Shaping tomorrow’s world

Immerse yourself in creativity and take on new perspectives: Eric Larrieux’s immersive performance «Day at the Beach» at the conference Refresh #3 in September 2020. Photograph Regula Bearth ©ZHdK

Immerse yourself in creativity and take on new perspectives: Eric Larrieux’s immersive performance «Day at the Beach» at the conference Refresh #3 in September 2020. Photograph Regula Bearth ©ZHdK

The professional fields in the arts, design and education are competitive so that forging a position for oneself requires a distinct sense of independence. This takes perseverance and time. An interview with Thomas D. Meier, president of Zurich University of the Arts, about capacity development, the importance of alternative perspectives and how an arts university can shape the future.

Thomas D. Meier, what is the status of art in society and how would you assess the potential of art and design in the 21st century?
I believe that the connection between the arts, the sciences and society is becoming increasingly important in order to understand and shape the future. Every artistic discipline is unique. Saying that, ZHdK has also been focusing on inter- and transdisciplinarity for years. Collaboration with experts from other fields offers artists, designers, educators and outreach specialists the opportunity to redefine the role of the arts and design in society.

ZHdK offers degree programmes in various areas of the arts, design and education — in other words, in areas where much is happening at the moment and where boundaries are becoming increasingly fluid. How do you ensure that ZHdK’s degree programmes meet the needs of the labour market and society?
Through competent lecturers, up-to-date degree programmes and committed students. As the largest arts university in Switzerland, and as one of the leading ones in Europe, we offer our staff and students a challenging and vibrant environment. We foster their professional expertise, curiosity and networking — individually, through collaborations and internationally. This enables them to contribute substantially to advancing the arts and design after they graduate — and thus to a society worth living in and an innovative economy. Our graduates shape art education, design, film, fine arts, music, dance and theatre with new, surprising and often irritating approaches, as well as guide these fields into the future.

Artistic talent is important, but not everything. What special qualities do people who want to be creative and artistic need?
One of our main concerns is to enable our students to develop. Their commitment, energy, determination and ability are prerequisites for the career paths and careers they choose to pursue.

“The environment is very competitive and a distinct sense of independence is needed to forge a position for oneself. This takes perseverance and time.”

Film, music, dance, design, art — barely any standardized basic training exists in these fields. What previous training do newly entering ZHdK students have? How important are preparatory or propaedeutic courses?
Practical experience is one of several admissions requirements, and is often also recommended. This can be an apprenticeship or an internship in a related field, or a preparatory course. ZHdK offers various such courses: the PreCollege Music, “Gestalterisches Propädeutikum,” the PreCollege Art & Design or the preliminary course in drama. These courses provide prospective students with insights into a field and serve as basis for choosing a degree programme and preparing optimally for the entrance examination.

Has the demand for Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes changed in recent years? If so, which fields are future students interested in?
Visual Communication is always in high demand, Cast & Audiovisual Media is becoming increasingly popular and most students enter the Department of Music. Some programmes are also quite new, including the Bachelor in Contemporary Dance and the Master of Arts in Dance, which was introduced in 2018. We know that students want to personalize their course of study. Also, graduates possessing interdisciplinary competencies have an advantage in professional life. They have gained both in-depth and broad knowledge. The major-minor model, a new study model to be introduced from 2022/2023, paves the way in this respect by combining content from different disciplines.

Graduation — and now? How do you assess the chances of graduates to establish themselves artistically and professionally? How can they succeed in making art their profession?
The professional careers of ZHdK graduates are very individual. They need both specific and diverse competencies. It takes graduates from the arts and design a little longer to establish themselves professionally. The environment is very competitive and a distinct sense of independence is needed to forge a position for oneself. This takes perseverance and time. Experience shows that the differences to graduates from other university courses largely level out a few years after graduation. ZHdK advises and supports students in their transition to professional life, for example, through the Z-Kubator, which provides know-how on entrepreneurship, or the Career Centre in Music.

“Art is allowed to be beautiful, touchingly irritating, contradictory and provocative.”

You are active internationally. How do you assess the developments arts programmes in Europe or worldwide, and how do Swiss degree programmes fair by comparison?
In the arts, professional fields are international and so, too, is training. Only if arts universities address the current technological and social changes can they help shape the world of tomorrow. Today’s world is increasingly interconnected, digital and intercultural, and requires the corresponding skills. These can be developed at ZHdK, among others, through Shared Campus. This cooperation platform, initiated by seven arts universities, offers sustainable international training formats and research networks. Shared Campus enables students to gain valuable experience and to engage in intercultural creative exchange in diverse learning formats, such as “Transcultural Collaboration,” a transdisciplinary semester programme held mainly in Asia and involving students from our partner universities.
Our degree programmes benefit from Zurich being the centre of Switzerland’s cultural scene and creative industries, as well as a major international business and research location. Our campus, the Toni-Areal, is home to a unique diversity of disciplines in the arts, design and education. This creates an environment ideally suited to testing new forms of cooperation. Our infrastructure provides staff and students with optimal conditions: excellently equipped workshops, concert halls, sound studios, rehearsal stages, studios, a library, a cinema, exhibition spaces, the Mehrspur music club and the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich. The Toni is a pulsating campus!

You are the president of an arts university. What does art mean to you personally?
For me, art is a way of appropriating and coming to terms with the world and with being human. It conveys its insights and experiences through aesthetic means, whether in music, theatre, literature, dance or the visual arts. It functions more complexly than scientific knowledge, appeals to the senses, triggers associations and arouses emotions. It confronts us with alternative ways of seeing the world, and is allowed to be beautiful, touching, irritating, contradictory and provocative. It confronts us with our own experiences and convictions. And it creates what remains.

Let’s finish with a question about the museum landscape. Here, too, a lot is happening: From exhibition to experience. What demands do those responsible for museums face today and in the future?
For museums, digitizing their collections and making them accessible online is just as much an important focus as creating interactive and participatory exhibition experiences that activate and involve visitors as a community. Achieving this goal also requires new competencies, e.g. in the field of digitization, in education and in communication. A purely functional logic is no longer sufficient in itself.

Prof. Dr. Thomas D. Meier is a historian and President of ZHdK.
The interview first appeared in 2021 in the magazine “Kunst&Design” (“Art&Design”), the opportunity booklet series of the publisher SDBB, Bern and was lightly edited for Zett Online.
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