NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Towards a State of Equilibrium

By Professor Margaret Sheil — On my last outing in an ACUADS conference,  I was described by Flinders University’s Julian Meryick as the “artist’s ideal of a scientist… impatient with the reduction of everything down to short term utility.” So as I venture once again into the creative arts domain,  I draw on a scientific analogy. The principle of chemical equilibrium refers to a system in which the rate of consumption of inputs is the same as that at which outputs are produced so that the system is in a stable state of consumption and production.

If the system is subject to change (removal or addition of inputs or extra pressure) it will eventually reach a new state of equilibrium that will be different from the earlier one. It may produce more or less or different outputs but will be stable nonetheless.

As visual and performing arts schools have merged with, or grown within, Australian universities over the past several decades they have been transformed into a different state. For most the initial state was one in which there were essentially two inputs, i.e. high levels of Government funding and highly talented students, and one output, trained professional artists. Education followed an artisan model of talented artists training the next generation in individual studios and small groups and research was poorly understood or non existent. Only a small number of specialist institutions with dedicated government funding have been able to maintain anything that approaches that earlier state. For the remainder there has been a need to reach a new steady state in which there are mixture of different modes of teaching; an emphasis on research-led practice and scholarship and engagement with a wider range of supporters: governments at all levels; university leadership; philanthropists and the community.

The recent events surrounding the art schools in Sydney and the angst experienced some years ago in Melbourne as the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) was brought together with the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM) to form the Faculty of the VCA-MCM, show that changes in state can be difficult and challenging.

Yet successful change is possible. Last month it was announced that the MCM would be relocated from Parkville to a new state-of-the-art building on the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus, alongside the VCA and in the heart of the Melbourne Arts precinct. The move will mark an important milestone in the transformation of the VCA-MCM into a financially viable multi-disciplinary creative and performing arts faculty within a traditional research intensive University that continues to attract and educate highly talented students.

Chemists use catalysts to help systems reach equilibrium more quickly, and in the case of the VCA-MCM, the catalyst was the leadership of the Dean, Professor Barry Conyngham. A rare combination of a distinguished composer and experienced university leader, Barry has skilfully led the transformation of the combined faculty. He has sought to retain many of the essential traditions whilst fostering an academic culture where research is valued and recognised. Barry has garnered support from colleagues, university management and governance, and built on that to engage philanthropists and government in the vision for the combined faculty. Somewhat ironically, since the Melbourne curriculum model was an earlier point of contention, the faculty has now embraced the opportunities provided by the new curriculum, offering music and arts education to large numbers of students from other degrees.  These offerings enrich the breadth of education of students from science, medicine and engineering, whilst at the same time help to achieve a new but improved financial equilibrium for the faculty; a steady state with a prosperous future.

Professor Margaret Sheil has been the Provost at the University of Melbourne since 2012. From 2007-2012 she was the CEO of the Australian Research Council where she oversaw the development of the Excellence in Research for Australia amongst many other initiatives. Much of her early career as a scientist and then research leader was spent at the University of Wollongong, where she was well educated by her colleagues in the creative arts. She has a PhD and BSc in chemistry from the University of New South Wales

More from this issue

More from this issue

Independent artists are faced with a challenging and transforming landscape that requires adaptive resilience in order to thrive creatively, today and in the future. How do we, as tertiary educators, empower and enable artists to build strong and flexible, professional contemporary art practices? To address this issue, my current research draws models of praxis from artist-run initiatives (ARI) in the Visual Arts industry, specifically from my experience as director of Boxcopy Contemporary Art Space.

By Su Baker, President, Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Creative Arts — Over 2 decades the creative art academic community has grown and matured as a sector - so have the questions of method and purpose of publically funded research, that influence the processes of evaluation. Discussions around impact and ‘end-user’ value is a live issue at the ARC and we look forward to the new thinking that will shortly emerge. The creative arts depend almost entirely on end-user experience, and the impact of these experiences aspire to have real and meaningful impact on peoples lives.
By Dr Jenny Wilson. DDCA’s Research officer Jenny Wilson caught up with Henk Borgdorff in Amsterdam in April 2016, hot on the heels of his recent speaking tour of European and UK universities, art and music schools, to find out more about artistic research and European experiences of the politics of art and higher education.
By Professor Graeme Sullivan Visual arts has no singular function because it can be called on to do just about anything. Arts’ usefulness is because it is edgeless and homeless—art is masterful at shape shifting and form fitting
By Professor Jeri Kroll Since the Strand report (1998), scholars have been unpacking the manifold ways in which creative works can be research. Explaining the usefulness of questions to doctoral candidates not only keeps supervisors honest, but also keeps at the forefront of everyone’s mind why theory is unavoidable.
By Professor Paul Draper and Professor Scott Harrison Communities of profession, the old academy and the new academy, intimately rub up against each other and while some research may still be considered ‘more equal’ than others for now – this evolving mix can only positively impact on the rise of artistic research, its acceptance in society and its measurement by governments and universities.
By Associate Professor Cheryl Stock AM — The narrative of knowledge is almost always underpinned by the cognitive but how we know the world is often through the experiential. Whilst we have moved a long way in redefining knowledge in research terms to include the processes and outcomes of our practices (artistic, creative, professional) and importantly have privileged the artist’s voice as the expert in this recasting of what a knowledge claim might look like, some art forms prove more problematic than others in this endeavour.
By Dr Danny Butt — During the 1990s and 2000s, as readers of NiTRO know well, an intensive debate took place among art and design academics as to whether their practices and those of their graduate students could be called research, and if so what “contribution to knowledge” might be made by the creative output, as distinct from the writing that has traditionally accompanied submissions in higher degrees in creative arts.
By Professor Ross Woodrow — The decision by the Australia Research Council (ARC) to achieve the long-mooted merging of the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) and the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise by adeptly disappearing the HERDC has been welcomed by many discipline leaders, and not just those in the creative arts. With the inclusive ERA becoming the singular evaluation of research quality across Australia, there couldn’t be a better time to rethink the classification of research in universities.
By Associate Professor Robert Burke and Dr. Andrys Onsman — Criticism of the scientific methods of doing research has increasingly pointed out that all experimental research involves some sort of creative leap. In the performing arts such creative leaps are fundamental to artistry.
By Dr Leo Berkeley — The creative practice of filmmaking, understood as a form of academic research, has been growing in scale and significance within Australian universities for several years. While doctorates involving the making of a film have been occurring for decades, it is only relatively recently that the academic screen production community has been seeking to more systematically establish how the production of a film can lead to the discovery of new knowledge.
By Dr Jenny Wilson As many in creative arts grappled with the amalgamation challenges of the 90s, few were aware that the Dawkins reforms also had increased the centrality of research to university funding. This ‘blissful ignorance’ was not to last.
By Professor Brad Buckley and Associate Professor John Conomos — Recently, there has been much discussion in the press and beyond about the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects at high school and at university. In particular, the Commonwealth Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda has focused exclusively on STEM disciplines. However, that discussion misses the central importance of creativity, inventiveness and innovation.
By Dr Kate Tregloan and Professor Kit Wise — Interdisciplinarity has been widely recognised as a valuable response to the wicked problems of our time. The ability to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries brings together different perspectives and expertise, and allows entirely new approaches and solutions to emerge. To prepare students and graduates for the complex challenges of the twenty first century we need good quality interdisciplinary programs. But how do we know what is ‘good’?
By Professor Estelle Barrett and Professor Barbara Bolt — At a roundtable at the Australian Council of University Art Schools (ACUADS) annual conference in 2014, panelists were asked to address the following question: What impact are higher degree research programs having on emerging trends and themes in contemporary art? Whilst the panel felt that the development of higher degree research programs in creative arts did not lead to better “art” they did agree that it has profoundly affected the way art is framed and understood both within the academy and beyond.
By Professor Margaret Gardner AO — The Australian Government’s Federal Budget announcement in May was confirmation that funding for the Office for Learning and Teaching would be discontinued after this year. The news, though not unexpected, represented a blow to funding for teaching and learning scholarship in Australia.
By Dr Tim Cahill and Professor Julian Meyrick — ‘In God we trust. All others bring data,’ quipped US statistician, W. Edwards Deeming. As he implied, measurement is an inherently conservative occupation. Units of appraisal have to be agreed in advance, while the aim of measuring something is usually to compare it with something that already exists.

By Julie Hare There are a lot of things that happen in universities that the majority of the population don’t know about. Research is one of them. The average punter – even the average undergraduate – would have little idea as the scope, scale and importance of research that takes place. And having a scientist […]

By Lynn Churchill and Jill Franz, IDEA (Interior Design Interior Architecture Educator’s Association) — IDEA comprises 12 International Institutions providing a minimum four-year Bachelor degree in the disciplines of Interior Design (ID), Interior Architecture (IA) and Spatial Design (SD). Most include an Honours program and the opportunity to undertake further research in Masters and PhD programs in compliance with the object of IDEA - excellence in ID/IA/SD education and research. Academic Research is a significant requirement for most academics in these disciplines.
By Associate Professor Denise Ferris and Professor Marie Sierra, Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools (ACUADS) — The National Innovation and Science Agenda, launched in December 2015, has significant consequences for tertiary institutions, and in particular, for the art and design disciplines, as well as the broader arts, humanities and social science (HASS) fields.