Libby Curtis, Dean of Gray's School of Art
Image by: Martin Parker, The Gatehouse Design Agency

Gray’s Degree Show 2022 'Welcome to the real world'

By Jenny Frost - 07 June 2022

As Gray’s Degree Show prepares to open, Dean of Gray’s School of Art, Libby Curtis shares her excitement and the significance of being back for the first 'live' degree show in three years!

You can really feel the buzz mounting across the Art School. That mix of nervous excitement, relief, and anticipation ahead of the opening night. It's what we have been missing over the past two years and it's a wonderful feeling for staff and students alike.  

There are many emotions attached to putting on an exhibition, showing your work and inviting people in to share one’s ideas and see your work can be daunting but thrilling at the same time. The Degree Show is an important threshold, a rite of passage one might say. This has been taken away in physical form for the past two years and that’s why it feels so fantastic to be back to the real world!

After three years without a 'live' degree show, we’re perhaps taking a little more time to do things, but we seem to have planned in even more events this year.

The sound of creativity at work equals laughter, intense conversations, quiet focus, and bursts of activity as students work with one another and our staff to build their shows. It’s fabulous to watch, hear, and really sense the commitment and togetherness across the School. It’s an intense period of time, sometimes quite fraught, but we all come together. This year, more than ever, our physical togetherness is so important, it’s really needed.

We have worked with two third year Communication Design students, Nicola Lyttle and Cameron Reid who are placements students at the Gatehouse Design Agency, to create the theme for this year’s show, ‘Welcome to the real world’. The students came up with multiple ideas and visuals that really encapsulated the ‘moment of emergence’ and anticipation around this year’s show. We all gravitated toward the playful TV heads chinking glasses; a visual pun on how we have all been ‘screen heads’ over the last two years and now it’s time to celebrate.

It’s the very first time we’re having a live band and DJ night at the Degree Show opening launch; this is very exciting and a nod to the sense of renewed celebration and that party feel for us too. Opening night is about friends and family, our community at Gray’s, RGU, and those we have worked with closely over the last few years.  Coming back into the real world on this opening night will be really special for us.

Over the past two years, students have had to dig deep for some creative grit; resilience by another name. The perception sometimes is that artists and designers operate singularly in their ‘individual’ pursuits and working processes, but they need others to bounce ideas off, to explore thinking, to collaborate with in many and most instances actually. Working remotely, working through isolation was challenging for all sorts of reasons as we know. Our physical studio and workshop pedagogy is integral to critical discussion, creative play, and in taking risks and experimenting with ideas, but alongside other people. We are seriously playful in the Art School; the serendipity of happy accidents and those eureka moments are brought about because of connection with others. This is vital to us.

This year we’re introducing the Principal’s Design & Fine Art Awards, sponsored by RGU Art & Heritage Collections. We have previously had awards sponsored by industry partners at the Degree Show, but this new move is an important one, I think. These awards are recognition from the University of the value of our students work, and a measure of the importance which the Principal holds for creative practice and culture. It will be exciting for our award-winning students to receive this recognition on the opening night and for the Principal to present their awards.

We’ve got a brand-new building and are hosting the Degree Show’s Fashion & Textiles and 3D Design graduates in the new Design Haus, so the show has a very different feel this year. This new space has superb lighting, a new exhibition system installed to present work, and is all round a fabulous space to exhibit in and visit.

Our students and staff have really enjoyed learning in such an inspirational space; a space that is open plan, flexible, teched up, and encourages great interaction and peer learning. The Design Haus design with its floor to ceiling glazing feels ‘open’ and those working in it feel connected to the quad in Gray’s and also to the landscape alongside the River Dee. I can’t wait to showcase the degree show in this new state-of-the-art exhibition space.

We’re also looking forward to hosting a VIP stakeholder networking event on the 13th June, as we officially open the Design Haus. We have invited the wider industry, key political, civic, and educational stakeholders to the event.  This is an opportunity to highlight the investment RGU is making to the creative sector in the North East and to present some of the key research and community engagement projects that the School is involved in and leading on.

We’re introducing some new awards at this event; these reference what we call the four pillars of the School and have guided our practice and curriculum over the last few years. They resonate with RGU’s teaching and learning framework and centre around graduates who are socially engaged creatives, collaborative creatives, critically creative and enterprising creatives. We want to recognise these characteristics and thought what better way to reinforce these attributes than by introducing new awards for our graduates.

Now that our graduates are showcasing their final degree projects, I am confident they have a solid foundation to build their careers, but this is something that we wish to build even more support for as the industry diversifies and becomes even more competitive. Our Creative Futures module, our ‘Life After Art School’ programme seeks to support learners in their understanding of the creative industries and of themselves. Students have lost some technical skills throughout Covid and that’s why we’ve put on extra technical twilight workshops to support them. Students have responded well to this over the course of this year.

The Look Again team is organising our degree show’s events, collaborating with our many colleagues across RGU.  We can’t wait to invite former students and our soon to be alumni students, to our networking event. This is just one of many events organised by the Look Again team who are an integral part of Gray’s and are supportive to our graduates throughout their journey at Gray’s. Projects such as the Look Again networking Creative Chit Chat Nights for creatives in the city, the HAAN Design Pop up event at Aberdeen Art Gallery providing promotion and selling opportunities, and also the Creative Entrepreneurship Programme, delivered in partnership with the University’s Enterprise and Innovation Group; this has supported over 100 creatives since it started enabling them to re-think and develop sustainable business practice.  

The Guest at Gray’s lecture series organised by Look Again in collaboration with our student committee members and Aberdeen Art Gallery, also brings in external speakers, one of the last being with Gray’s alumnus and winner of the Great Pottery Throw Down, AJ Simpson. These events have been well received by our graduating students, the general public, and brings to life the working challenges and opportunities of working in the creative industries.

Our Graduate’s in Residence exhibition, ‘Emergent' is also on show alongside the Degree Show at the Look Again Project Space situated on St. Andrew’s Street, and I can’t wait to see this. This programme is open to our alumni up to 3 years post-graduation. It provides creative mentorship, working space and access to facilities at Gray’s for a year. In return they will help support the School and our undergraduate students. Many of the artists and designers from the Graduates in Residence programme missed out on a physical degree show when they graduated and it’s fantastic for them to be showcasing their talent at this exhibition.

As I look to the future and the opportunities for Gray’s graduates in the North East and beyond, I believe we should be optimistic. We can work with others to build the creative footprint to support creatives in the North-East, we just need the environment to be ‘stickier’.

I believe this can be done but we need to recognise that creative businesses are often smaller, more disparate and operate differently compared to the larger businesses that the region is typically accustomed to. As a small city, there is a real opportunity for creatives to be more visible and impactful in Aberdeen and for it to be a place where they can make their mark. As a city and a sector we just need to make sure we support our talented graduates who are exhibiting in the upcoming Gray’s Degree Show by coming along to celebrate seeing them back in the real world.

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