Leading the way to ethical international engagement

By Professor Clive Barstow

It is a great honour to have been asked to contribute to the DDCA in my new role as Vice President and to provide the readers’ welcome to this edition of NiTRO. I hope I can support the great work that Professor Su Baker has done for many years and continues to do on behalf of all our institutions during this turbulent and unpredictable time for our creative disciplines. Working in a new generation University trying to make its mark, and as a long time academic in a regional institution, I am acutely aware of the particular issues associated with regionalism in Australia, both geographical and philosophical.

After surviving the rationalization of the art school sector in the early 1980’s in Britain, the need for a national alumni network for the arts in Australia stands out for me. It is important not just to prove ourselves in the political debate around value and impact, but perhaps more importantly to contribute to a new language by which we describe ourselves in a way that defines our sector with more confidence and maturity. In the evolution of creative practice as University research in Australian Universities, our language still sits firmly in the equivalence model, we are still small apes pandering to the norms of scientific research terminologies while ignoring Darwin’s theories of evolution in which the smartest and most adaptable survive. We need to engage, nationally and internationally, in a more confident and less defensive narrative about what we do, and be proud of the graduates we are producing  - often against all the odds. The Sydney College of the Arts experiences demonstrate clearly, that despite our success in research and reputation. we are highly vulnerable at an institutional level. The British art school system survived by having a well-documented history of their graduates’ contribution to society.  It is our turn to tell a convincing story to Australians.

The international theme of this edition opens up this debate beyond our shores, and well beyond the context of our local and national politics. Up to this point Australian Universities have approached internationalisation from a fairly one-dimensional perspective by focusing on what we can take rather than what we have to give. The arts can, and should, lead the way as a more generous and inclusive community by forming a more trusting and respectful relationship with our international students and fellow academics. This is about redefining our engagement through ethical practices of a kind that artists, designers, musicians and creators have always been involved in, but traits that now more than ever need to be restated. This is actually good business too, but we need to discuss how we utilize our particular strengths in engaging at a deeper and more meaningful level as a new norm in our institutions.

The recent local elections in WA demonstrated to me how local we really are, an election in which our broader global issues and ambitions were hardly mentioned beyond the economic rhetoric surrounding jobs and growth in a state that is over reliant on the resources sector. This problem is endemic and goes beyond party politics; it lays bare our indifference and complacency toward cultural value, and particularly to our disenfranchised Aboriginal communities who were noticeably overlooked throughout the campaign by all the political parties. The margins in our society are not core business for our politicians when it comes to election time; culture becomes a dirty word at a time when we know it needs to be front and central. Australia is a sum of its parts and as yet no more than that.  Our arts institutions therefore need to play a more influential role in leading change at a national and international level.  

As a creative sector we have critical mass, but as Dr. Carmen Lawrence recently pointed out, what we need is a mass that is critical. I hope this edition of NiTRO stimulates deep conversation about our local, national and international state of affairs and how the arts can make a positive contribution to bring balance and quality to our globalising societies. Art schools have been around for a very long time and for good reason, so I invite you to engage with the topics discussed in NiTRO and to ensure that we speak with authority and unity when it really matters.

Professor Clive Barstow
Deputy President, DDCA.
Executive Dean Arts & Humanities
Edith Cowan University