the research degree—consistency vs diversity

ella mudie: the visual arts practice-led phd

Ella Dreyfus, I forgive you every day (italics) 2008/2012, hand stitched felt fabric.Dreyfus is completing a practice-led PhD at COFA, UNSW and she will be exhibiting the final work at University Gallery, University of Newcastle, October 3-20, 2012

Ella Dreyfus, I forgive you every day (italics) 2008/2012, hand stitched felt fabric.Dreyfus is completing a practice-led PhD at COFA, UNSW and she will be exhibiting the final work at University Gallery, University of Newcastle, October 3-20, 2012


By contrast, the studio-based or practice-led PhD in the visual arts is of course a familiar and well-established presence in the landscape of Australian tertiary arts education. Now with over two decades of data to draw upon including many case studies and ‘lessons learnt,’ the experience of Australian art schools is increasingly featuring in international discussions over how best to implement such degrees.

In recent years, however, the local sector has arguably experienced an identity crisis of sorts as candidates, artists, academics and universities have attempted to come to grips with the PhD as HDR—a higher degree by research. At Griffith University’s Queensland College of Art, Professor Ross Woodrow has been involved with the supervision and examination of studio-based doctorates for 15 years. He observes that “over that period of time there has been major progress towards consensus on standards and expectations, although there remains considerable variation in examination protocols and indeed quality across different institutions and different submissions.” The idea of “artists with PhDs” remains a contentious one.

At a best practice level, research now appears to increasingly figure as a significant, if not primary, objective of the practice-led or studio-based doctoral degree. In line with other disciplines, creative work undertaken within this context is to be integrated with a research question or guided by a clearly defined topic that aims to generate a contribution to knowledge. For some art schools, this shift in emphasis has proved a testing one, for others less so. COFA (College of Fine Arts, UNSW) Graduate Coordinator, Bonita Ely, points out that “COFA has the advantage that as soon as we were amalgamated into the university [in 1990] we started establishing a research culture.” The school also has clear guidelines which distinguish the studio-based PhD program from the Master of Fine Arts. “A PhD absolutely must identify a gap in knowledge or a new way of doing things or an area that the artist through their practice can find a new way of looking at in order to make a contribution to the field. We’re really insistent that students have sorted through the terrain that they are going to research. That said, the proposal doesn’t have to be set in concrete, as often when you research other things arise and it’s important to remain open to the possibility of the project evolving and becoming more focused as it progresses.”

At the Victorian College of the Arts Associate Professor and Graduate Research Coordinator, Barbara Bolt, responds that “across the sector there is tension about the ability of the PhD to produce high quality artwork that is also advanced research. This concern is also evident in Europe where the creative doctorate is flourishing. It is felt that the most radical work happens outside the academy. There is general agreement at the VCA and MCM (Melbourne Conservatorium of Music) that the primary goal of the PhD is to create high quality artwork that is also advanced research but there is expressed concern that the PhD program doesn’t necessarily attract the most radical artists—they tend to leave art school straight after graduating for undergraduate or honours and go out and practice.”

The question of legitimacy also lingers. Efforts to formally recognise creative practice as research received a small boon with the introduction of the Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) initiative in 2009, which broadened the definition of research to make provisions for artistic research, practice-led and practice-based research. However, these still remain to be incorporated into universities’ formal research recognition and funding networks. Creative work or non-traditional scholarly publications, for example, are not included in the process for collating and auditing research outputs.

For Bolt, the legitimacy of practice-led research within the wider university research culture depends not on expanding the definition such that all creative work is accepted as research but rather in learning to distinguish the artwork from the work of art and, in this way, clearly articulating an artwork’s research contribution. “In other words, it is not just what the work is, but actually what it does that constitutes research,” argues Bolt. “The performative potential of art is something we have often come to embrace, but are rarely prepared to unpack or demonstrate. Whilst often used interchangeably, the artwork is not the same thing as the work of art. The need to articulate the research contribution in art-as-research remains critical.”

Ross Woodrow is more wary of the shift toward explicating the research contribution of art making. “The primary measure of the success of any practice-based research in the creative arts must be the output or the work itself. It is the work of art, film, book, animation, photographs, paintings, installations, performance or whatever that enhances our understanding of the world in some measure or explains some part of it in aesthetic or experiential terms. The written exegesis can only be an adjunct to that end.”

In January 2011, the Examination of Doctoral Degrees in Creative Arts Project began gathering empirical data on current approaches to assessment practices, processes and standards in creative arts HDR. According to the Project’s Chief Investigator, Professor Jen Webb, Associate Dean of Research at the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra, the current endeavour builds upon previous research projects where, “What came up consistently were concerns about examination standards and a sense of disparity between universities.”

Concerns run the gamut from the need for a larger pool of experienced examiners, the delayed submission of examiner reports, the level of variance between reports and a disproportionate amount of negative comment from examiners. To address the issue of consistency, the Project had initially envisaged proposing a Creative Arts Examination Board which has since been deemed unsuitable. Webb points out that policies differ between universities and there needs to be room for variation. There is agreement, however, that “there should be a space to talk about issues and concerns.” When the project concludes in November, a confidential report will be submitted to the government and another will be publicly distributed with core recommendations for supervisors and examiners.

At COFA, Bonita Ely points out that “you have to choose your examiners carefully. It’s a specialised field and there is still some resistance in academic circles to the idea that artists do research so you have to choose examiners who ‘get it’ and understand the paradigm, and who appreciate that artists have always made artworks to communicate knowledge. The examiner also needs to understand what a PhD is, so at COFA we only approach examiners who have a PhD already or a background as an academic.”

While a common language and set of concerns is crystalising around practice-led research, not everyone is convinced that the new paradigm displays the right emphasis. Later this year, the Australasian journal TEXT will publish a special edition titled Beyond Practice-Led Research. Co-edited by the University of Canberra’s Scott Brook and Paul Magee, “This edition of the journal is aimed at shaking things up,” says Magee, who suggests there’s a real need to address the viability of the current approach. “The solution that has been adopted is that artists somehow make discoveries in their practice and that is the contribution to knowledge. I suggest that what then enters that space is a bit meaningless and hard to critique. We need to have a discussion around who is benefiting from this research being created. Is it benefiting creative communities or is it being produced to serve accounting functions?”

Yet, as Woodrow highlights, “It is very important to stress the impact that postgraduate study in Australian universities has had on the quality of contemporary art over the past decade.” For example, “almost all of Australia’s representatives at the Venice Biennale over the past decade have benefited from Masters or Doctoral studies.” The need to offer artists avenues for continuing their education and training at an advanced level such as the PhD is a real one and HDR in the creative arts promises to remain a growth area. Inclusiveness may not be a defining characteristic of the current practice-led model which favours the artist-researcher over the strictly intuitive art maker, but at the very least a consensus on what constitutes a practice-led PhD is clearing the way for important discussions about rigour, fairness and consistency, vital to a healthy maturing of the field.

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 6

© Ella Mudie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 August 2012