NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Artistic Research: if we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?

JOSEPH TOLTZ ––– Artistic practice researchers had been battling internally (within the academy) for years for peer recognition and a slice of the awards and grant offerings. Inclusion in ERA may have seemed like a victory in 2009, but it was fairly pyrrhic. Is it any wonder that academics engaged in artistic research are weary? 

In late January 2020, I travelled to Johannesburg to participate in the first Conference on Artistic Research in Africa, held at the University of the Witwatersrand. Filled with despair as I watched the evolving catastrophe of Black Summer from another continent, I prefaced the substance of my paper with a furious invective, attacking the atmosphere of climate denial that ruled the roost and observing the vice-like grip that the fossil fuel lobby held over the major parties. I saw this pattern of denial paralleled with denial of past and continuing atrocities: those wrought on Aboriginal people whose custodianship of the continent had maintained ecological balance for thousands of years, now squandered by the  colonisers and leading to this disaster. I railed against the rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

I named three stooges as critical players in Australian polity: denial, refusal to action, rejection of uncomfortable truths.

Little was I to know the pandemic precipice that I was standing on as I railed, Jeremiah-like, at the incompetence, ignorance and callousness of Australian polity in general.

One of the worst-affected industries in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic was the Arts. A punitive punishment on the part of the ultra-conservative Morrison government excluded artists and Universities from JobKeeper. We should have seen the signs: the 2019 erasure of Arts from the Federal Dept of Communication and its merger into the Dept of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, and Communications; the 2016 suggestion to sell Jackson Pollock’s painting Blue Poles in order to service the national debt; the 2014 cuts ($104 million) to the Australia Council for the Arts. Further ideological biases were levelled at the University sector, the most egregious being the 2018 National Interest Test which provided the excuse for rejecting 11 projects funded by the ARC, almost all from the Humanities and Creative Arts panel. Ministerial interference was not unknown. An industry worth $111 billion to the Australian economy shuttered, no recourse to save their jobs via JobKeeper, while at the same time parts of corporate Australia were reaping bonuses from JobKeeper and making record profits. 

Even before all of this unfolded, artistic practice researchers had been battling internally (within the academy) for years for peer recognition and a slice of the awards and grant offerings. Inclusion in ERA may have seemed like a victory in 2009, but it was fairly pyrrhic. Is it any wonder that academics engaged in artistic research are weary? 

Well, the times have certainly changed – less punitive, but no great evidence of improvement, yet, for artistic research. There is a new National Cultural Policy and it is heartening to see emphasis on First Nations priorities in the Arts and the recognition of First Nations stories ‘at the centre of Australia’s art and culture’. What is less heartening is the belief that an injection of funds into the Australia Council will bring forth transformative change in the sector. There needs to be a full inquiry into direct funding of cultural forms that are subsidised for mostly wealthy patrons (the Major Performing Arts Framework), and a stronger emphasis on the funding of young and emerging artists.

I remain to be convinced that the ‘arms-length’ nature of the Australia Council has the sort of rigour at its heart that is necessary for impartial funding decisions.

As for the currently-suspended ERA exercise, a number of reporting and evaluation practices were installed in various iterations of ERA in attempts to classify and fit artistic research into the Australian research ecology. These methods have constrained as much as enabled us to understand the health of artistic research in Australia. They are as follows:

  1. Recognition of NTROs as insights into applied research: in the last published ERA, NTROs are framed as providing ‘an important insight into applied research in a range of disciplines’. Defining an NTRO as an insight into the applied research, and not the research itself, is problematic for artistic researchers. The Australian government does not recognise embodied research in its list of research types: this is recognised overseas, with an increasing body of journals (many in online formats to accommodate ‘the work’), courses, conferences and substantive research positions emerging as a way to cultivate embodied research.
  2. Research Statements: standing in lieu of more substantial written work these are modelled on works of exegesis required of those completing doctorates in the artistic context (DMA, DCA, DFA etc). For many artistic research practitioners (particularly those with many years of experience in their field), the idea of writing a character-count limited statement about a creative work that may have taken many months or years to realise is an affront. Some argue that such statements limit the subjective experience of audiences (including assessors) with the artwork. Others have argued that traditional written research does not require compulsory abstracts for each work, so why should they engage in this convention that is unnatural to their own practice? 
  3. During ERA assessment: the SEER Platform has demonstrated the limits of budget technology in the context of presenting and evaluating artistic research. Portfolios suffer the worst fate here, despite the provision in the ERA framework that describes them as ‘particularly important […] where a body of work needs to be reviewed as a whole, so that the full significance of the research involved can be considered’. Those assessing portfolios regularly commented that portfolio presentations disadvantaged the research through a clunky interface; there was even an admission (witnessed by conference delegates) that portfolios were used as ‘dumping grounds’ for artistic research deemed lesser in quality.
  4. On the argument of quality: on numerous occasions I have heard commentary that critiques artistic research as inimical to quality artistic output (i.e. ‘it’s just not good art’). Researchers in fields adjacent to artistic research often say that the quality of artistic research outputs is simply not as good as that found in the professional context. I don’t usually respond to this because subjectivity plays an important role in how we ingest and process cultural experiences, however, I do believe that such comments are often tied to the old disappointing chestnut of ‘those who can’t do, teach’. 

The suspension of the ERA exercise has given every research administrator pause to breathe a sigh of relief. It should give all – researchers, administrators, and academic leadership – impetus to reflect on the place of artistic research in the academy, the structure and method of recognising non-traditional research outputs, and the assessment procedure.

The hiatus in ERA provides an opportunity to discuss a national approach to legitimate and recognise artistic research through a national (blind) peer review process. In the past ERA, some universities compartmentalised artistic research as ‘professional practice’ or ‘service work’, moving them out of the exercise and counting on written publications to carry the burden of assessment. Some of them have done so by taking research components out of the workload components of artistic researchers. The end result hollows out and devalues the artistic research that takes place in the university environment. 

What we need to do now, if we are to preserve and nurture artistic research in the tertiary sector, is to rethink the way we approach the practice of evaluating and reporting this research at a national level.

My suggestions are as follows:

  1. Convene a national body that will be tasked with assessing NTROs in a blind peer-reviewed context. This could happen under the auspices of the DDCA, for example. Under this system, NTROs would be minted with DOIs by their individual institutions, so that they can be referenced and enter research analytics systems.
  2. Encourage the foundation of artistic research journal(s) in Australia that will profile the important work that is going on in the sector. Online, open access will conform with ARC best practices.
  3. Encourage more NTRO reporting activity across the disciplines, including STEM. Artistic practitioners are often told that they think differently, and this could be utilised effectively in many different disciplinary contexts.
  4. Encourage active dialogue between the universities and arts bodies to make funding decisions that are equitable across the sector. 
  5. Encourage artistic researchers to report their commissions and successful funding applications through their universities, and make the engagement of outside practitioners in such activities a requirement of such funding bids, so that more collaboration is realised between the tertiary and arts sectors.

This may all be pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but there are examples of rigorous artistic research being well-funded that give us cause to hope for a blossoming of the practice in years to come. From 2015-2021 in the DECRA scheme, Performing Arts and Creative Writing sat at 2.45% of the funding, beating 10 other disciplines including Social Work, Language Studies and Specialist Studies in Education. In the Discovery scheme (same dates), Performing Arts and Creative Writing did even better, capturing 3.78% of allocated funds as 10th best funded discipline. The creative arts also do very well in Category 3 funding, especially in the philanthropic space. However, funding remains lacklustre for Visual Arts & Crafts. Let’s match the momentum that is already building in our research funding environment by improving the system in a rigorous and fair manner so that future generations (should they survive catastrophic climate change) will be empowered to research in an artistic context.

Joseph Toltz is a creative researcher specialising in Jewish music and its migrations, and Manager of Research Support in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. From 2014-2018 he was a Research Fellow at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music as co-Investigator on “Performing the Jewish Archive”, a four-year UK Arts & Humanities Council large grant, where he curated the 2017 Sydney-based festival “Out of the Shadows: rediscovering Jewish music and theatre”. A former fellow at the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he is co-authoring a book with Dr Anna Boucher on the first collection of Holocaust songs (Manchester University Press, 2024); co-writing a song-cycle with a child Holocaust survivor Guta Goldstein (featuring musical recollections from childhood and her time in the Łódź Ghetto); working with the exil.Arte Zentrum at the University of Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna (MDW) on the Austrian-Jewish refugee composer, Wilhelm Grosz; and investigating a 1943 theatre revue produced in Melbourne by the Dunera Boys (a group of Jewish refugees deported from the UK and Singapore to detention camps in Australia in 1940)..

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SMILJANA GLISOVIC, CRAIG BATTY, GRAYSON COOKE, TULLY BARNETT –––– As we read these voices side by side in this edition the field that they make visible is complex but coherent, the expression of the complexity is clear. The insights, suggestions and visions for the future are bold. The maturity we hear has been cultivated for years – trial and error and attentive consideration on how to create conditions for good research.
GRAYSON COOKE, CRAIG BATTY, TULLY BARNETT ––– As leaders in creative research in our institutions, we want to foster success, engagement, ambition and sensitivity to the needs of the sector. As artists, we want to focus on making and supporting creative work.
TULLY BARNETT, EMMA WEBB AND JUSTIN O'CONNOR ––– We contend that work will need to be done to ensure that the policy can be implemented in a timely and resourced way and in a manner supports a bipartisan approach to cultural policy so that Revive can set a foundation for the sector for decades to come.
SUSANNA CASTLEDEN ––– Being an artist and an academic is about contributing to the cultural capital of a community. From its inception a work of art is created to engage, however, navigating how to measure the success of this, what the cultural impact is, remains difficult to measure and evidence. This ‘wicked problem’ seems to be pertinent for funding bodies, galleries and universities alike.
VANESSA TOMLINSON ––– Endless questions linger about creative research processes – and everyone reading this article would have heard these before: what is the threshold (size, length, importance) for a work or a body of work being accepted as a creative research output? Who is qualified to endorse this decision? How do we have parity and consistency across artistic disciplines with different working methods, timelines and artefacts (a feature film may take longer to produce than a poem, an exhibition of works longer to paint than an improvised music event)?
PROFESSOR JULIAN KNOWLES ––– By way of background, I have been working as an academic since the mid-1990s across four different institutions... and my career has been built on creative practice research and the leadership of creative practice-based disciplines and schools. In that time, I have worked as an ERA code leader and Head of School at three of these institutions and assessed ERA for all four rounds...

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