NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Gazing back and looking forward: An extended interview with Barb Bolt

Professor Barb Bolt is well known here and overseas for her work in creative arts research and particularly the creative PhD. Now that she has stepped away from the university “day job” we took the opportunity to get her perspective of the past and current state of play in tertiary creative arts in this extended Q&A with NiTRO Editor Jenny Wilson. 

JW: What shifts do you see have occurred in creative arts research over the past 15–20 years?

BB: There has been a shift from excited energy to expectation to disappointment and resignation to (some) hope again and then rage as creative arts programs have  been reduced or cut under the cover of COVID-19 and, in the graduate sphere, scholarships have dried up and intakes of graduate researchers reduced.

Over the past 20 years we initially saw the emergence and growth in creative arts doctoral research across the sector although there have been wildly different variations on this thing we call the creative PhD. For our “career researchers” there have also been some small (very small) success in gaining Australia Research (ARC) early researcher grants as well as much disappointment that it is so hard to “crack” research funding. However the momentum has stalled, as it has in the UK. As the funding of research and graduate research has become leaner, creative arts research has been squeezed. Fewer scholarships for creative arts PhDs and the creative arts generally means fewer artists have been able to take on the Herculean effort of undertaking what is effectively four years of study, and even then there is no commensurate career pathway for our graduates. This has seen the resurgence of and promotion of the research masters, a good thing in itself as it is generally a great program of study, but there is a danger for our sector if the doctoral programs are not supported.

Our inability to gain traction for creative arts research across the broader research sphere is due in part to the continuing dominance of science, medicine and technology in research, but also due to the failure of our ongoing advocacy for the importance of creative arts research. We tend to talk among ourselves and not to the broader research community. Where creative arts research has gained traction in the broader research community, for example through iCinema, SymbioticA and now the Science Museum, it tends to be where there is collaboration between artist researchers and researchers from science and technology. But even here, the advocacy for creative arts research wavers as we have seen with the recent University of Western Australia’s announcement of the proposed closure of SymbioticA. We certainly live in uncertain times.

What influence did the Strand Inquiry and Report have? Is it still valid today?

Surprisingly (given how long I have been around) the Strand Report on Research in the Creative Arts (1998) was before my time and my copy is still in packing boxes so initially I had to rely on Ross Woodrow’s article The Strand Report and the Damage Done which was published in NiTRO in July 2018. Fortunately Woodrow’s essay gave me a link to the Strand Report and so I was able to make some evaluation at his outrage at the impact of The Strand Report on creative arts research. The central criticism in Woodrow’s essay was around the question of “research equivalence” for creative arts practice (Woodrow 2018). His sense was that this notion of “equivalence” implied that what was happening was that creative research was considered as professional practice rather than research and this undermined the arts ability in itself to be considered research. His issue was primarily around the requirement that the “claim” for something to be research required the creative arts researcher to articulate “how” the work was research, commenting:

“Therefore it would seem a weird logic to claim that artists had no idea of the determinate content they had created which could only be revealed by others with discursive means. Yet this prejudicial privileging of the text over non-discursive forms of communication was sanctioned by the almost universal acceptance in Strand that, without written support, a work of art was unfathomable.” (Woodrow 2018).

In contrast with his assessment that the adoption of major elements of the report undermined the uniqueness of creative arts, I would argue that the Strand Report set the creative arts on its way into the world of research through this notion of equivalence as equal but different.  

Recommendation 3 of the report stated that:

“In addition to conventional definitions of research, individual universities and the major funding bodies (the Australian Research Council, the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs and the Australia Council) should adopt the notion of research equivalence as an appropriate and valid concept for recognition of research-based practice and performance in the creative arts, and incorporate it into their documentation and processes for allocating research funds. Research equivalent activity should be recognised as being equivalent to research and scholarly activities in traditional fields.” (Strand 1998: xvii)

What is most important about the Strand Report is that it advocated for a place at the research table for the creative arts and set down core principles that eventually were encompassed in the framework for Excellence Research Australia in 2008. These principles have also been foundational for our thinking about research and also creative research training.

In setting out the terms of ERA, the ARC defined research as:

“The creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings. This could include synthesis and analysis of previous research to the extent that it is new and creative.” (ARC 2008: 1)

This definition of research specifically allows for “practice-based”, “creative practice research”, “practice-led research” or “artistic” research as found in the creative arts.

The ERA documentation notes that adopting this definition of research allows ERA to develop a consistent notion of research and experimental development (R&D) across the disciplines including the humanities and the creative arts. Thus, according to the guidelines, the definition encompasses “creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humanity, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise applications” (ARC 2008: 1).

The 2010 ERA protocols provided the first clear guidelines of what constitutes an eligible creative arts research output in the Australian context: original creative works in the public domain; live performance works in the public domain; recorded public performance works and curated or produced substantial public exhibitions, events or renderings. From this, it could be claimed that since all art involves research activity, all art should be counted as research. However, in its deliberations on how the creative arts would be measured and evaluated in the ERA assessment exercise, the ARC Creative Arts Advisory Committee did not agree with the assumption that all art is, by definition, research. The committee asked the question: How is work “that reflects the definition of research” distinguished from “other creative work that represents a high level of professional endeavour but which does not reflect that definition?” (Seares 2009). In other words, what distinguishes “art” from “art-as-research” or creative arts research?  The motivation for making this distinction was initially to find a mechanism for legitimating artistic research or what has come to be called “non-traditional research” in the eyes of the broader research community. Margaret Seares, the chair of the advisory committee, observed that while people working in the creative and performing arts recognise that much of their work reflects the principles that underpin research, those outside the creative disciplines were (and remain) perplexed about the possibility that art can also be conceived of as research (Seares 2009). Thus, just as in other disciplines, we need to be able to articulate how our art is research and what it has done.

As Woodrow noted, words will always be inadequate to the task of encapsulating the material fact and the experience of the work of art/design. This may be true, but it is not the task of the research statement, dissertation, or exposition to stand in for or describe the artwork. The artwork stands eloquent in its own way. However, with its demand that we demonstrate what the work has done, the discursive elaboration or exposition enables another way of thinking and talking about our material inventions. It moves us away from artistic intention and the inherent danger of solipsism to focus on how the work is art and what it does in the world. This opens out our thinking to encompass the performative power of art to make a difference in the world. Through mapping and articulating what the research does, the creative arts are able to demonstrate not only how art can be understood as research, but also articulate its inventions. This will not deny the artwork its own eloquence. This is the path that the Strand report opened.

Do you see a difference in creative PhDs now to those completed, say, 15 years ago?

Our graduate researchers are smart and savvy and no longer tied to or think they are required to regurgitate indigestible cultural theory. This is a huge relief for all concerned. Our researchers have their own voice and are very articulate about what their research is and what it does. Thus it is no longer just the practice that is outstanding but the articulation of the research is vivid and compelling. There is much to get excited about.

That said, given that it is so much harder now to gain PhD scholarships, there has been a pushback against the PhD and the suggestions that we should be content to prioritise the MFA. Certainly it may make sense to focus on the MFA but I don’t agree that we should forgo a focus on the PhD for those students for whom research is a passion. They will make a difference … be the new energy so desperately needed now.

UK, Europe and the US have different political and organisational set ups and all take very different approaches to arts research and teaching. Are there any particular aspects from each that stand out as exemplars we could learn from in Australia?

Australia was a leader in creative arts research in the early noughties and early teens but I don’t think this still holds. The Scandinavians, in particular, have been much more methodical and rigorous in articulating a working methodology for artistic research – concepts, methods, pedagogies/didactics, and formats of arts – and practice-based research for both supervisors and graduate researchers. The Society of Artistic Research through its publication The Journal of Artistic Research (JAR) has been significant for disseminating the outputs of artistic research. I don’t see this kind of organisation happening now in Australia. Recently I gave a talk at the Royal College of the Arts which I titled “Is there a (research) life after the PhD? Mobilising the Performative Power of Art and Design through Artistic Research.” I believe there is a very critical life, but I don’t think that we have built the pathways to support this. The lack of support by the ARC of creative arts projects exemplifies this lack of support. Further I think it is much more attractive for our graduate researchers to take the path that the artworld offers. It is better supported and much more fun than the hard and unrewarding road of research. We live in two worlds. Why not take the path more taken!

Does the fact that the creative arts sector is made up of strong, independent and differing disciplines make it a help or hindrance to its future direction?

No. But we need to have a common language to talk with one another and strategise for a future.

What do you think the sector needs now in terms of leadership? Do we have the right conditions for this?

We need forthright and clear leadership, a visionary leadership that talks beyond the boundaries of the creative arts and engages with the sciences and technology as well as the humanities. We have to stop talking amongst ourselves and have to articulate in open forums – reach out and invest in cross disciplinary projects and stop being the “poor relation”. There are great opportunities to do this but we have to be savvy about our audiences and our potential partners. The music therapists are very good at this. The problem now is that our leadership is so tied up in managerialism that we don’t have the space for this visionary thinking and action and if one is not in a institutional leadership position one doesn’t have a voice.

Now that you have retired and have chance to look back, what have been some of the stand out moments of your career?

Three things: Firstly, the privilege and pleasure of working with graduate researchers on the most exciting projects. I have learnt so much and delighted in the discovery. Secondly belonging to an international community of artistic researchers who passionately believe in this thing called “artistic research” and how it can make a difference. Thirdly in a position to be able to make a contribution through … dare I say it … writing about what creative arts research can do.

Ultimately do you think that the visual arts has benefited from its inclusion in the university sector and does remaining benefit emerging artists and the art form itself?

The University has financially saved the creative arts and has created important links and synergies with other disciplines. These “relations” are critical in the highly technological world we now live in. Universities have also demonstrated their commitment to the creative arts investing huge amounts of money and resources into the creative arts, for example the bringing together of the VCA and the Conservatorium on the Southbank precinct and the development of the Performing Arts precinct at the University of Melbourne; the Sydney University’s newly refurbished multimillion-dollar arts facilities at the Camperdown campus; and the Edith Cowan’s Creative Industries, Business and Technology Campus which including the WA Screen Academy and Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) to be opened in 2025. The creative arts are now strategic for Universities.

However being part of the university sector has also tethered the creative arts to a particular regime that requires procedures and processes that limit what can happen. This was particularly so during COVID where every plan and every action was regulated. How can one be avant-garde when one is nicely packaged up and incorporated into a neo-liberal regime? It is a hard question and one I don’t have an answer for.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Jenny Wilson — The first edition of NiTRO was published on 30 June 2016. It emerged in an environment of policy change with the National Innovation and Science Agenda pushing research towards greater industry connections, collaboration and end user engagement in response to the Watt Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements.
The following perspectives of the DDCA Forum held in Melbourne on 24 November 2022 by some of those who attended gives a flavour of the discussions that took place as our focus turned to the achievements – and challenges – to date and the future direction for DDCA.

In 2015, The Australian National University’s School of Art and Design’s Environment Studio launched a unique field-based program, The Balawan Elective, honourably named with guidance and permissions of the First Nations community on Yuin Country, after their culturally significant mountain Balawan … Seven years on, much has come from these cherished relationships.

For some years now, I’ve taught a course called Pop & Trash … It’s always struck me as entirely odd that I teach a course that attempts to critique such constructed cultural hierarchies, and the next day I need to report to my university my ERA outputs based on the same outdated and outmoded cultural hierarchies and notions of impact.

By Jen Webb — In 2018 I wrote a piece for NiTRO subtitled ‘Are we there yet?’, tracing some of the practical and institutional effects of the Dawkins reforms that folded art schools and other creative teaching programs into universities. At that stage I felt reasonably sanguine about the futures of creative disciplines: despite a variety of hurdles, creative practice seemed fairly well embedded in the Australian academy.

In 2016 I wrote an article for NiTRO titled “Styling Australia’s New Visual Design Identity”, which sought to explore how to incorporate the amazing features of Indigenous iconography into design without denigrating or disrespecting the original owners and creators.

For those following the intensifying links between the economy, equality, sustainability and democracy deficit (clue: problems in the first three, create problems in the fourth), the absence of culture as a domain of serious policy attention is startling.

By Professor Marie Sierra — With the Federal Government pausing the next Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) round, now is a good time to consider the value, and growing influence, of non-traditional research outputs.
By Samantha Donnelly — "Architecture is really about well-being. On the one hand it's about shelter, but it's also about pleasure." Zaha Hadid (Iraqi-British Architect)

In June 2016, we launched the first issue of NiTRO and it is hard to believe that that was over seven years ago. It feels both a short time and a very long time with the last two to three years, stretching time in uncanny ways.