By Professor Su Baker AM
Thirty years, conventionally, represents a working life, and if that is still true, then that has been mine, so far. It also coincides with the journey of shape shifting in our current higher arts education sector that a number of us have witnessed, been subjected to and perhaps have produced, through a common ambition we have for the positive impact that arts education can deliver.
We will no doubt have different views of the current form, but whatever the fluid, transitional state we are in, it is true to say this is still a site of contention, perhaps will be ever thus and perhaps, rightly so.
It is a truism to say that we live in an evolving polity, caught between a rapidly changing, disrupted, highly distributed urbanising culture of innovation and a sceptical, less certain and economically secure, locally focussed community, no longer aligned to traditional political allegiances and with a sense of being under siege. It seems the old political models can no longer drive change. Indeed, perpetual change is the enemy of many and the lifeblood of others. In the arts, change and tradition are the dual elements of core business, in as much as we learn from the past to make new things that didn’t exist before and bring them into the world, we create new artefacts, experiences, propositions, reflections and critique. May this also ever be thus.
Over these 30 years our constant battleground has been the perennial measurement and hyper vigilant reporting cycles, either paranoid and suspicious or responsible public accountability, depending on your point of view.
Since the beginning of this time, with the so-called Dawkins reforms, when art schools were mated with universities, those unions have variously produced healthy and productive offspring, or damaged and fatally flawed progeny, now extinct. None of this was immediate but over time the various cultures of the hosts either made it work or not. Different regimes treated the artists in different ways.
The amalgamation fates of three key Sydney art schools tells one story. SCA was merged into somewhat hostile territory at the University of Sydney in 1990, and now it is a department in a humanities faculty, the immersive studio-based teaching all but lost. The University of Western Sydney art school was an early victim of the lack of compatibility with the university cultures and ambitions. UNSW Art and Design, previously COFA had a seemingly happy courtship and marriage and has taken full advantage of the positive relations within the host university and the mix of disciplines suited its design and art education focus and so it has continued to be supported.
Music schools such as Canberra and Newcastle lost their once proud standing due to what I believe is a shortsightedness and narrow thinking about what constitutes a good higher education environment. Cost is always sighted as a reason, but the same cross-subsidy from undergraduate teaching afforded to research is not seen in the same negative light.
There would be much to say about individual circumstances but suffice to say, the effect of nature and nurture on these arts education entities from within their hosts have produced some sustained successes and otherwise with disastrous consequences.
To survive what was at times a hostile environment, early in this period the peak bodies such as ACUADS, NACHTMUS, TDC, and others understood the importance of advocacy and participation in this transforming higher education environment. In the arts we are natural advocates, also throughout these critical times, when matters of research definition for the creative arts was being determined by the ARC, it was seen as imperative that we work together and make our own luck!
A vivid memory of this was the occasion that the representatives of the creative arts peak bodies were invited by the ARC to participate in discussion to determine how research could be defined and evaluated for the Creative Arts in the newly emerging research assessment exercises, first the RQF and now the ERA.
Professor Margaret Sheil, a former chemistry researcher, and then the Director of the ARC, when confronted with the challenge of these research categories and defining appropriate language said, astutely, “Why don’t we ask the experts?”. And so, with the open minds of the day, they did and with that began a long and it must be said ongoing conversation with each other and the research funding and government agencies that influence both our standing in the University sector and the careers of our colleagues current and emerging.
What I learned from that day in Canberra was that we had the authority and we needed to use it. We needed to find a common voice that spoke to our differences but also that could speak to the non-arts research communities. Often the scientists and medical researchers were on our side while paradoxically, less fulsome empathy emerged from the humanities and social sciences. Perhaps it was the experimental and speculative nature of the work that was our common ground with the scientists, or maybe they knew that they had the game won and had nothing to lose!
Initially, after we turned ourselves inside out, trying to find equivalences to the notions of research activity, we found a way of identify the common link, a definition that would suit all disciplines. Common to all research measurement is that of peer review and public recognition where quality can be verified. That principle was well known to us in the arts but we had to explain it to the other disciplines. That took about 10 years!
And indeed, we had to do what other disciplines didn’t have to do, we had to write justifications and rationales for counting each item of work as “research” and find forms of words that could be understood by lay people in that context. So we educated ourselves and the system and, while it probably had some positive effects, it does seem to be an extra burden on the creative arts academic community, and one that could be avoided if we trusted our peers to make sound judgements.
With all the talk of the quality of the work in critical terms, there is still much emphasis put on the inputs, such as funds raised, largely from the scarce resources of the stretched funding agencies, with the introduction of industry based funding and more recently philanthropic sources.
Back at the beginning there was much discussion about impact engagement, dismissed at the time as being too hard to measure and now a factor in the evaluation of the public value. So more recently outputs as in the work produced and its presence in the world, and indeed its measurable impact is becoming a greater focus. This returns us to a happier place, as what we do in the arts is only half made until it meets its public. It has a public outing, a presentation to peers and the broader public.
What a strange and frustrating journey this has been defining careers and servicing the changing policy trends and quixotic political cultures.
It feels like 30 years!
Meanwhile, back in the arts schools and departments, the works of art continue to emerge, the talents of students and academics continue to matter and make new and innovative contributions in the world and the exercise of the imagination remains robust and challenging. The system has transformed, demand remains high for creative arts courses and now there is a pathway from undergraduate to PhD for the arts disciplines and good art still emerges. New forms of criticality have emerged and academics can be promoted to Professor on the basis of their work in the arts. So, it is not all bad! In fact if you are in a university that understands the power and value of cultural expression and the social benefit that this brings then it can be a pretty good place to be.
The DDCA was formed as a protective force and also an agent of survival and advocacy to hold truth to power in ways that it can, and to be a voice of this vital artistic and scholarly community for the future generations. There were are few key moments when we, the peak bodies, took advantage of policy changes and processes of consultation to build “coalitions of the willing”, and it was through that joining together for the common good that built a strong collegial community of practices.
NiTRO is the voice of this work and so I encourage you to use it and build a continuing conversation that builds confidence in our collective academic voice, because you never know when you are going to need it next.
Su Baker is an artist, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Engagement) at the University of Melbourne and Professor in Art at the Victorian College of the Arts. She has more than twenty-five years’ experience in teaching, research and senior management accrued at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, and most recently, Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) where she was ten years, Head of the School of Art, and seven years, Director of the VCA. She was founding President of the Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Creative Arts, and previously has been Chair of the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools (2004–08).