Looking back, looking ahead: Heads of art and design schools in Australia on leadership challenges and opportunities

By Annika Harding

What has changed in the Head of School / Director role in the past 5 years to meet the needs of a changing art & design school environment? 

Where will leadership emphasis need to evolve to meet the needs of art & design schools over the next 5-10 years? 

We asked a range of Heads of School from member institutions of the Australian Council of University Art & Design Schools (ACUADS)  to consider these questions.

Respondents included Professor Derrick Cherrie (Director, Queensland College of the Arts, Griffith University), Professor Joanne Cys (Head, School of Art, Architecture and Design, University of South Australia), Ingrid Kellenbach (CEO, Adelaide Central School of Art), Associate Professor Gene Moyle (Head, School of Creative Practice, Queensland University of Technology), Professor Kit Wise (Director & Head, Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania; ACUADS Executive member), Associate Professor Sue Wood (Head, School of Communication and Creative Industries, Charles Sturt University) and Professor Denise Ferris (Head, School of Art & Design, Australian National University; ACUADS Chair).

“Within the University, more time has to be devoted to management tasks such as compliance activities, workload and budget management etc., leaving less time to undertake real leadership work. Finding time to maintain professional links and undertake strategic planning is a constant challenge, especially in a fast moving environment.”

Over the past five years, significant changes that affect tertiary art and design schools have come from within the tertiary education sector as well as from external forces. Prof Derrick Cherrie noted that: “The professional environments we prepare our students to engage with have shifted radically over the last five years.” According to Prof Kit Wise, “We are witnessing a paradigm shift in not just educational models, but the funding mechanisms that support them, with the growth of MOOCs, micro-credentials and third-party providers”.

The Heads of School indicated that lateral and strategic thinking has become ever more vital in order to promote a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to teaching, learning and research. While enriching the art and design school environment, this focus is also a response to the changing professional environments and industries that art and design schools prepare students to engage with , and an increasing emphasis on entrepreneurship. As Prof Derrick Cherrie stated: “There is a growing need for art & design graduates capable of participating in, and leading, social and business focused developments”.

However, while heads of art and design schools have been cultivating collaboration from their broad, high-level perspectives, and creating new links between disciplines and institutions, management tasks and increasing/diversifying income have required increased attention. According to A/Prof Sue Wood, “Within the University, more time has to be devoted to management tasks such as compliance activities, workload and budget management etc., leaving less time to undertake real leadership work. Finding time to maintain professional links and undertake strategic planning is a constant challenge, especially in a fast moving environment".

In the next 5-10 years, the respondents anticipate that the changes, challenges and opportunities currently faced by tertiary art and design schools and their leadership will only increase in magnitude, requiring increased efforts in a number of areas and the development of new approaches and partnerships.

Ingrid Kellenbach stated that it will be vital to “attract more corporate and philanthropic support and form stronger partnerships with business and other cultural organisations” as well as being “more responsive, flexible and adaptable to changes in art practice” and supporting academic staff in the development of their art practices. A/Prof Gene Moyle also noted the importance of supporting capability development, to ensure that courses “are not only pre-emptive of what our graduates need to be able to know and do, but that the delivery of these courses is completed by staff that can match these 21st century requirements themselves”.

In the next 5-10 years . . . the changes, challenges and opportunities currently faced by tertiary art and design schools and their leadership will only increase in magnitude, requiring increased efforts in a number of areas and the development of new approaches and partnerships.

According to Prof Joanne Cys, “art and design school leadership will require a greater emphasis on the creation of networked partnerships with various external organisations, both within the higher education sector and beyond it, and on the generation of a wider range of educational offerings, many of which would be a result of partnerships with external organisations.” A/Prof Sue Wood stated that while exploring and expanding collaboration and interdisciplinary practice in art and design and with other disciplines/industries, “we need to think deeply about the nature of research in art and design schools and the role of artists and designers in contemporary society”.

What do heads of school in Australia’s art and design schools need to lead effectively in the face of these significant challenges and opportunities? A/Prof Sue Wood believes that “The changes required will be challenging to many, so our leaders will need to be visionary but also have great people skills.” While Prof Denise Ferris acknowledged that “establishing the necessary capacity to engage with new opportunities requires that institutions recognise the need for practical and substantial institutional support”.

The responses from ACUADS members highlight significant common issues for creative arts leaders: the need for business-minded and entrepreneurial approaches in response to an increasingly difficult funding situation, and to the increasing emphasis on partnerships with industry and other disciplines, while concurrently maintaining and improving the quality of teaching, learning and research.


Annika Harding is the Executive Officer for ACUADS, and a PhD Candidate at the ANU School of Art & Design, Centre for Art History and Art Theory. Annika has also worked for and managed small-medium arts organisations for over 6 years, and is a visual artist and curator.

ACUADS is the peak body for tertiary art, craft and design, and represents over thirty Australian university and TAFE art and design faculties, schools and departments. The 2017 ACUADS Conference will be held 28-29 September at the ANU School of Art & Design in Canberra. www.acuads.com.au