How NUA gave Norwich a global reputation for designing the digital future

Professor John Last from Norwich Universtity of the Arts/NUA.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Professor John Last from Norwich Universtity of the Arts/NUA.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

From a hidden treasure with a long history but a low profile to being globally recognised for training creative talents working across the world. 

Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) has come a long way since Professor John Last took over as vice-chancellor in 2009.

Norwich University of the Arts. Picture: Owen Richards

Norwich University of the Arts. - Credit: Archant

In his more than decade in charge he has led the institution to achieve university status in 2012 and become world renowned for exciting talented artists in everything from computer games design to fashion. 

When he took over as vice-chancellor, he was told by a colleague it was a hidden gem, but as he prepares to retire in 2021 he leaves a university at the cutting edge of hi-tech creative industries.

“One of the things I wanted was to try and help people not just in the region but also nationally know what a great art school Norwich has had for the last 175 years. I am pleased that we have managed to raise the profile," he said.

 Paintings and illustrations, textiles, drawing and models, photographs, films, animations, games de

Paintings and illustrations, textiles, photographs, films, animations, games demos and sculpture all feature in the  Norwich University of the Arts annual degree shows. - Credit: Steve Adams


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The institution was founded in 1845 when the Norwich School of Design was established to provide designers for local industries, founded and supported by artists and followers of the Norwich School of Painters.

Today it has more than 2,000 students, many attracted to Norfolk from around the world, with former students working in everything from film special effects to some of the world’s leading museums and galleries.

NUA window projection of students work to celebrate the university's 170th anniversary.Picture: ANTO

NUA window projection of students work to celebrate the university's 170th anniversary in 2015. - Credit: Archant

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Mr Last said: “We have always had students from other regions and countries but if you look at the data we are certainly getting people coming from further afield. 

“The entry criteria and the general ability when they arrive is now extremely high. We have some very talented young people studying with us.”

Key to attracting some of the brightest was university status. “It was one of the things that the governors asked me to try to achieve when I was appointed and it seemed to be a mark of the maturity of the place,” he added. 

Prof John Last from Norwich Universtity of the Arts (NUA).Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Prof John Last who is to retire as vice chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts (NUA). - Credit: Archant

Now one of the UK’s leading specialist arts, architecture, design, media universities, it adds £17m a year to the local economy, and supplies a stream of talent to Norwich's burgeoning digital, creative and tech industries.

When he took over adapting to the hi-tech digital world was seen as key for the university’s success, said Mr Last.

“We hadn’t moved into digital as much as some other parts of the countries but it was obvious there was a real demand for that,” he said. “Our work in games was really pioneering and once we realised what a strong course we had in gaming we began to develop a very strong media school.

Professor John Last, vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts, discusses digital work with

Professor John Last, vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts, discusses digital work with a student. - Credit: Archant

“Our work now is recognised internationally. Just this last month we were named in the top 50 in the world in the The Rookies games schools.”

Graduates have gone on to work with world leaders like gaming company EA and at Star Wars founder George Lucas’ legendary visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic.

“It is always nice when you see graduates going on to do well in any discipline or sphere and we are lucky now that we have graduates across the world now who are making a difference from fashion to fine arts and particularly in games,” said Mr Last.

Students from Norwich University of the Arts take part in Global Games Jam. Picture: Norwich Univers

Students from Norwich University of the Arts take part in Global Games Jam. NUA has gain a global reputation for games design. - Credit: Norwich University of the Arts

“We have some emerging games artists who are set to be really important over the next decade.”

Mr Last is set to be succeeded as vice-chancellor by Simon Ofield-Kerr, who was previously at the University of the Arts in London. While traditional skills like fine art painting remain, he sees the institution continuing to respond to technological advances.

He said: “Our work in visual effects has grown in the same way that games did in that when we first introduced it it was very much a nascent subject. New disciplines emerge driven by technologies."

The Norwich University of the Art's MA Degree art exhibition. Vicky Brooke studies the work by Henry

Work on display at Norwich University of the Art's MA Degree art exhibition in 2016. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

In the meantime he intends to enjoy taking a step back.

“I’ve been 12 years now at NUA which have been incredibly enjoyable years and I’ve had the opportunity to work with wonderful chancellors. 

"That has taught me that nice serendipitous things just happen so I’m looking to see what the future brings.”

NUA Degree Show, 2018.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Creative fashion designs by NUA students. - Credit: Archant

NOTABLE NUA SUCCESS STORIES

Jordan Grimmer, concept artist at EA (Electronic Arts), the video games company.

Mary Sinclair Gibson, junior product designer at H&M headquarters in Stockholm.

Sophia George, V&A's first games-designer-in-residence.

Anita Clipston, compositor/senior paint artist at Industrial Light & Magic/Lucasfilm.

Amy Shore, senior UX consultant at Foolproof.

Henry Driver, internationally-acclaimed digital artist whose work has shown Tate Britain, The Barbican & Whitechapel Gallery.

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