By Jenny Wilson and Kit Wise
In July 2018 DDCA Board Member Professor Kit Wise moved from Head of the School of Creative Arts at the University of Tasmania to take up the role of Professor of Art and Associate Dean of Art at RMIT. NiTRO Editor Jenny Wilson spoke to Kit about his move to Australia in 2002, his time at the Tasmanian College of the Arts and on the changes he has observed in Australian tertiary arts education.
Jenny: What attracted you to move to Australia in 2002 and take up a career in tertiary arts education?
Kit: It’s quite a romantic backstory. I met my first wife whilst on a scholarship at the British School at Rome after my Masters at the (UK) Royal College of Art. I was studying Fine Art and she was studying Classics. She told me about an exotic island off the coastline of Australia called Tasmania, and so I followed her over. I was in Tassie for a year and a half, before being invited to be an artist in residence at Monash University.
I was a practicing artist before taking up the Monash position. I had limited experience of teaching in the UK and a little bit of work in Rome at the American Academy, but it was starting at Monash in 2002 that really introduced me to tertiary education. I was asked to do some teaching alongside the residency; after three months I was lucky enough to be offered a Level A fixed term appointment and it grew from there. They didn't get rid of me for twelve years!
Were you aware of the Dawkins reforms and their importance for the arts?
I did have the sense that it was a coming of age of for the Creative Arts in a university context, but also that something significant was being lost. For example, one yardstick is the PhD in Fine Art. It was interesting to start my time in Australia in Tasmania, which has I think the oldest PhD program in Fine Art in the country, at a time when they were still relatively uncommon in the UK. Now they are seen as the ‘terminal degree’, a standard qualification for professional artists in Australia, even if they are not continuing on to academia.
I am curious to see if that level of study, and that model of being an artist, is beginning to influence creative arts practice more broadly. There are now so many emerging and established artists who have completed PhDs: I don't know if it necessarily a good or a bad thing, but I get a sense that there is a different culture and set of expectations around practice.
Does this represent is a form of exclusion for non-university trained artists?
I think that is a fair point and real concern. I know great artists who have completed PhDs but say that it profoundly damaged their practice, although I hope they are in the minority. Another yardstick for the cultural changes that have happened over the last ten to fifteen years relates to academic artists applying for grants. We now have incredibly well-oiled machines to support us in the university sector, generating really high calibre, competitive applications. It was interesting that the Australia Council last year put a quota on the number of applications from any one university, clearly an attempt to re-level the playing field. Arguably, the Dawkins reforms could be seen to have distorted the funding distribution across the creative arts sector; although, again, whether this was a positive or negative outcome is unclear.
From your own practice as an artist has academia changed your practice at all?
I found it a very rewarding experience, in that it resonated with my existing approaches and methodologies. I was lucky to have a fantastic PhD supervisor (Dr Fiona Macdonald, at Monash University) who challenged me, leading to horizons I would not have found otherwise. For most artists, I hope the PhD is a catalyst, an accelerant. However when I am supervising (which is often colleagues), I tend to encourage them to think about the PhD being a platform into academia rather than into practice: how can it set them up for a 10 or 20-year research program (I am deliberately using a more academic language), rather than 20 years of studio activity. So, thinking strategically about institutional network building, subsequent research outcomes, interdisciplinary leverage, focusing on applications for category one research funding. These issues may be at best peripheral for many practicing artists. In giving what amounts to strategic academic career advice, my concern is again, does this distort the discipline in some way; or, is it a valid extension of the discipline into new fields and possibilities?
What are your most vivid memories of your time at Tasmania?
I have been part of UTAS for three and half years, but have been visiting regularly since 2000. It is an island that is changing ever more quickly. There has always been a deeply ingrained appreciation of the creative arts, particularly as a political force. Areas like design and craft draw on a rich culture of making, both of (often overlooked) indigenous practitioners but also people out in the forests and remote townships making do and getting by - quite a frontier approach, perhaps. But this deep culture of making is now being given new oxygen by the MONA effect and global ascension on the island. What is exciting is that Mona deliberately collaborates with local artisans and practitioners and is not impressed by academia; in fact quite the opposite, which makes it interesting for the university to connect with. More broadly, there is also real recognition in Tasmania of the value of the creative arts for the community, whether as community arts or in the broader sense of the creative industries/economies. Perhaps more acutely than in other states, there is also awareness of their value as pathways into education, how the creative arts can inspire people into engaging with lifelong learning, including in a tertiary context.
In Tassie there has been some remarkable work done in the ‘pre-degree’ space - associate degrees, diplomas, TAFE and other variations. While this has generated some challenges (for example attrition metrics), it seems that this space is becoming increasingly important not only in Tasmania but nationally. How structure meaningful pathways and bridging programs, including different volumes of study and entry/exit points, will require new approaches to course design and quality assurance. Tasmania may be well placed to show the way.
What attracted you to the role at RMIT?
It is a world-class art school, one of the best in Australia if not the best by some measures. I think Melbourne is blessed with the quality of its art and design schools and the opportunity to return to that dynamic, having seen different approaches and outcomes for the creative arts in Tasmania, was very attractive. RMIT is recognised for its social and community values, that resonated strongly with my Tasmanian experience and something that I wanted to continue engaging with. It is also remarkably forward focused and innovative, with key institutional agendas being led by the creative arts and design. I feel very fortunate to be joining at this time.
What are you hoping to achieve at RMIT?
I am still figuring that out of course. Melbourne is such an extraordinary place to be an art student and artist, but I don't think it is fully recognised globally for the quality of its art education and industries. I am curious to see how partnerships across institutions can help raise the profile of the city and state as a whole. There are models for this in creative arts postgraduate programs in Europe; while it didn’t eventuate in Sydney, certain Adelaide universities are currently considering this option at an institutional level. In the increasingly global market, we need to collaborate rather than compete. We do need to differentiate but that can be a positive and constructive process and I think there is an increasing will to see what we can achieve collectively.
What about your own personal research and practice? What are you hoping to do over the next couple of years?
Running 4 disciplines across 3 different sites in 2 different cities has been an exciting experience, but I am looking forward to being able to focus on my own discipline, hopefully bringing new skills and knowledge to an outstanding school. As a practitioner I hope that I will have a more time for the studio, although much of my own work has moved towards interdisciplinary projects, including research into interdisciplinary education. I have been fortunate to pursue both scholarly and practice based collaborative research at UTAS, with several community based projects sustained over 4 years. I am not sure what will happen next in the studio, but, I expect it may continue to involve diverse teams and focus on non-gallery outcomes.
Do you think that there is anything that visual arts can learn from the practices of performing arts and vice versa in that multi disciplinary context?
Absolutely. The real gift from my time at Tassie has been working with music and theatre, as well as and design and art: to realise the connections but also the profound differences. I think future students would benefit from being exposed to a wider range of creative methodologies and world views; expanded models of practice are increasingly important. It is a bit of a hobby horse, but, we often talk about ‘T-shaped’ interdisciplinary learners, who come through a discipline and then broaden later. Some of the research I have been doing with colleagues has developed the idea of ‘X-shaped’ learners, where you can have multiple discipline experiences from the beginning which can integrate but also diverge. If you step away from the language of disciplines and start to find a new way of articulating and especially, teaching practice, you can quickly develop these skills with remarkable outcomes.
What changes do you foresee for creative arts in the next five to ten years?
I do think discussions around the value of, let’s call it ‘creativity’, aren’t going to go away. When we look at the Pisa Accord regarding secondary school education outcomes, the increased emphasis on creativity in the curriculum is going to change the students coming into art schools, as well as science, medicine, business etc. I think this may force the agenda around bringing the ‘creativity’ that we currently hold, perhaps sequester, in art schools to the wider university; rather than being a theoretical nicety, it will become a necessity. How do we open the studios of the art school to become truly part of the university? Perhaps this is something we still haven’t resolved following the Dawkins reforms.
Another is the research impact and engagement agenda. It is an unknown quantity currently, but, if the emphasis is upon applied outcomes, while we will always need champions of excellence in non-instrumentalised practice, we will also need to be increasingly mindful of diverse measures of value. These are questions we have been talking about for years, but once we are on the other side of this ERA round, I think we will see changes in what we expect of our art and design researchers. Greater diversity in what we mean by research excellence will I think we enabling.
In the bigger picture, while pressure is on the arts broadly we must become more adept as a sector at describing our value, beyond purely financial returns. Economists tell us the field of value is wide open: it is up to us to coherently establish the various forms of value that we represent for society.
We have gone through 30 years of change for creative arts since Dawkins. Are there any issues that strike you as particularly important?
It seems that the sector is at some kind of crisis or tipping point. Tassie sometimes feels like the canary in the coalmine, with a number of factors sharpening key issues for the tertiary sector as a whole. Regionality, profound educational attainment challenges combined with a low population base focus the agenda on the value of (here, creative arts) education, but also universities in general. UTAS has major challenges but is not the only one: we have recently seen other regional universities like Federation and Victoria being described as financially unviable. Is the current business model broken? The reforms proposed by Simon Birmingham, potentially the most significant since Dawkins, add further pressure. Given increasing competition globally, where cities if not nations can quickly become ‘regional’, perhaps the sector has changed shape in some fundamental way. Again, perhaps those institutions already at the edges can point the way.
After graduating from Oxford University and the Royal College of Art with an MFA in Sculpture, Professor Kit Wise received the Wingate Rome Scholarship in Fine Art in 1999, to study at the British School at Rome. He moved to Australia in 2002 and completed his PhD at Monash University in 2012. Wise has held senior educational leadership and leadership and governance roles since 2008. He is a Board Member for Deans and Directors of Creative Arts (DDCA) and Deputy Chair of the Executive Council of ACUADS (Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools). He is currently Professor of Fine Art and Associate Dean, Art, at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology; and an Adjunct Professor at Monash University and the University of Tasmania. He is represented by Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne and continues to practice as an artist, art writer and curator.
Dr Jenny Wilson is DDCA’s Research Officer and Editor of NiTRO. She is an independent consultant to universities and academic bodies and an Honorary Fellow of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses upon higher education policy and its relationship to academic ‘tribes and territories’, particularly creative arts disciplines. Her book ‘Artists in the University: Positioning Artistic Research in Higher Education’ was published by Springer in 2017.