and advancing the quality of life of our societies?

Under such uncertainty, it is unavoidable to reflect on our current social and personal values. Governments and the private sector will have to rethink the rules for success with a sustainable and long-term approach at the same time as fulfilling the most urgent needs to boost the immediate economy. However, economic wealth cannot be the only indicator to measure the success and well-being of our societies nor the highest motivation to rule our nations: we must organize our values and priorities in consonance with a fair and inclusive community, granting access to an efficient and competitive educational and cultural model that prevails at the highest level in governmental decision-making. It is important to remember that the most advanced civilizations in history such as China, Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc. -without forgetting the success of the modern Nordic social model- set these values as a cornerstone of their societies.

It has become evident during this pandemic crisis of the crucial importance of the arts and humanities to empower our lives, release our creativity and fuel clever and viable ways to advance. Climate change, globalization, and digital societies are not an option anymore; our common future depends upon them. But how does culture influence the education of our children when related to ethical and sustainable values.

Let’s focus for a moment on the current state of affairs just before the appearance of the virus. We were immersed in the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, where artificial intelligence, genetics, robotics, biotechnology, algorithms, and big data are in the epicenter of the development of new business models, defining the new way we live and work. In a society dominated by the economic rule, immediacy, constant changes and a desire for quick success, the young generations are growing up with a lack of basic art and humanistic education based on values such as ethics, culture, discipline and perseverance, solidarity, diversity, the search of beauty and creativity. The Cambridge Dictionary defines creativity as the ability to produce original and unusual ideas; create something new and imaginative-. Creativity is synonymous with original, personal, and divergent thinking. It is also the quality that complements our cognitive activity along with intelligence and memory. This is why creativity has become one of the most demanded virtues in the new work context, and why it is also going to be of vital importance in the recovering process of the after-pandemic era. Companies seeking productivity and talent; information and knowledge -now largely absorbed by machines- will move on to look for imagination and the ability to combine the information in complex and changing situations. Just recently, the European Commission extended its education policy by updating the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) to STEAM, with the standing for the Arts (including music education). This is a very important recognition of the significance of cultural education in modern societies, not only for its humanistic and ethical component but also for its growing impact on our economy.

The report on The Future of Jobs (World Economic Forum, 2016) informed that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in a completely new job that does not yet exist. If we think about culture and the creative industries, the changes and new directions that emerged during the last 20 years are even more evident. The supersonic development of technological resources and the internet, and the radical impact and influence of social media, have entirely transformed the way we produce, consume and enjoy culture, art, and entertainment. We live in a global, diverse, and multi-cultural world, and the cultural industry is an immaculate mirror of this reality. Higher Education Institutions (HEI) must also adapt (learn-adapt-influence circle) to such a rapidly evolving environment by rethinking curricula contents and methodology to educate students in the ability to anticipate and prepare for future skills requirements. In today’s gig economy working model, students need to have the highest capacity and educational experience to be successful in the cultural industries, and even more, to create their jobs as entrepreneurs. This pandemic will deeply transform the economy as we know it with the loss of many jobs and activities (especially in the creative industries), but it will also activate new ways of creating and new opportunities for restless minds.

Academic programs should provide an innovative, open, flexible, and constantly updated curriculum with a distinctive entrepreneurial mind-set which facilitates a creative environment where the students can experiment and develop their artistic vision (learning by doing!). A forward-thinking efficient blended teaching model based on the combination of online, one-to-one, and group lectures, enhanced with the latest technology and information resources, research, project-based activities, and professional practice are necessary to assure the highest educational standards and efficiency. Teachers will act as mentors -like producers-, getting the most out of every individual student and the whole group, with the ultimate goal of facilitating and encouraging the development of a personal artistic voice.

It has been demonstrated that multidisciplinary academic environments are best for developing a global artistic dimension in younger generations. Today’s multimedia industry involves all music and performing arts fields, meaning that the process of creation needs to emerge from a rich and multicultural background of areas, styles, and aesthetics. Students and artists from different areas are naturally encouraged to interact and to share experiences and unconventional approaches of production and creative thinking, with a focus on academic and professional excellence. Creativity, projects, productions, connection with the professional market, motivation, and maturity level of the students -and teachers- are substantially deeper in a multidisciplinary environment.

Another aspect that the pandemic has reinforced is that multiculturalism is the new standard in a global world, global education, global industry, and globally coordinated aims and decisions. International mobility, networking, articulation agreements, joined programs and international exposure of HEI has become a priority for attracting the most brilliant students and teachers and key partners from all over the world. As new teaching and learning options proliferate, faculty engagement and development is of fundamental importance to institutional success. Understanding and managing change, innovation, and strategic reimagining by supporting faculty development, which improves practice and enhances individual strengths and abilities, as well as organizational capacities and culture. Besides, it has come to light in the last decades that systemic power relations inequities are embedded in most educational institutions. Naming these systemic issues is an important step towards addressing such inequities, operating at all levels of arts education, so that we can work to address them in a way that promotes meaningful change. All the HEI stakeholders must center issues of power relations in their daily interactions, so that all members of our community may one day enjoy a safe and supportive learning environment.

There is tremendous diversity across arts education today regarding the strategic importance of strengthening arts in society and community engagement. Some institutions have made little progress, and others have transformed themselves into highly engaged colleges and universities. Community presence must be a constant development establishing new partnerships and activities, even aside from the traditional cultural circuits, in areas with a special social impact such as NGOs, disadvantaged sectors, civil society, enterprises, region, etc. Public performances should be enhanced with camps, workshops, pre-college, and life-long learning programs, adult education, voluntary and charity tasks, all directed to better our community with concrete and regular actions. Education and culture are the best tools to advance our societies in a prosperous, ethical, and sustainable way. Cultural education incorporates the values of diversity, inclusiveness, gender equality, and democracy. HEI must advocate for promoting equality as a fundamental human right and a basic principle of social justice, granting access to education and work to minority groups, with unconventional and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The access and enjoyment of culture and the arts is a basic right for all citizens despite their economic or social status, engaging audiences in an evolving cultural environment and in exploring the artistic needs in our communities, reinforcing diversity and equal opportunity values. Consciousness for the social responsibility of artists and HEI must be raised, positioning art students as a successful future agent of cultural engagement.

So, let’s listen carefully to the wake-up call that Covid-19 brings us, and let’s seriously consider taking the necessary steps to redirect our existence to a meaningful life because we simply cannot afford the emptiness of a world without the arts and culture.

Viljandi, May 2020

Iñaki Sandoval is a pianist and composer, Principal at the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy in Estonia, and Aspen Spain Fellow.

1 The United States National Endowment for the Arts 2018 report asserts that the economic impact of the arts to the U.S. economy is already 4.2 percent of GDP ($763.6 billion) and counted almost 5 million workers, who earned $372 billion in total compensation.

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