The Strand Report and the Damage Done

By Professor Ross Woodrow 

The 1998 Strand Report on Research in the Creative Arts was triggered by a decision of the then Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs to shrink the 22 categories in the national data collection, that determined the allocation of research quantum funds to individual universities, to just the “big four” and wiping the short-lived Design and Creative Arts research categories, “H” and “J”, respectively [1].

It would seem a weird logic to claim that artists had no idea of the determinate content they had created which could only be revealed by others with discursive means. Yet this prejudicial privileging of the text ... was sanctioned by the almost universal acceptance in Strand that, without written support, a work of art was unfathomable.

Statistical data presented in Strand showed that for the period 1992 to 1996 the majority of art schools, which are my exclusive focus here, had adjusted surprisingly well to their new research status in the amalgamated university sector. Doctoral programs were underway, a relatively large volume of creative arts research data was submitted in the national collection and several ARC small grants were awarded for exhibition and other creative arts outputs.

This evidence of a successful research culture was largely ignored in the Report which managed to turn the Department’s erroneous decision into a systemic problem in the creative sector. A single statement in the Report is sufficient to sum up the real situation:

Outside scientific research there are no standard methodologies or publications outcomes and the processes and outcomes of creative arts research are just one set of many that sit amongst other accepted and funded, forms of activity.(p44)

Unfortunately this obvious insight was buried in twenty-six pages that attempted to prove otherwise and the final call in the Report for “research equivalence" for creative arts practice implied it was fundamentally something other than research, mostly professional practice.

The battle to prove that works of art made up a determinate system of knowledge, containing new understandings and historical and contemporary insights was already won at the beginning of the last century when the study of art history was accepted into academe as a legitimate discipline. Therefore it would seem a weird logic to claim that artists had no idea of the determinate content they had created which could only be revealed by others with discursive means. Yet this prejudicial privileging of the text over non-discursive forms of communication was sanctioned by the almost universal acceptance in Strand that, without written support, a work of art was unfathomable. This support for a post facto discursive ratification for studio practice resulted from a founding phobia in the twentieth-century art school against contaminating aesthetic production with cognitive activity or intent, best captured using Duchamp’s characterisation as the “stupid as a painter” syndrome.

At least one university doesn’t advance applications from fine artists for ARC DECRAs on the grounds that they can obtain post-doctorate equivalent awards from the Australia Council thus proving that the “double disadvantage” identified in Strand (xvi) twenty years ago still exists.

The damage caused by the Report to funded research in art schools was immeasurable. Most universities that had adopted the creative arts “Category J” prior to 1997, chopped it, or let it wither on the vine. The call by the Australia Council to have its grants recognised in the National Competitive Grants Index was buried in the too-hard basket where it remains twenty years later. The ARC immediately erased all creative outputs from consideration for research grants: an exclusion that stayed in place until 2011 after the introduction of the 2010 Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) scheme brought creative arts research back into the academic fold.

Despite the lack of funding support, the data from ERA 2015 reveals the spectacular progress over the past twenty years. The number of research-active staff in the two-digit Field of Research code 19 Creative Arts and Writing make up 4% of research staff in Australian universities. This places the creative arts in equal seventh nationally in the 22 two-digit disciplinary codes and the contribution of research outputs ranks at equal tenth place with esteem measures rating them also in equal tenth position. However, the creative arts are ranked last in grant income. The “no bias to see here” explanation given for this by the ARC is that grant success rates in the creative fields parallel other humanities fields. Even if this were true, it raises the bigger question as to why do so few staff apply in the first place.

The Doctorate is the first career step for academics, but it is the post-doctorate award or fellowship that most often establishes a career. How have the thousands of Doctoral candidates in university art schools who have graduated in the primary field of research 1905 over the past ten years fared with postdoctoral support?

In the period 2012 – 2018 the ARC awarded over half-a-billion dollars in Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRA) to 1474 early career researchers across Australian Universities.[2] The average DECRA award is about $360,000 over three years. Only two of these were in the primary research field of 1905 Fine Arts. In this case the 12.5% success rate (2 from 16 applications) is comparatively very poor for similar sized disciplines but the real shock is the abysmally tiny number of applications compared to the numbers in disciplines where the early career research staff are miniscule compared to Fine Art, for example: 40 for Religious Studies, 166 for Pure Maths and 198 for Psychology. Surely the fact that researchers working in the primary field of fine arts received just 0.1% of the grants and the same 0.1% of the available funds should be regarded as a crisis demanding immediate action from any responsible Government.

Universities of course carefully vet the potential of applications to protect their published success rate. It may not be typical, but at least one university doesn’t advance applications from fine artists for ARC DECRAs on the grounds that they can obtain post-doctorate equivalent awards from the Australia Council thus proving that the “double disadvantage” identified in Strand (xvi) twenty years ago still exists for those caught between academe and the Australia Council, which of course has no equivalent scheme and nor should they. The nearest award to the $400,000 ARC DECRA is the one-off career development grants from $10,000 to $25,000 for individuals and it would be most unlikely that the Australia Council would award one of these grants to an artist in academe to advance postdoctoral research.

In the period 2010 to 2018 across all grant categories the ARC has awarded just eight grants (0.06%), including the two DECRAs mentioned above to the primary field of 1905 or twenty-five grants (0.2%) to projects that rank one of the Fine Arts six-digit codes anywhere in the available three listed Fields of Research. In 36% of the grants awarded to Fine Art, the six-digit field of research is shared with new media art as the first-ranked field and three-times as many grants are awarded in the fields of new or interactive media than in 1905 Fine Art. The largest grant awarded, an $866,678 Future Fellowship, has Fine Art ranked second behind 190299 - Film, Television and Digital Media not elsewhere classified although the project “The potential of military holographic display” seems a significant distance from what most artists do. Maybe not, as war is by a long way (24%) the dominant theme that emerges when looking through the grants awarded to the Fine Arts in the last eight years.

It’s time for another investigation of “Research in the Creative Arts” but one that does not follow the winding, never ending road of equivalence recommended by Strand and instead takes the orthodox direction of equity in access and treatment for creative arts researchers.   

 

References

[1] Dennis Strand, Research in the Creative Arts, Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Canberra 1998.  http://andora.nla.gov.au/an/4685/0020426-0000/ww.detya.gov.au/rchive/ighered/ippubs/ip98-6/ip98-6.pdf

[2] All the statistical data that follows I’ve taken from publicly available documents: http://www.arc.gov.au/grants-dataset


Professor Ross Woodrow works at the Queensland College of Art in Griffith University, Brisbane. He received his BA from the University of Queensland and an MPhil and PhD from the University of Sydney. When the Strand Report was published in 1998 he was Head of Art Theory at the University of Newcastle School of Fine Arts and co-convenor of the HDR program there. His twenty-five years of experience with HDR supervision and education includes his time working in leadership roles at Newcastle and Griffith Universities. The previous Postdoctoral Fellowship he supervised (2012 – 2014) and the current Postdoctoral Fellow under his supervision were both in the creative arts and totally funded by Griffith University.