Fighting Old Battles Again?

By Malcolm Gillies

Sitting on my shelf for the last eighteen years has been a copy of "The Strand Report".  Dennis Strand's excellent work was for a project overseen by the Head of the Canberra School of Art, David Williams, and chaired by Peter Karmel, a leading economist and former vice-chancellor of the ANU.  It was the first coordinated attempt to bring together the full range of visual and performing artists to address how they might better fit in with the developing research expectations of the National Unified System.  And its advisory group brought together representatives from the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Australia Council, the Higher Education Council and that curious bureaucratic beast then called DEETYA, along with a wonderful array of half a dozen younger creative arts professors with a sense of academic-political conviction, occasionally breaking out into simple outrage.  For at this time, when students of "The Arts" were about five per cent of university enrolments, creative arts departments were only gaining under one per cent of research funding. While some institutions gave supplementary support from central funds, or even had private benefactors, many others just had to rely on what the teaching and research formulas produced. 

I think I was invited onto that advisory group because I had recently written an essay about "The Arts" for an ARC "discipline research strategy" document, coordinated by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, entitled Knowing Ourselves and Others (1998).  That essay had concluded:  "If The Arts are to develop in strength within universities, and Australia consequently enhance its vibrant cultural life, then it is imperative that research about and research in the various art forms be embraced as equal partners, and disseminated in whatever media are most appropriate to their nature.  Practical creative work, too, must be encouraged, whether or not it falls within the ambit of ‘research'."

For a while, when creativity was identified as being a missing ingredient in the diet of universities. . . creative artists were even feted as the seers or gurus, with special powers denied more methodologically constipated colleagues in the social or physical sciences.

Over the succeeding couple of decades, there has been more recognition of why research or "research equivalent" or "necessary non-teaching activity" in Arts areas need to gain their own funding recognition and respect.  There was perhaps a zenith to that recognition in many countries in Australasia, North America and Europe in the early years of the millennium.  For a while, when creativity was identified as being a missing ingredient in the diet of universities, and the creative industries accordingly gained much prominence, creative artists were even feted as the seers or gurus, with special powers denied more methodologically constipated colleagues in the social or physical sciences.  (Let's just remember that ARC definitions of research in the 1980s, while explicitly demanding "originality", equally explicitly rejected all "creative work".)

But those times have passed, just as business schools too are now half a dozen years past their peak of recognition.  And with that passing, and the inevitable succession of new research policies, metrics and priorities, some of the key arguments first consolidated in the ground-breaking Strand Report of 1998 need to be revisited and replayed. In short, we are seeing a swing back to a more conservative approach to what is research, which is again exacerbating the interface between practice and scholarship.  I looked back at Strand for some guidance, and there it was on page 52, neatly and politely outlining eight areas of creative arts activity that needed to be recognized (and funded) as research, or its creative equivalent.  And what were these areas?  1.  advancement or extension of knowledge; 2. new discoveries;  3. innovative ideas, techniques, technologies; 4. solutions to problems; 5.  refinements or reinterpretations of methods, techniques, existing knowledge; 6. conceptual advances; 7. constructive critiques and synthesis; 8. new means of dissemination.   

. . . we are seeing a swing back to a more conservative approach to what is research, which is again exacerbating the interface between practice and scholarship.

I wonder what a re-run of Strand's criteria would now identify in our universities against this checklist of creative activity, and how much creative activity would be found to have clustered around those areas which have gained recognition in publication, impact, funding or other metrics over the last two decades. 

 

Malcolm Gillies takes up the interim headship of Music at ANU in October.  He was previously a vice-chancellor of two British universities, a deputy vice-chancellor of ANU, and president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.