NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Conference Report: DDCA Annual Conference; Melbourne, 22 September 2017

The DDCA’s 2017 conference took place at the Victorian College of the Arts during Melbourne’s recent respite from the cold weather - quite disconcerting for those of us from ‘up north’ who had dressed for the ‘polar extremes’ of our southern states. In a program designed to prompt discussion we welcomed a wide range of artists from within, and outside, academia to consider the theme ‘Beyond Research: Creative Arts in the Impact, Engagement and Innovative Agenda’.

By Jenny Wilson

The DDCA’s 2017 conference took place at the Victorian College of the Arts during Melbourne’s recent respite from the cold weather – quite disconcerting for those of us from ‘up north’ who had dressed for the ‘polar extremes’ of our southern states. In a program designed to prompt discussion we welcomed a wide range of artists from within, and outside, academia to consider the theme ‘Beyond Research: Creative Arts in the Impact, Engagement and Innovative Agenda’.

This report provides just an overview of the day. A full report on the event together with speakers’ presentations where provided, will be available on the DDCA’s Conference page shortly.

Keynote Speaker Prof. Paul Gough

Keynote Speaker Prof. Paul Gough

Energising Keynote

Following a welcome by VCA’s new Director, Jon Cattapan and speaker introduction by Dr Julian Goddard, the day kicked off with an eloquent and informed keynote presentation by RMIT Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President Professor Paul Gough. Noting the number of countries now involved in research assessment, Professor Gough observed that a growing issue for the arts is how to position themselves on the ‘front foot’ in critical issues such as value for money and relevance to public benefit. Using the UK REF as a touchstone for case studies and advice, he explored the lessons that can be drawn from the recent ERA pilot exercise. He noted that universities with strong ERA records had not automatically shone in the impact/ engagement exercise, while in others, disciplines with ERA 2 ranking had delivered ‘mature’ impact results. This prompted a question of whether practice and community based researchers should focus on engagement and impact metrics rather than only NTRO excellence? Noting the need for HASS responsive indicators of impact and engagement, Professor Gough called upon artists and their institutions take an approach that would allow ‘the whole sector to take a step forward and not just a few institutions’.

Thought provoking panel session: Beyond Research

The afternoon’s discussion panel brought together 4 experts to consider ways that creative arts could not only thrive within the present research frameworks but also move beyond current research thinking.

Professor Joanne Tompkins, Executive Director for Humanities and Creative Arts at the ARC gave insight and encouragement to creative arts applicants on addressing the low success rates in the ARC funding schemes. She had observed that this was partly due to the low number of submissions received from creative arts. So her first piece of advice is to encourage creative arts researchers to submit applications! She also encouraged artistic researchers to be explicit in their applications to ensure that those from outside the arts disciplines could better understand the role and application of practice-based research.

Dr Tim Cahill, Associate Director, KPMG Advisory and former Director for Research Evaluation at the ARC, presented a bigger picture of Australia’s capacity to present greater engagement with industry and improve research impact. And the picture is not particularly promising. Compared globally, Australia has a significantly smaller percentage of researchers employed within industry, particularly the private sector; 60.7% of Australia’s active trading companies have no employees; and in real terms business expenditure on R & D has decreased by 12% since 2009. These factors combine to limit capacity to expand the impact of academic research. Dr Cahill also pointed out that government policy excludes access to R & D tax incentives for research in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, creating a distinct disincentive for industry collaborative research in a multitude of service sectors including tourism, media, and education. Given the size of Australia’s service sector, this would appear contradictory to the aims of the Innovation agenda.

Beyond Research Panel with (L-R) Dr. Tim Cahill, Prof. Cat Hope, Prof. Joanne Tompkins & Prof. Clive Barstow

Beyond Research Panel with (L-R) Dr. Tim Cahill, Prof. Cat Hope, Prof. Joanne Tompkins & Prof. Clive Barstow

Professor Cat Hope’s strident advice for artists who are employed and practicing in the university is to be mindful of those whose living is dependent upon arts grants. She pointed out that for many in academia, including postgraduate students, the journey was one of ‘industry-academia-industry’ which provided a perfect connection to pursue successful impact and engagement strategies and give greater support for artists practicing outside academia through collaboration.

DDCA’s Vice President Professor Clive Barstow drew upon the lessons we could learn from the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise noting the observations made by the Council for Higher Education in Art and Design (CHEAD) and the independent review of the REF by Lord Nicholas Stern (the Stern Report). Although there are key differences between ERA and REF – the REF informs university funding; does not distinguish between types of outputs; supports research via a dedicated Arts & Humanities Research Council – the feedback provided by Stern and CHEAD highlighted challenges with definitions of various terms such as ‘research active’ and ‘public engagement’ but noted that both impact and engagement are working well for artists. The REF had adopted a largely qualitative narrative approach to assessment but consideration of metric based measurement was growing. CHEAD in particular was concerned about the risk of institutional gaming and any extension of researcher behaviour change that had already been evidenced by the application of REF.

The following discussion of issues round the room was lively and animate – including both provocations to the panel members, observations of personal experience and questions on how best particular genres could address as well as broader discussion of whether arts would be better served outside the university setting and whether the university sector had lost the real meaning of its educational role.

As Chair of this panel, it was frustrating to have to bring discussion to a close – but necessary to allow DDCA Vice President Clive Barstow to move to his plenary address. He invited the audience to consider a number of specific actions including the establishment of an Academy of the Arts, the creation of a national alumni database and a stronger narrative that captured the relationship between research, teaching and students in ERA.

New Books on Artistic Research

Afternoon tea, which was part sponsored by Springer, included a showcase of new books on artistic research that have been published this year. DDCA President Su Baker officially launched my own book “Artists in the University: Positioning artistic research in higher education” published by Springer, This gave me the opportunity to acknowledge and thank the many people who had contributed to this exploration of the process and impact of the location of arts practice within the university research agenda.

Rob Burke and Andrys Onsman, authors of the edited collection ‘Perspectives on Artistic Research in Music’ published by Rowman and Littlefield, shared some of the book’s key messages highlighting how artistic research and the practitioner are inescapably connected; the verification processes for artistic research in music and provided interesting practical examples of artistic research in music.

Unfortunately Danny Butt, author of ‘Artistic Research in the Future Academy published by Intellect was overseas and not able to join us, but his official book launch takes place on 24 October in Melbourne (more details included in ‘Events’ section of this edition of NiTRO).

Further details of the DDCA conference will be available from the DDCA web site later this month (

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