NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Perspectives of DDCA Forum

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.

The focus on moving from crisis, to an interrogation of the role of the creative arts post-pandemic, was rewarding. Terms like “public value” were discussed, as well as the emergence of increasing awareness of the role of culture in the Sustainable Development Goals. Added to current discussions around Federal cultural policy, there was a sense of positive change or at least timeliness. I was particularly struck by the distinction made between “vocation” and “vocational”: the creative arts as a way of moving through life, as opposed to contributing to the economy; something perhaps forgotten in creative industries rhetoric.

Alongside this, for DDCA it was a turning point in that for the first time, the office bearers in 2023 will all be from fields other than visual art. This perhaps marks a coming of age, given the initial drivers of the organisation were from the art community (largely the work of Emeritus Professor Jonathan Holmes and Professor Su Baker, the first Chair). DDCA’s strength is its disciplinary diversity and so the chance to be guided by leadership from Creative Writing, Music, Media & Communication is I think especially exciting.

Kit Wise, Chair ACUADS and Dean, School of Art, RMIT

As I wasn’t able to be there for the morning, I can’t comment on that part. But I can say the strategic planning session looked very carefully at what the DDCA does that is valuable and contributing to a deeper understanding of creative practice. We considered why what it contributes to society is undervalued, both as an endeavour in itself and as research practice, and sought ways to support that work of the DDCA into the future.

Marie Sierra, Dean Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne

To work with a First Nations concept some-times we need to truth tell. The DDCA meeting of 2022 was a meeting of this type, the culmination of months of reviewing and examining our purpose in the changing landscape of artistic practice in the academy. We have been looking at our cultural reach and how we will operate into the future. We talked about the motivation for our organisation and the charter of NiTRO, our highly successful textual offering. We asked ourselves what is not working?

We examined the results of running economic arguments to support our departments might be, and one of the results might be that we are destined for more budget cuts if we allow ourselves to be primarily judged by our contribution to the economy. The “creative industries” have informed our advocacy for a generation, maybe we need new ways to describe ourselves.

If we are to broaden our advocacy and our definition of ourselves, I ask how might we do we do so without reducing our “weight” in our home institutions. We discussed what our inherent worth is. That worth is significant, and I am confident that we can develop our narrative much more into the future. The pandemic has shown all of us the integral role of the arts, the arts are more than an entertainment machine though, they are a pipeline. Without our training institutions the artists of the next generation will be less skilled, particularly in some of the traditional skills such as orchestral playing and opera performance – for it takes as long to train an artist as it ever did.

I want to finish by thinking about impact. The role of artists and our peak bodies seems to be in allowing the people who can transform our society to get good enough to do “their thing” – to be canaries in the coal mines, the people who can open our hearts to issues such as climate change; to be the critical thinkers who can cut through the advertising and the vested interests to tell it like it is. We have what can so easily be reduced to the acronym of “soft power”.

Surely this is worth preserving; surely the DDCA has a role to play as a gate keeper that allows a number of fine artists to make careers in the academy; surely the role of artists in society can be better defined and universities, governments and philanthropy see the pivotal role that our artistic schools play for the country. I am not giving up on the DDCA any time soon. I wish to move into 2023 with a new sense of purpose. The DDCA is growing and consolidating, it is valuing its traditions and moving into new places and spaces. We may do some things differently in the future,  but our fundamental purpose will be the same.

Kim Cunio, Head of the School of Music, Australian National University

The DDCA Round table was a rare pleasure, an opportunity to talk at length with people who consider art, design and its practices germane to the best functioning of human society. A group working to build further recognition of cultural practice’s essential place in tertiary education. This commonality, with discussions facilitated over a long day, fires conversations, and expands thinking. A real plus is beginning at consensus on the value of art and its cultures, rather than the more familiar recurring arguments that question the cost of culture while oblivious to its real value. With invited, experienced interlocutors we excitedly discussed how best to ensure culture thrives in universities and in society.

We talked as a group who unceasingly consider how to engage the social collective about the benefits of culture; who focus on how to educate colleagues in other disciplines and those with power in the tertiary sector about the value culture brings to research and learning, its necessity. How to convince others, particularly funding decision makers, that art and its practices are the cake and icing, not just the icing, seen as provisional. Others will write about the on-point RESET presentations and the strategic actions agreed by DDCA Executive aimed at directing the organisation to strengthen the necessary advocacy that is a DDCA objective. The Round table was a truly productive day with multiple actions established toward the multiple consolidations needed for DDCA’s advocacy mission.

There are of course ongoing challenges to applying pressure in the right places. External to the cultural sector, the hard work of advocating for the necessity of art and cultural practices to government, policy makers and the general public requires substantial resourcing. For the Executive of the DDCA, a volunteer board, harnessing the resources to generate that public advocacy is vital. We know to build a highly influential body for the creative arts, which could advocate with the equivalent impact of those academies in other disciplines, requires investment and at significant levels. Targeted investments of adaptation, time, and funding were deliberated.

The diminishment of the cultural practice disciplines by university management, as a response to a potential COVID funding crisis in 2020, still reverberates. The evidence can be seen, particularly in smaller scale institutions where structures distance major decision-making from the cultural sector and its practitioners. However, universities that hold the privilege of managing embedded art and design schools must be accountable for supporting cultural practice education. Recognising their responsibility to Australian culture, they must foster acquisition of that knowledge to thrive.

The ‘internal’ conundrum therefore is to influence those responsible for the cultural disciplines in universities. A strong DDCA with evident substance can function as a powerful guiding light, a strong professional body setting standards and advocating for the grit necessary to sustain creative disciplines. The publication of NiTRO as an innovative platform to showcase the creative tertiary sector, its non-traditional research and education is indicative of successful resourcing.

While our sector celebrates the upcoming National Cultural Policy, burgeoning public galleries, and our publicised international cultural exports, DDCA’s progression will remind policy makers and commentators not to ignore the places where art education and training takes place. Australia’s cultural success has origins in tertiary institutions educating cultural practitioners. Those beginnings must be both supported to prosper by those responsible and publicly supported by those who celebrate art’s achievements. The next generations learning in those art, design and making institutions are those who will shape our cultural future.

Denise Ferris, Professor Emerita, School of Art & Design, The Australian National University 

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.

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.
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.

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.