OCAD University: The Future of Arts and Culture
May 18, 2017

The arts and culture industry has been hit as hard as any by the massive technological change that is disrupting our world. And the role that artists, designers and cultural institutions play in today’s high-tech world was central to a discussion led earlier this month by OCAD University at a roundtable that was part of the conversation about the future the province’s universities have been having this year with Ontarians.

The group of leaders that gathered at OCAD U from cultural institutions, academia and the entertainment industry noted several times how digital transformations – from the ability to broadcast for free on YouTube to the massive data collection we’re capable of today – has fundamentally altered the work of artists and institutions.

Judy Koke, Chief of Public Programming and Learning at the Art Gallery of Ontario, said  organizations like hers are actively adopting digital practices and business approaches to compete in this new world.

Others at the table highlighted how these changes are also shifting the value of an arts and design degree.

Ontarians need university degrees “for that exposure to other disciplines,” Raja Khanna, CEO of Television and Digital at Blue Ant Media said. “It’s hard to be creative in my industry without having a deep appreciation for marketing and business.”

Josh Basseches, Director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, similarly argued that universities must ensure that young people coming out of universities are getting exposed to multiple areas of knowledge.

The next day, sitting alongside Art Gallery of Ontario Director and CEO Stephan Jost at an Empire Club panel on the future of Canada’s culture institutions, Basseches expanded further on how museums in particular need to change in a digital world.

“The way that digital makes sense is to augment and enhance the [audience] experience,” Basseches said. Both he and Jost further emphasized that, to thrive, museums and galleries need to become more open than ever before.

At the OCAD U roundtable, Zainub Verjee, Executive Director of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, noted that for smaller galleries, particularly outside of Toronto, digital still presents a challenge. The bigger galleries can use data analytics to their favour, but it remains the case that “one of the biggest challenges for the public gallery sector…is where and how can they possibly participate in this data-driven world?”

Many around the table also noted that today’s artists and designers can be leaders in a data-driven world. Pamela Hilborn, Vice-President of Design, Digital Banking, at Scotiabank, said the bank needs “well-trained designers but we also need folks who can analyze data.” Students who can master both are well set up to succeed in the workforce.

Dr. John Semple, Head of the Division of Plastic Surgery at Women’s College and chair of the OCAD U Board of Governors, further argued that in a world where “there is all this generation of new data…there has to be an ability to ask big questions and find big answers.”

Like at other roundtables held by Ontario universities on entrepreneurship, innovation and youth employment, employers in the room emphasized the importance of creative, flexible and adaptable skills.

Robert Hambly, Partner at design studio Hambly and Woolley, noted that one of three things he looks for in new hires is a “strong sense of curiosity,” and challenged universities to teach the skill more robustly. Marble Media’s John Barrack said that at his company, “we’re looking for creatives rather than doers.”

At both the OCAD U roundtable and the Empire Club panel, conversation also turned to the value of artists and designers beyond the skills they might bring to the workforce. The role of art to drive the imagination and important social conversations emerged as a central theme.

“We do have to have conversations about race and class in Canada,” Jost said at the Empire Club. “We need to engage with these issues through great art.”

Claire Hopkinson, Director and CEO of the Toronto Arts Council, argued at OCAD U that “in a disruptive society, giving people a sense of place, a sense of purpose, a sense of wonder is going to be very important.”

We want to hear your thoughts as well on the role artists and designers can play in creating a better future. How does art contribute to shaping and debating the big ideas of the day? You can tell us by filling out our survey or writing us at insights@ontariosuniversities.ca. Together, we can help create a better future.

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