By Dr James Newitt
To work strategically can connote corporate, neoliberal ideology, selective professional networking, and economically motivated notions of efficiency that tend to exist in conflict with the ethos of the creative arts. But being strategic can also describe how we work creatively within our circumstances to enable a project to come to fruition. As artists and academics, we are often compelled to be highly strategic in order to develop our practices and further our research activity. This may involve searching for alternative models of funding, support and sponsorship; engaging in unusual, awkward and unlikely collaborations with colleagues, industry and community; modifying and reconfiguring technology; and employing speculative and scenario-based thinking to negotiate unknown spaces and produce new knowledge and formal approaches. Strategy isn’t always a dirty word.
What happens however, when tertiary institutions impose strategy from above? When emphasis on creative arts research shifts from critical, speculative investigation towards an applied, thematic approach influenced by Government and university management policy? When strategic alignment is implemented to drive connections between university research themes, research higher degree projects and undergraduate teaching programs? What does it mean for our discipline when the university defines creativity as a value-adding quality used in conjunction with broader priorities such as: technology, health, community, the environment, or aged care?
The emphasis on the strategic alignment of university research themes with creative arts research and teaching presents an urgent issue for the future of the tertiary arts institution in Australia and its relationship with the university which will impact across post and undergraduate creative arts programs. Strategic alignment is promoted by the university as a method of building on our research strengths, of naming what we do best in order to connect our research activity with different aspects of our teaching programs, of accessing scholarships and funding. A more skeptical view would interpret strategic alignment as representative of a persistent instrumentalisation of creative arts practice that requires creative output to serve a purpose in relation to school, university and government priorities if it is to be supported and funded. The problem here is that recognition and value of creative art research is placed, above all, on the usefulness of arts practice in relation to other disciplines and industries – that this usefulness should be measurable on terms not relevant with creative arts practice, and should produce short-term demonstration of impact, engagement and innovation.
Considering this, how will the future tertiary art institution create safe spaces for research and teaching where the things that cannot be easily named and that are not yet understood as being ‘useful’, are nurtured? How can we defend and maintain spaces for risk, experimentation and un-strategic investigation within our post and undergraduate programs? How might we strategically respond to the push towards the instrumentalisation and strategisation of our discipline?
As more creative arts schools respond to this institutional encouragement, I raise these questions as I believe they call for urgent attention. The school where I teach now offers post-graduate research scholarships exclusively to new candidates whose projects strategically align with the research themes identified by the school. To date, the process of identifying and framing these research themes has been more focused on topical rather than merit-based criteria. There is also discussion within the school as to how these themes may be incorporated into the undergraduate program, effectively encouraging students at the very beginning of their practices to work towards pre-defined thematic approaches. Of course, engaging students with our research strengths and encouraging collaboration through common research interest can be a positive thing for a tertiary arts institution to foster. However, what is needed now is for us to engage in a broader conversation to clearly and convincingly define, first and foremost for ourselves, what we mean by research within our discipline; whether or not everything we produce should be considered research; and how strategy might be used to benefit our teaching programs and ambitions as a creative arts school in the long-term.
James Newitt is an artist and lecturer at the University of Tasmania, School of Creative Arts. James has exhibited extensively in group and solo exhibitions throughout Australia and Europe. He has been a visiting professor at the City University of New York and the Tromsø Art Academy, University of Tromsø, Norway.
He lives in Lisbon, Portugal and Hobart, Tasmania.