Of pressures and privileges

Seán Kelly

Mark Kimber, Ice

Mark Kimber, Ice

The view from outside might suggest that artists as educators enjoy a somewhat privileged position in that they have steady incomes, access to facilities and networks not readily available to many artists, and perhaps also studio access and professional development opportunities as a part of their employment conditions. They also enjoy the company of peers and connections to professional networks. To cap this off, many receive research funds and professional advancement through exhibiting their work, which they can still sell on an open market in which they might also compete for public and private commissions.

The view from inside is somewhat different. Increasingly these days artist-educators have heavy demands on their time, many of which are not related to their artistic or even directly to their educational practices. Full time tenured positions are the exception, not the norm, and training for most must now continue to PhD level if they are even to be considered for an assistant lecturer’s position. For casuals and many part-timers, pay ceases altogether during non-contact times such as semester breaks and alternative employment must be sought to cover these periods. Against all of these demands the artist-teacher must maintain a viable and respected practice. What for many people might be considered ‘free’ time is more and more absorbed by the competing demands of the studio and the institution.

Five artist-educators practicing within the photomedia field were invited to consider a range of questions about the importance that their teaching practice has for them as artists and the issues, both positive and negative that arise as they maintain a balance between the roles. Central to the discussions was the degree to which their practices as artists and educators were mutually supportive and stimulated each other. The artists responding were: Martin Jolly, Head of Photomedia at the Australian National University School of Art; Kevin Todd, Senior Lecturer, Studies in Art & Design at the University of the Sunshine Coast; Helena Psotova, Lecturer, Photography Studio, Tasmanian School of Art, University of Tasmania; Mark Kimber, Studio Head of Photography and Digital Art Media at the South Australian School of Art; and Matthew Perkins, Studio Coordinator Photomedia, Department of Multimedia and Digital Arts at Monash University.
Helena Psotova, Basel II, 2002, from the series True Fictions

Helena Psotova, Basel II, 2002, from the series True Fictions

The real thing

Engagement with students seems to be a source of constant stimulation for all respondents. Most cited the continual engagement and debate with students on issues in and surrounding the arts as a source of inspiration, increasing and encouraging a self-critical attitude and maintaining a flexibility in their approach to their own development. No doubt it remains true that students want to engage with a teacher who is aware of issues relating to practice through being engaged with practice. This goes far beyond mere technical issues. Mark Kimber declares that “as an educator and an artist I cannot ask students to take on challenges and risks in their work unless I am constantly doing that myself”, while for Helena Psotova, “the passion for art seems to be validated in [students’] eyes by having a teacher who is active in making art.” Martin Jolly makes the point that the commitment to “the seriousness and importance of art” can only be demonstrated if the teacher is also an artist whose practice remains personally challenging and is more than “just going through the motions of exhibiting.”

Another benefit of engagement with students is the pressure that they exert on a lecturer to maintain contact with technological and cultural changes. Mark Kimber stressed the “sense of energy that invigorates (his) practice that comes from constantly being surrounded by people…discovering the thrill of art for the first time,” something a solo artist can very easily lose sight of.

A model artist?

Some respondents stressed that they did not use their own practice as a base for teaching or as an example for students. This is important because it cuts across the possibility of emulation (always an issue)—students developing an expectation that work like the lecturer’s will be preferred. Issues of maintaining objectivity in relation to the educator’s role are generally foremost in the artists’ minds. Kevin Todd remarks, “I don’t use my own work for teaching as I feel it is important for me to keep that in the studio and to allow for a ‘professional distance’ from students.”
Kevin Todd, (re)creating nature, forms#1 and 2.

Kevin Todd, (re)creating nature, forms#1 and 2.

Part-time artist

There would seem to be 3 vital requirements for maintaining a healthy visual arts practice—time, resources and energy. Rarely are the 3 available together at appropriate levels. Ironically, the maintenance of one may militate against the other.

The competing pressures for the time of an artist-teacher effect the nature of their studio work in a number of ways. It can mean that the practice is “necessarily sporadic, ‘part-time’, project-driven”, says Martin Jolly. Most only get the opportunity to concentrate fully on their ‘studio’ practice during semester breaks and professional leave which can reinforce the primary identity as artist first and foremost. Some responses suggested that the demands of the institution were too great for the maintenance of practice at the level desired, having become “competitive and time-demanding.” Add personal priorities and this can become a “frustrating and exhausting combination”, says Helena Psotova.

Matthew Perkins says, “The situation where you do not have the time and the energy to dedicate to your practice to the best of your ability can be incredibly depressing.” This is a serious issue for the artist producing work which he or she feels may be below their best, and yet is still under the obligation to exhibit. He goes on to say that at least working within an institution allows him to focus more effectively than a collection of part-time, often non-art jobs had in the past.

The positives

The primary values of working in institutions are tangible and probably quite predictable. They include such things as: a salary; access to equipment and sophisticated technology (vital to the media-based artist); contact with professional networks within and across disciplines; visiting artists and writers; research and curatorial opportunities; travel opportunities and so on. A key but less tangible benefit cited by all was constant contact with peers. Todd said, “I found working full-time as an artist isolating.” The value of an income is obvious but also allows artists the chance to develop independent projects at their own cost, over time and to pursue and develop personal major projects. The institution also allows artists to engage with people in other disciplines on a technical and conceptual level so the resources available often extend beyond the art school.

In some institutions there is a strong recognition of studio-based research. New knowledge and methodologies in practice then ‘trickle down’ into the teaching environment and into the formulation of critical theory. Also educator-artists are constantly involved in self-education; the profession requires this discipline if they are to be relevant and perform at their best. This is inherent in the artist-educator’s situation in the university and may not be so pressing for artists outside of it.

More promotion, less art

On the downside, artist-teachers said that promotion to management level almost always meant that policy planning and administrative duties tended to tip the balance away from maintaining a healthy practice and, in any case, were not part of contact with students, which the artists really enjoyed and found relevant to their practices. Another issue cited was pressure to fit into bureaucratic definitions of research and output in the context of higher degrees and grant funding. Mention was also made of policies that affect the art-training environment, such as a move to more vocationally based training. New priorities for funding universities may not impact well on art schools, so there is some anxiety about what the teaching environment will become. At all levels the increase in administrative work was reported as “steady and constant.” One of the worst aspects of this is that contact time with students is often the first casualty.

The multi-skilled artist

In terms of identity, it is clear that being an artist today is almost never a single activity. Artists tend to be involved in curation, historical, theoretical and critical writing, with artist groups and running spaces, as well as being socially engaged. In this sense the artist-teacher is just another example of the multi-faceted role of the artist.

Balancing act

Some respondents have considered moving from full to part-time to better pursue their practices but, conversely, part-timers stressed the high expectations of the institutions as somewhat unrealistic, including often lower classification and rate of pay for part-time work. Such a shift is only realistic where their practice is generating sufficient income to sustain the balancing of roles, but this point may not arrive until the mid-life of the artist-educator.

Matthew Perkins sums up the artist-educator role thus: “I am equally passionate about teaching as I am about practicing art…It is great to be in a position where I can talk about, in a very passionate way, what I am passionate about. Many professions take this for granted…If I took away teaching and could just practice art then I could achieve so much in my practice just because of time and focus. But teaching is a very satisfying profession. It affects your personal growth in unseen ways—confidence, communication, your ability to critique…It’s a bit of a chicken and egg type equation…To me [the roles] are integral.” This view is doubtless true for all artist-teachers who tolerate the tensions and stresses that accompany teaching for the benefits it continues to bring to their practice and personal growth as artists.

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 14

© Seán Kelly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2006