By Su Baker, President, Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Creative Arts.
In this issue of NiTRO we ask how well are we connecting the academy with artist practice outside the Citadel. How well are we preparing our students and how do we support our colleagues in their core career aspirations, that in most cases will be outside the university and educational context?
By what models of practice are we prototyping, or modelling, the career conditions of artists, writers, performers and all producers of new creative work, and are we able to take advantage of the freedom from market forces that we have within the academy, to be a testing ground for ideas, products, processes and speculation about our place in the world? This is our great asset and one of which we need to be most mindful. We should remind ourselves of this privilege, and this opportunity. Are we making the most of it?
A new report from the ARC, made available here in this edition, gives us a picture of the ERA from the years 2010, 2012,and 2015, and demonstrates our embedded-ness in the research evaluation system. We have adapted to this process through scrutiny of ourselves, high levels of application to the new criteria and with a collective and pragmatic willingness. We can now see a pattern of performance emerging. This is interesting, but we must also remember that this is largely an exercise in the accountability of public funding to universities for research. It is not the whole story.
In our attempt to integrate our work as artists and writers and performers and makers of new work, into the research paradigm, we have met this challenge well – to the extent that we now have a mainstream place in the table of fields of research, such as they are described by the ABS. In many cases university research cultures have accepted our participation, albeit at times qualified and conditional on meeting these somewhat blunt and proximate measures. Much of our energy has gone into this need to align to the somewhat imperfect system of evaluation amongst peers in the Higher Education system so as to take our place at the high table. So this is a collective achievement to celebrate.
But is that all there is, my friends? Is that all there is to life in the arts? This is what we must ask ourselves and be sure that we remember that our core business and primary motivation is to serve as a site of learning about our disciplines; to nurture, mentor and embolden generations of new artists and cultural professionals; to add to the cultural capital of the country through the production of advanced works, critical discussion or analysis; and to promote courageous experimentation. Are we doing that still? If so, this would be the true measure of innovation and advance in our disciplines.
The problem is we have no such measure, no dreaded data of these many successes and achievements across the sector and so perhaps such a picture needs to be formed. From our own anecdotal reporting this would be an extraordinary story to tell. If we were to identify the community engagement in public events emerging from our respective teaching programs that would be some story of engaged teaching and a demonstration of the impact of our work; one which is not collected through research evaluation processes. This would be a different order of public accountability.
So, with that in mind, what do our students need from us? (and I mean the undergraduates and coursework graduate students, whose enrolments largely pay for the rest of it, no matter what we hope for research income). And what do their audiences, their markets and clients and peer groups and communities expect from them? How well do we serve the emerging artists and professionals whose main focus is the performing of their capabilities in their respective professional forums?
While a proportion of our student population will go on to develop what we consider a research profile, and will work in the Academy, there are equally as many or more whose focus is on the exercise of their professional education and training in the arts, and whose motivation is to join their respective professions. We must not lose sight of that as a critical driver and responsibility of our mission as educators.
So, there is some advantage to us to join this ‘new’ strategic focus on the ‘end user’. In fact it has always been the focus of the arts – engagement with the public or publics, whether they be the art world/market itself with highly developed critical judgment or a broader more general public reception and all the rest in between.
The arts have always collected around groups of like-minded professionals as in the highly regulated mediaeval guild system, schools of thought and practice emerging through newly formed ideas, and in some cases quite deliberate collective and identified groups, as in the Constructivists or Surrealists, or New Realists, or many others with strident manifestos of purpose. This has been the way that ideas of art have been determined, argued for or against and ideas have emerged and at times, advanced. Similarly there have been people who position themselves outside those groups, opposed to the conventions and pushing boundaries into the unknown. This dynamic between convention and dispute is the core energy source of the artistic machine, or organism, or system, however you like to characterise it.
We have joined this new collective called the University, for the things we need and are given – infrastructure, a systemic framework to receive and manage public funding support and in many cases a strategic framework for growth. We have adapted to part of that system through research evaluation. Now we should pay attention to the greater role of our core business, preparing the generations of artists and all that that means. This is the fun bit. Let’s enjoy it!