By Professor Margaret Sheil
On my last outing in an ACUADS conference, I was described by Flinders University’s Julian Meryick as the “artist’s ideal of a scientist… impatient with the reduction of everything down to short term utility.” So as I venture once again into the creative arts domain, I draw on a scientific analogy. The principle of chemical equilibrium refers to a system in which the rate of consumption of inputs is the same as that at which outputs are produced so that the system is in a stable state of consumption and production. If the system is subject to change (removal or addition of inputs or extra pressure) it will eventually reach a new state of equilibrium that will be different from the earlier one. It may produce more or less or different outputs but will be stable nonetheless.
As visual and performing arts schools have merged with, or grown within, Australian universities over the past several decades they have been transformed into a different state. For most the initial state was one in which there were essentially two inputs, i.e. high levels of Government funding and highly talented students, and one output, trained professional artists. Education followed an artisan model of talented artists training the next generation in individual studios and small groups and research was poorly understood or non existent. Only a small number of specialist institutions with dedicated government funding have been able to maintain anything that approaches that earlier state. For the remainder there has been a need to reach a new steady state in which there are mixture of different modes of teaching; an emphasis on research-led practice and scholarship and engagement with a wider range of supporters: governments at all levels; university leadership; philanthropists and the community.
The recent events surrounding the art schools in Sydney and the angst experienced some years ago in Melbourne as the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) was brought together with the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM) to form the Faculty of the VCA-MCM, show that changes in state can be difficult and challenging.
Yet successful change is possible. Last month it was announced that the MCM would be relocated from Parkville to a new state-of-the-art building on the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus, alongside the VCA and in the heart of the Melbourne Arts precinct. The move will mark an important milestone in the transformation of the VCA-MCM into a financially viable multi-disciplinary creative and performing arts faculty within a traditional research intensive University that continues to attract and educate highly talented students.
Chemists use catalysts to help systems reach equilibrium more quickly, and in the case of the VCA-MCM, the catalyst was the leadership of the Dean, Professor Barry Conyngham. A rare combination of a distinguished composer and experienced university leader, Barry has skilfully led the transformation of the combined faculty. He has sought to retain many of the essential traditions whilst fostering an academic culture where research is valued and recognised. Barry has garnered support from colleagues, university management and governance, and built on that to engage philanthropists and government in the vision for the combined faculty. Somewhat ironically, since the Melbourne curriculum model was an earlier point of contention, the faculty has now embraced the opportunities provided by the new curriculum, offering music and arts education to large numbers of students from other degrees. These offerings enrich the breadth of education of students from science, medicine and engineering, whilst at the same time help to achieve a new but improved financial equilibrium for the faculty; a steady state with a prosperous future.
Professor Margaret Sheil has been the Provost at the University of Melbourne since 2012. From 2007-2012 she was the CEO of the Australian Research Council where she oversaw the development of the Excellence in Research for Australia amongst many other initiatives. Much of her early career as a scientist and then research leader was spent at the University of Wollongong, where she was well educated by her colleagues in the creative arts. She has a PhD and BSc in chemistry from the University of New South Wales