Artists Working within Higher Education – Castlefield Gallery/New Art Spaces Federation House

Artists Working within Higher Education Castlefield Gallery 4

Earlier in the week, I attended the one-day discursive event exploring ‘Artists Working within Higher Education’, aimed at artists and academics, part of the AHRC funded research project ‘Co-producing legacy: What is the role of artists within Connected Communities projects?’. It took place at New Art Spaces Federation House in Manchester run by Castlefield Gallery, University of Sheffield and a-n The Artist Information Company. I was awarded a Writing Bursary by a-n to respond to the day, which I’ll be publishing on their blog in a few days time. (It’s actually online now – read it here!) It will be a more rounded, personal, critical and succinct response rather than just thoughts from the day as written here. I’ll signpost readers to it once posted online (read it here)…

Kwong Lee from Castlefield Gallery introduced the day, and the gallery’s partnership and how it is interested in working with universities, working with emerging and mid-career artists…there is a lot of interest in working with universities today. Both are looking at ways to work together more…it is coming from both sides. We have academics, artists and both here today, who will add to the debate…experts here today and knowledge that can be taken elsewhere. It is to be an open and discursive day.

Steve Pool (freelance artist and Co-investigator of the project) and Professor Kate Pahl (University of Sheffield, and Principal Investigator for the project) introduced the AHRC funded project research project ‘Co-producing legacy: What is the role of artists within Connected Communities projects?’. Started in 2010, it has so far looked at over 250 projects across the UK. Artists are now working in many different ways within universities where today isn’t just looking at our research but the work of others. So, what is the role of artists within Connected Communities projects? Such encounters important but not understood from a conceptual level.

Artists Working within Higher Education Castlefield Gallery 1

What is “Connected Communities? It is ‘a cross-Council programme designed to help us understand the changing nature of communities in their historical and cultural contexts and the role of communities in sustaining and enhancing our quality of life. The programme seeks not only to connect research on communities, but to connect communities with research, bringing together community-engaged research across a number of core themes, including community health and wellbeing, community creativity, prosperity and regeneration, community values and participation, sustainable community environments, places and spaces, and community cultures, diversity, cohesion, exclusion, and conflict.’ More information and the projects can be seen here – It is ultimately attempting to connect to the wider arts sector. Steve and Kate conceptualised their research through visual, diagrammatic form…a complex model across sectors…with focus on impact.

Artists Working within Higher Education Castlefield Gallery 2


  • Survey of all the 250 Connected Community projects;
  • In-depth analysis of 9 projects and on-going work with 3 projects;
  • Review of the literature on art and art practices within community contexts;
  • Studio practice as a mode of enquiry.

Emerging findings:

  • Artists important part of at least 60 projects
  • Interviews with artists and academics
  • Terrain is changing…established ways that artists are working in HE and emerging ways;
  • Changing landscape is full of fault lines.

How have artists worked in HE?:

  • Workshops (workshop a contested term);
  • Contributed to research, book chapters and journals;
  • Worked in communities to facilitate co-production (co-production a key word in the research’s process);
  • Interpreted and researched.

Discussion unfolded into the understanding of specific terms such as workshop and studio and how they are seen from both the artist and HEI perspective.

Issues emerging in the relationship between artists and HEI’s…what happens when you intersect?:

  • Academics might be making written outputs;
  • Artists are also doing outputs that are facing different audiences;
  • We are all compromising the way our outputs for different audiences;
  • Each has something to lose;
  • Everyone notices their own practice;
  • How is the landscape changing?

It is difficult not to put a value structure on the work or the structures of work. We speak a lot of the topology of this area of research.

Audience discussion opened up regarding the statement “Each has something to lose”. The process of temporary stepping out…the potential for an artist to lose part of their practice/identity through working with a HEI. Potential to lose control of something in a project as it is more shared and collaborative. Balancing?

How many artists have you focused on that are in academia? – Some are part of our team, or are in academia and doing PhDs…layers of connections. There are a lot of artists that are completely outside academia too. Artists working in different ways…when reading the transcripts there are similarities and differences…those who are in academia and outside academia have different drives as to why they want to do these projects.

Next was Jeanie Scott (Executive Director, a-n The Artists Information Company) who gave an introduction to a-n’s engagement with HEI’s. She introduced the work of a-n, the largest membership body for the arts, and network…the arts ecology in the UK through an infographic by Emily Speed (who is actually a friend of mine!)…stating that “no one-size fits all for the arts education sector”.

Emily Speed Ecology of the Visual Arts

The sector is asking artists to be better advocates of finding funding for themselves and creating value. The extent to which cuts have left artists at the bottom of the food chain often be exploited being asked to offer their services for free. a-n aims to provide stimulating and supporting visual arts practice…support to student memberships, resources and professional development…peer networking, mentoring, and peer learning. This stepping stone point of their career from undergraduate to graduate life, it is an online community for them to do that…blog, exchange ideas, find work. She spoke of a-n’s bank of information…news, reviews, commentary…how can we make this more open and available to research and academia – live, action research and by artists themselves in their own words. In terms of a-n’s future with HEI’s, we want to take the archive and resources forward…fully-engage our members…also seeing how we can work with HEI course leaders, looking at how we can devise modules within universities about future proofing visual artists…what conversations need to be had about value from all sorts of angles…quality and diversity too. Her hashtag is #payingartists

Professor Vanessa Toulmin (Director of the National Fairground Archive, Head of Cultural Engagement University of Sheffield) who spoke of what universities look for in working with artists, using her project ‘Festival of the Mind 2012’ at Castle House, Sheffield as a case study. She had her festival director perspective hat on…when you run a festival you need a strong leader, however, when you work with people you play to their strengths and let them lead and do what that need to do. ‘Festival of the Mind 2012’ was 50 core projects, 7 artists in total working with 80 academics, 18,000 people attended, over 25 locations across the city, 32,000 visits tot he website with 21,000 unique visits. Collaboration and spark of inspiration between an artist, practitioner and academic…two/three/four-way process. ‘Festival of the Mind 2014’ was 98 collaborative projects, 46 projects funded, 30 projects included, 374 events over the 11 days, £190,000 out of budget out of £230,000 went on commissions and to artists (academics are already funded), 200 staff and student volunteers, 150 academics. Six themes – change, chaos, global, joy, resilience and urban. It was to “change hearts and minds…get Sheffield to realise it is their university”.

Artists Working within Higher Education Castlefield Gallery 3

  • Working together – the practical issues;
  • Difference between academics and artists expectations;
  • Creative process versus academic research process;
  • Inspiration – the focus is on research engagement;
  • Not narrow but big not arts but across the whole university Trust.

Part of the process is losing independence, ideology, what your idea is actually about…loss is a good things as you can gain a lot through seeing through other eyes. True collaboration is being able to see through others eyes. Research engagement is vital. This was done through:

  • First contact…get everybody together to talk. Over 400 artists and academics asked to a speed dating session to tell each other what they did in 5 minutes (facilitated with the help of a theatre company);
  • Ideas Bazaar;
  • Creating partnerships;
  • Challenging perceptions through partnerships – “the joy of discovery is why I became an academic”;
  • Constructing temporary space – turning it into anything you want.

‘Festival of the Mind 2014’ had over 32,500 visits to the website, 3,127 followers on Twitter and over 1,300 like on Facebook…stats are important for funders and partners, but it is more about the audience engagement and reaction, photographs of those who attended and took part in the festival. Vanessa went on to cite artists and projects that were part of the festival concluding on the festival’s methodology:


In the Q&A afterwards, Vanessa stated that within the University of Sheffield she works cross-faculty, she is a link, she creates relationships. Artists should look at what academics do, their work…see how their practice can connect to what they do. Each university plays to its strength. What are the procedures around accounting for the event…get photographs and statistics…mark the audiences and types of audiences.

The final session before lunch was by James Oliver who discussed ‘Practice as Research’. He opened by reflecting on Vanessa’s statement “EVERYTHING WE DO IS RELATED TO EVERYTHING ELSE” asking us to turn our chairs to face the centre of the room. He just wanted to change the dynamic of the room…getting us to re-imagine the room and the physical relationships within the room…how you view and see each other. He then went back to Kate’s slide, about the emerging issues about artists working with HEI’s. He spoke about ‘Practice as Research’…that it is binary, power relationships. He spoke of his experiences at the University of Melbourne where he currently manages 30 PhDs. He asked the group to talk through their practice as research PhDs…research-led, research-as, practice research relationships…where we found issue with the word “practice”. Binary is more about a questioning scenario, dichotomies…binary as oppositional, loss and gain…external and internal tensions…dichotomies. Everything is related, but not all relationships are equal. He examined the notion of ‘dialectical ideas’…ideas on art and the academy. He proposed to the room that we don’t think in binary…dialectical means relations, relations of meaning and power. Binary is a negative way of looking at relationships. For academics in the room, it is about reflexivity of practice…there is no one size fits all…how meaning and power is played out in relationships…it has to be a conversation and collaboration. He concluded by quoting the social anthropologist, Tim Ingold’s view on creativity as a mode of improvisation and innovation where innovation is seen as a negative form of practice…innovation as a closed way of thinking for creativity. You have to be open to possibility…improvisation of forward thinking and new imagination of thinking and creativity…art-making and knowledge production as improvisation where social relationships are a re-making of our world.

Artists Working within Higher Education Castlefield Gallery 4

One key question in the open discussion session before lunch asked how far artists’ go to push boundaries in HEI’s? Disruption always occurs…the points at which things rub up against each other. “Disruption” as part of the ‘Connected Communities’ research project…the use of technical terminologies and the understanding of this…the artists role is constructed in a specific way, where there will be a specific understanding of “disruption”. Discussion went on to speak of artist-HEI-museum/gallery partnerships and how HEIs and museums/galleries are there to house and develop knowledge…how this relationship can be a self-critiquing reflexive act within carefully defined parameters, institutional ventriloquism…institutional agendas influence the relationships. The artists don’t always know why rather than what they are supposed to do…artists are not empowered to do what they are doing. Power and knowledge…knowledge is power. Is it not the case that the people who compromise get the work?  Ultimately it is about “space as a possibility”…sometimes they open up around disruption, other times around collaboration…new things can create change…it is the ecology around them. What are the fault lines?  It is an ecology of practice, economy/economies of practice. Professionalism of politics leads to alienation…but who understands this? Are we only having a conversation with ourselves a lot of the time…the way in which the art ecology is segmented out is interesting. Also about developing cultural value…no understanding within HEIs as to how much should be paid…assumption that artists will always be there to add life and vigour to situations they are necessary for.

Artists Working within Higher Education Castlefield Gallery 5

The afternoon began with Steve Swindles (Professor in Creative Practice, Director of Research, and Director of Graduate Education, University of Huddersfield) with ‘What are the new partnerships and new ways of working between artists and HEIs?’ Consider being an ‘artist-in-residence’ within a university campus – how can the role of a artist-academic be re-conceptualised, and be repositioned with respect to teaching and professional practice? How do you hold onto your artistic identity?

“Today society needs artists more than it needs art” – Peter Buchel

He spoke of the role of artists in society more generally referencing his PhD that looked into the artist and citizenship. It is like inviting a foreign guest into your household…you in the household have to accommodate this guest. What happens is that foreign guest starts to disrupt the daily routine so you start to do things differently…disruption to do things differently.

Artists Working within Higher Education Castlefield Gallery 6

“Critical artistic practices do not contribute to the counter-hegemonic struggle by deserting the institutional terrain but by engaging with it, with the aim of fostering dissent and creating a multiplicity of agonistic spaces where the dominant consensus is challenged and where new modes of identification are made available.” – Chantal Mouffe

The role and turn of art education from the radical avant-garde ideas of the ’60s and ’70s to the relational culture of the last 10 years. Universities are perceived as key economic and cultural drivers and are increasingly significant deliverers of cultural experiences to the public. Many of the UK’s leading artists and designers are employed by the university sector. Steve cited a new “urban room” and pop-up space called ‘Blackburn is Open’ that brought a focus to the relationships between the university and it’s academics/researchers/artists and the local communities and the university. ..providing a cultural offer . The 2014 Farrell Review (a national review of architecture and the built environment) calls for towns and cities across the UK to establish an “Urban Room”. These partnerships let me think about being an artist again. He was also interested in the occupy movement, a sensibility as to how this can be seen in an academic context…occupancy, how can they go there to work and occupy the studios and spaces…more their role as to how they can create other dialogues in their work. The idea of occupancy, through art we become many, we become a collective. He referenced the Hong Kong Occupy Central movement…”the street as canvas”. He also spoke of ROTOЯ and his website and research platform looking at ‘Transdisciplinary dialogue and debate’,..the use of students as cultural ambassadors through films, talks, initiatives with the libraries…the gallery would help itself to get new audiences. It is how to measure the sense of value of all this and how we understand the role of artists and designers and their academic partners with support with the ICA, and a collaborative symposium ‘Public Engagement and Impact: Articulating Value in Art and Design’, 23 May 2013. This symposium explored the social, cultural and political challenges around measuring public engagement in relation to evidencing impact, and the implications of this for those working in Higher Education and Museum/Gallery sectors. How might value be articulated in art and design? Human value and empathy…how do think through our practices and ideas in terms of forming accessibility for the communities that surround the university? It is about psychogeography at times…how we bring together these strands to make sense of it all. The artist has a fundamental role…they are an enabler, they are a foreign guest that enables all these other disciplines to think differently. Artists have that ability to think differently, re-conceptualise to contradict and create contradictions.

Next was Paul Evans who talked about his experience of The Leverhulme Trust support. Paul spoke of his artist-in-residence experience and the work of The Leverhulme Trust. When applying, he wondered who it was that he would actually be collaborating with where it is important to have a passionate, shared interest with the academic. He cited the work produces, exhibition, seminars and other events that helped to define his residency. What is the role you have as an artist coming into a place? What name do they give you? How do you negotiate the subtle differences between art practice and research? The differences aren’t that subtle.

The day concluded with the panel discussion ‘What’s in it for the artists?’ and Q&A on how artists work with HEIs and what are the future opportunities…led by Kwong Lee from Castlefield Gallery:

Q: A question to the academic in the room…are they aware that research is integral to artistic practice and are their opportunities to educate academics?

Kwong Lee: Conversely are all artists’ research of the same depth?

Audience: Students are forced to think academically, there is the opportunity for risk or to fail…the pressure they are under to conform to a certain way of thinking, to create a storyline through research…this is as limiting to doing art without thought.

Vanessa Toulmin: I think research is used by different people in different ways…it consumes me everyday…often taught if you are not a researcher you are nothing. At most universities you only get promoted on your research.

Audience:  The word “research” is understood in different ways.

James Oliver: It depends on the practice and the process.

Audience: The question of practice is an issue…saying “in my practice”…”in my research”. They’re systematic.

Audience: I seem it seamless between academic and studio practice. To me it integrates. They are systematic. It can come together. There are no separations in real life.

Steve Pool: In this research, it’s about a certain validation from the institution and the relationships in the university context…validation a way of working in an academy. We’ve been discussing language, what language we can use and how it is understood…only working definition when we are part of a project. Is art seen as equal to other subjects in the university (universities)?

Steve Swindles: Through the REF we have done well…but internally we are seen as hobbyists. In terms of art practice, the things that we have been fighting for that the institution struggles with, we expected to make art practice in a research context but we are not provided with a studio or studio resources. There is a real conflict and tension in the institution…it’s not a level playing field. It is to do with the perception of the value.

Steve Pool: Artists are invited into these programmes…so there is value seen, but then beyond that it gets muddy. See if people can work in new ways.

Audience: I’m interested in the way in which encounters between art and research…we’re having these conversations at a time when funding is reduced. What counts as research? What counts as art? How complicit are we in a climate of reduced resources? Maybe there is a larger conversation rather than from either side about what can we do together…a bigger set of goals and aspirations…a consequence of this is segregation of each side.

James Oliver: Research funding is rarified…you have full autonomy to do your work. A lot of us are seeking autonomy to create work to be valued. You can only have so much autonomy based on the institutions wanted impact. Agonistic pluralism…real democracy isn’t about consensus it is about de-sensus. It is important for us to come together and not always agree, to have dialogue as a form of dialectics…what we all value and mean in that space of autonomy. There are different levels of autonomy.

Audience: Contribution to new knowledge…different forms of practice activate different parts of the brain. There are different paradigms of research within research as there is practice within practice. Sometimes they don’t like speaking to each other.

Vanessa Toulmin: You find all the stereotypes about your subject are completely true…it is not bad or good, it s fantastic…physics in the poetry of science.

Audience: When those tensions, de-sensus happens, that’s where the excitement comes.

Me: One thing that seems to be overlooked or there hasn’t been time for is a focus on the international side of research…(at which point I started to talk about my work with China and within various HEI’s across the UK and China)…

Steve Swindles: When visiting institutions in Russia, Asia and other countries, what struck me about the university or the city or town where it was located…they’d go to the art school direct. There was no commissioning process…it just happened. It became part of the curriculum…and that was fresh thinking to me.

Hugh Escott: When attending international conferences, we don’t do that here, we fund PhDs through public money so research has to be publicly funded. We’re discussing boundaries and tensions…and they are the same in other areas of the world.

Abi Gilmore: It is important to think outside Manchester and the North West…fully aware that there are very similar conversations happening in similar policy contexts…the difficulty for artists working in other ethical contexts and that’s due to policy. The problem of globalisation is clear…it is important to have a local comparative view.

Audience: The dynamic of arts and culture and its relationship to the Western global north of the university.

Abi Gilmore: Very often have overseas students and get involved in global executive education…part of a 2-week creative industries course for delegates from China. Can you tell us a bit more about what you do to be a creative? Importance to be culturally sensitivity…to look outside of the local and the artistic flow that exists in the world.

Steve Pool: Exists on a quite a local level…the issues around power, we can be seduced by the global when we look further afield. It is happening specifically on community projects.

James Oliver: How do we make a sustainable difference? Clinical, homogenous, systematic understandings of where we work…

Audience: Gaining knowledge from all the speakers and artists who have found their own way, self-defined work with multiple benefits…clearly better informed artists can make better informed choices, universities can also reciprocate that. Where do we go from here?

Steve Pool: The present contains all the possible futures…it’s a space for potential. It is a collective not oppositional mission.

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