Paving the Way: Professor Cat Hope

By Megan Burslem and Professor Cat Hope

“I really believe that art is important; I believe in its power to bring people together, how it helps us challenge and reflect on our views and improves our quality of life. Arts should be at the core of our national identity, as it helps us make sense of it.” – Professor Cat Hope

We are often told that these times are hard times for the arts in Australia, and that may just be the case. But for those of us in arts leadership, there is much to be championed and everything to be proud of. The way forward must come in many forms and from many angles, and although there is no perfectly paved yellow brick road, direction will most certainly need to come from leaders in the tertiary sector.

Professor Cat Hope is one of these leaders, who in 2017 took up the position of Head of School of the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University.  For her, the difficult times for artists and intellectuals across the globe is a sure sign of one thing and one thing only: opportunity. Opportunity to come together, to challenge and reflect on our views as members of the arts community, and enrich our perceptions of the things around us.

Megan Burslem caught up with Professor Hope to talk about her role as an arts leader, the challenges currently faced by tertiary arts institutions and her action plans for the coming years. Not surprisingly, along the way she gleaned some well-honed advice for the next generation of artists and scholars.

. . . we should be leading a vision for the future, because we have the infrastructure to do so. We have the capacity and obligation to lobby. We have staff whose ongoing wage permits them to experiment and take risks in their art, and involve their students in that process. We have to be the model of equitable and sustainable practices.

Q: You have developed a strong vision for the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University. Can you tell us what this is? 

My vision for the School of Music is to make it the leading centre for Australian music, from both educative and research perspectives. To do that, we have to focus on equity, diversity and internationalisation. This may seem like a contradiction to some, but Australian music is not just about compositions and musicians, it is also about our unique context and cultural fabric. It is about who we are as artists in the world, and the world in Australia. As a starter, I have introduced quotas for the inclusion of recent music by Australian and women composers into our student recital programs, and am building ways to connect with students and academics that experience hardship. To oversee the training of the next generation of musicians, composers and researchers of the future is an enormous responsibility and an even greater honour, but most of all, it is an opportunity.

In your opinion, what are the challenges that face tertiary arts at present and how can they be overcome?

Good question …and one I am still learning about, maybe because the goal posts keep changing!
I think the challenges to tertiary arts are the same as those for all arts and the humanities more generally. Not all activities are for profit, or can generate a profit. Not all activity can be rationalized economically. Value takes many forms, and is enjoyed in a wide range of outcomes.  As such, some activities need a different kind of support. Music education is one of those. It doesn’t fit into the ‘one size fits all’ university funding model. We need to offer support for a wide range of people from a wide range of backgrounds to engage with music as performers, composers, arrangers and educated listeners, for example. We need a diversity of activity too. Academics need to lobby their deans and politicians with robust cases for our value and for what we bring to the community more broadly. The table below shows how much Australia values tertiary education generally, let alone the arts place within it. It’s not a pretty scene, and we have a lot of work to do!

This table is definitely not a welcome sight. How do you think the tertiary institutions can support the disciplines of music and creative arts more generally?

It is our responsibility to support our future. We are teaching musicians that are articulate, some that go on to be researchers. And we have researchers whose work should be relevant and engaged with our communities at home. With these things, we should be leading a vision for the future, because we have the infrastructure to do so. We have the capacity and obligation to lobby. We have staff whose ongoing wage permits them to experiment and take risks in their art, and involve their students in that process. We have to be the model of equitable and sustainable practices. I think we could be doing much more, and it is my intention to do just that.

What do you think are the most important contributions that a tertiary arts leader can bring to their staff and students?

Most important is that I lead the School of Music – staff and students – forwards. We need to keep up with trends and development in education, funding, our university priorities, the needs of our stakeholders and the political landscape for arts education and graduate prospects. A responsibility of my role as Head of School is to impart the sense that learning is a lifelong experience, for both staff and students. An important part of leadership in the tertiary arts sector is defining a vision that reflects both what is needed in the current artistic and scholarly environment, as well as working with the strengths already within the school. I hope that my experience as a freelance artist and academic fuse together to bring an understanding of an ever-evolving landscape for practice and research. I also believe that tertiary institutions have a responsibility to the broader Australian arts community, and a Head of School has to be across what that means. It is up to us in tertiary institutions to support Australian music creation and propagation. We make the canon, on which our students then go on to build upon. We need to champion equity and the arts more generally. We need to show why the arts are necessary and important to our society.

It is up to us in tertiary institutions to support Australian music creation and propagation. We make the canon, on which our students then go on to build upon.

What do you think university leaders can do to support excellence in tertiary arts?    

I believe there are three things that leaders are able to do: they need to support the independent arts community by sharing infrastructure, knowledge and providing opportunities for engagement and partnership with the arts community outside the University.

Second, to keep up to date with different ways of learning and of the changing landscape for graduates once they leave the university. Being part of that landscape outside the academe is a key for leaders to maintain relevance.

And lastly, tertiary leaders must appreciate these different value propositions and fight for them in the Australian community and political landscape. They need to understand that Australian art is something only we can create here, in Australia, and that it is key to shaping and maintaining our identity. Without it, we have nothing to export or draw others to us. 

You are the Director of Decibel New Music Ensemble and have commissioned over 60 new works since its formation in 2009. What does that experience bring to you new role?

Founding and directing Decibel has shown me just how rewarding music made with your immediate community can be. Over half of that figure you have quoted came from Western Australia, where Decibel was founded. This foundation in our own culture of artists has led to national and international projects and opportunities. Decibel is leading the experimentation in digital alternatives to standard music notations and ways to create, read and perform them. Technological innovation is central to what we do and I am a big supporter of electronic music and its place in tertiary education.

What has inspired you so far in your new role?

The talented staff and students at the School of Music at Monash, but also Monash’s support for equity and research. The Schools’ professional staff, the other heads of school and my Dean have been overwhelmingly supportive and make me feel that ambitious projects are plausible!

not all your art should be thought of as research, and vice versa. Learn to think of the arts as an industry - as embattled as it is – and broker partnerships that make you and that partner stronger. Collaborate whenever you can, you don’t always have to be everything in a project. . .

What role does music play in your life outside of academia?

Well, the line between music in and out of academia is increasingly blurry, and that’s not a bad thing in my opinion. I love free improvisation, bands and noise music. I love listening to LPs.  You will see me at the Make It Up Club, the Northcote Social Club, at sound installations and in the concert hall.

What advice would you give to an early career researcher seeking to maintain a successful practice and academic career? What strategies or compromises do you need to balance both?

I think it depends very much on the kind of artist you are, because different musicians aim for different things. There is no one size fits all advice. But some things I have learned in academia are: not all your art should be thought of as research, and vice versa. Learn to think of the arts as an industry -  as embattled as it is – and broker partnerships that make you and that partner stronger. Collaborate whenever you can, you don’t always have to be everything in a project even if you can be.  Build your own community, start local but plan international. Establish the parameters of the collaboration and be a good team player. Learn the right place for the right language; when is something conversational, when are you making a pitch, when are you articulating new research. Many postgraduates in particular, need to develop ‘research translation’ skills, to bring their ideas into a different forum – the one outside the academe. Use your research and academic skills to support and advocate for others.


Megan Burslem is one of Australia’s most radiant and vivacious young minds who is leading the charge in fresh conversation about music in the contemporary landscape. Musicology is the food of choice for this award-winning PhD candidate, who also holds a Masters in viola performance. If you love music, she wants you to shout about it.  Megan presents pre-concert talks for Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, is a freelance writer and reviewer, and is the recipient of an Australian Postgraduate Award for the duration of her doctoral studies at Monash University on the teaching and learning of Musicology in Australian institutions. You can also currently find her managing the innovative and eclectic Monash Art Ensemble, under the direction of Paul Grabowsky AO.  A trained teacher of music and humanities and past lecturer of musicology and music criticism, Megan is passionate about critical engagement in music practice and scholarship of all kinds. She is 29 years old and lives in Melbourne, Australia. 

Professor Cat Hope is Head of School of the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University. She is an accomplished Australian-based musician, composer, songwriter, sound and performance artist whose practice is an interdisciplinary one that crosses over into film, video, performance and installation. She is a classically trained flautist, vocalist, improviser and experimental bassist who has conducted extensive funded research into digital archiving, graphic and digital notation, low frequency sound and electronic music performance.  And as for her music? It is conceptually driven, graphically notated scores and features acoustic or electronic combinations and new score reading technologies. It often includes aleatoric elements such as drone, noise and glissandi that are inspired by her ongoing fascination with low frequency sound. Her composed music ranges from works for laptop duet to orchestral works. Generally, her practice explores the physicality of sound in different media, although she is also well known for her forays into noise improvisation.