Sheffield is a city with a rich heritage of industry and disappointment. Filmic representations [The Full Monty, Looks and Smiles] showed the world a city in the grips of a post-industrial hangover. High unemployment, rising crime, the ruins of brutalist architecture haunting the city that once boasted the largest steel and iron works in the Western world.
And this is not without significance for its cultural communities. A rich vein of late 19th and early 20th century philanthropy gave the city one of the best regional collections of art in the North of England. Indeed, the unassuming Graves Gallery (housed on the top floor of the city library) houses Cezanne, Pissaro, Picasso Miro et al.; a testimony to the cultural ambitions of a city which less than one hundred years ago only saw tomorrow as a bigger and richer place. More recently, regional development and new cultural industries have only contributed to a city that, despite itself at times, remains a leading innovator in technology.
The city, and in particular its art school, holds at arms-reach the spectre of steel; the steel industry gave and it tooketh away. The students of Sheffield Hallam (the smaller of the cities two universities) carry the burden of a city that is both ambitious and readily aware of failure.
Sheffield Hallam (until 1992, the City of Sheffield Polytechnic) is the sixth largest university in the UK with over 33,000 students. Its ethos is one of regional growth, innovation and enterprise and given its prominent role in post-Full Monty regional development its contribution to the city and to the North is difficult to estimate. Though arguably less traditionally academically focussed and prestigious as Sheffield University down the road, Sheffield Hallams reputation for research into material cultures, technology and media innovation is richly deserved.
Diversity and tension is on show at the Sheffield Hallam degree show. The scale is difficult to encompass, spread as it is across several buildings that represent Sheffield past and present. And its legacy and investment in technology and innovation are still very much on display. SHU run degrees in Graphic Design, Furniture, Arts Education, Interior Design, Architecture, Metalwork and Jewellery, Animation and Fine Art (there are countless pathways, but these were the main subject areas I visited that day).
Graphic Design is symptomatic of Sheffield Hallams way of doing things. Emphasis is placed on innovation and employability and this reflected in the vast array of specialisms on show. In Graphic Design alone, students (BA, MDes) students can specialise in Typography, Structural Design, Advertising, Motion Graphics and Illustration. Such a rich array of pathways leads for a very diverse presentation. But you wonder if such diversity is at the expense of a coherent voice and ethos? And is the vast array of pathway necessarily a good thing? For sure, the pressure of employability weighs heavily on an increasingly competitive university market but does asking an undergraduate designer to subscribe to and narrow themselves to such specificity a the age of 19 & 20 come at the expense of depth and insight into the possibility of the discipline? As such, the fireworks and innovation on display left me wanting a little bit; there didnt seem to be as much depth and dare I say maturity as Ive seen in more traditional degree shows.
Metalwork and Jewellery – a subject that has been slowly dwindling in the British art school and university these past few years – is a marker and, for me, the jewel in the crown of Sheffield design in 2011. Its not just that Sheffield is a steel city, its huge wealth and history being forged in the now empty and derelict forges and steelworks. The Metalwork and Jewellery courses at SHU forge a link not just between city and history, but between craft, fine art and innovative practices in industry. It was no more or less professional that Graphic Design [which was very professional] but it seemed to have a heart, an ethos of collaboration, newness, oldness and the future. In chatting to the students present at the exhibition I was struck by their commitment to their work, not at the expense of employability and innovation but rather that they understood confidence to be perhaps the most important and most employable quality of all.
Interior Design and Product Design (3D) are very socially minded. Links with West Africa and subcontinental Asia (with enviable student visits and exchanges) have brought about a strong emphasis on sustainability and social interaction. Although not uncommon in the UK university and art school in 2011, SHUs commitment to sustainability and the internationalisation of their courses far outstretches those of other similar institutions. The work itself holds up very well in comparison with other courses – and it more often than not has a quirky charm that belies its strong ethos.
The Fine Art courses at SHU seemed, at least in this exhibition, to be a very different animal. In its display, in what seemed to be borrowed buildings away from the main campus, it didnt seem to share the same ethos as those in the main university centre. It had a more underground feel, a show put on by squatters and guerrilla artists in abandoned buildings – an exhibition fringe. Of course, this merely highlights a different kind of professionalism and it certainly didnt detract from a very strong – though small – course that would have felt at home at many UK universities and art schools in the North.
The Fine Art show was far more claustrophobic than the design shows. Two floors and interlinked corridors make for a cramped, studio feel. Darker and less curated – this could have fallen flat. But they knew, I suspect, that this sort of exhibition – less white cube, more abandoned house – has a grammar and empathy that the design school struggled to pull off. It has more humour and more fear; more poignancy and pathos. Jessica Metcalfes old photographs printed onto anonymous tapes worked well against the broad humour and self-referential dolls house of Catherine Hutchinson. This tightrope of broad Northern self-deprecation and the serious work of Art could have appeared as an exercise in kitsch, but it worked superbly well.
Other courses on display that day, fashion, photography, animation – similarly, lacked something of the pathos and maturity of the Fine Art show, as professional as they were. It was not that work was bad, it was not; it holds up well with regards other shows in the region and in the UK more generally. But you do get the sense that the tension, how much of it at an institutional level, between employability, creativity, research and doesnt always reconcile itself within such a diverse set of works and disciplines.