A Mantra for the Creative Arts Leader

By Professor Ian Howard

Professor Ian Howard has spent over 20 years in leadership positions in Australian university art colleges, and is regarded by many as one of our most successful creative arts leaders. Now having returned to the ‘grass roots’, NiTRO invited Ian to share some of his thoughts and experiences on leadership in creative arts.

A Bit of Background. . . .

In 1992 I left a Head of School role at the College of Fine Arts in Paddington, which had just a few years earlier amalgamated with the University of New South Wales, to become the Provost and Director (Dean) of the Queensland College of Art. The QCA was the last major art school to make the move from the CAE/TAFE sector to a university, in this case, to Griffith. I spent six happy/productive years at QCA and, while wanting to return to Sydney at some stage, was not intending to leave. However, when the dean’s job came up at COFA (after Ken Reinhard’s momentous 25 year steerage), I ‘through my hat in’. I was appointed Dean and continued for 15 years, having spent 12 of those years working on a redevelopment of the Paddington campus, now with much improved facilities. Feeling too young to retire, I have gone back to my first love, teaching - introductory drawing and the capstone course within the Master of Art coursework program.

My initial appointment as a lecturer in an art school in Australia was, I believe, because of my art practice. This practice has continued to guide/drive the deeply interrelated roles of academic leader, administrator and cultural/creative producer.   

In a ‘Farewell as Dean’ speech that coincided with the 2013 ACUADS Annual Conference Dinner, I reiterated my three-pronged leadership mantra:

  1. we are responsible for achieving the sustainability (and growth) of our institutions (not getting smaller, not amalgamating into more generalised units, not disappearing);
  2. the leader, Dean/Head of School/Program Head etc. should demonstrate clear artistic/academic leadership; and
  3. we must maximise the capacity and outcomes of our Schools/Faculties in regard to the resources at hand.

Sustainability

I found that you don’t get your way through argument or capitulation, rather, respect comes, sometimes grudgingly, through small at first then incremental and demonstrable success. Being able to recognise and progress the destiny of your unit/institution is a powerful force.  

. . . there is increasingly a crisis in confidence from top down. As universities get larger, scale mitigates against easy comprehension of the component parts. Faced with risk management from all quarters, the sure-fire response . . . is to standardise, to metricise the organisation as their best chance of firstly understanding it and secondly of putting in place a command and control regime.

Operating within the management hierarchy of universities can be a novel, even fun experience for those in the arts. Vive la difference! During my period as Dean, COFA was better represented on the UNSW’s Academic Board than most other faculties including faculties of Law, Medicine etc. However, there is increasingly a crisis in confidence from top down. As universities get larger, scale mitigates against easy comprehension of the component parts. Faced with risk management from all quarters, the sure-fire response of V-Cs, D and P V-Cs is to standardise, to metricise the organisation as their best chance of firstly understanding it and secondly of putting in place a command and control regime. This is bad news for the nuanced raison d’être of faculties, the specialist/unique capabilities of staff and the varied/diverse requirements and expectations of students.

Recognising the imperative of responsible, accountable governance, and working within all things ‘compliance’, nevertheless, administrations must have faith in their employees to otherwise ‘get on with the job’ in the way they rightfully know best. This lack of trust (a demonstration of poor risk management) in the most expensive item in one’s budget, your staff, can occur at faculty, school and department levels as well. To me, it appears inexplicable that a unit’s greatest asset is not brought into active service on all occasions, at all times. Organisational Structures (and ‘flattish’ ones) can facilitate this.     

Academic Leadership

During my twenty years heading up faculties of visual art, design and media I intuitively spent my work-a-day week as follows: 60% with faculty, 40% within arts practice/industry and 30% on university-wide matters. I know this adds up to more than 100%, however such leadership positions are not regular work-load entities. For me, this allocation is indicative of and critical to the necessary steerage of a teaching and research institution that responds to the expectations of taxpayers and their government.    

There is an emphasis here on the faculty and its relationship with and even allegiance to the industry of artistic and cultural production. Universities have a tendency to become their own industry, of higher education and funded research, which can become a misleading flag to follow, to measure success against. A direct (and admittedly crude) indication of this point is the career expectations of staff. Are their ambitions for success in the arts or academe? Of course, they can be both, however they are quite different and not necessarily complementary.      

Maximising Outcomes

Painting by numbers, winning by 10%! As public servants, we have a responsibility to maximise appropriate outcomes from resources placed in our steerage. For small units, the income side of the ledger is always going to be an equity fight that needs to be adequately if not ideally resolved.  Once you’ve got the money, there is an ethical dimension about how to spend it. A good checks and balances mechanism is to confer with your other key people asset, the students. I am not suggesting budgets be actually signed off by students but asking yourself how en masse they would react to this or versus that expenditure is a valuable reality check. 

A good checks and balances mechanism is to confer with your other key people asset, the students. I am not suggesting budgets be actually signed off by students but asking yourself how en masse they would react to this or versus that expenditure is a valuable reality check.

Then there is the high prudential expectation, that when met, can realise sufficient positive differential in monies available to distinguish the outcomes of your unit. 

However, within the excitement of expenditure, waste can happen and needs to be checked otherwise gains dissipate. Wastage can creep or charge into administrative, teaching/learning and research endeavours.

And finally, a cautionary note about software. The onslaught of standardisation procedures across universities (so that managers can manage/assemble an overview from a semblance of detail) has only been possible and acceptable because of software’s power to amaze. In this way we are all party to (I hesitate to suggest the creative arts are being most affected) a colonisation of experience and practice of an unprecedented scale. 


Ian Howard is an artist and professor at UNSW Sydney, Faculty of Art & Design. He was Dean of COFA from 1998 till 2013 and prior to that was Provost and Director of the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. He trained in Sydney (Art/Artist Education), London (Advanced Studies, Film and Television) and Montreal (Master of Fine Arts). His artwork progresses a cultural relationship between civilians and military institutions with a concentration on sovereign border issues- walls, barriers and containment including enforcing vehicles- aircraft, tanks and ships. He works and exhibits internationally and is represented by Watters Gallery, Sydney and Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne.