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Welcome to PRAM

Welcome to PRAM – the Practitioner Research in the Art Museum blog – that explores what it means to be a practitioner researcher in the art museum.  It looks at how research is undertaken in art museums today and by whom and explores how we might expand on current models to re-shape and broaden our understandings.  My background is in gallery education and research and I have a longstanding interest in widening access to art through supporting visitors and curators to engage in processes of shared enquiry.  I see value in framing the gallery as a space for research-led practice where museum professionals can operate as practitioner researchers, working with audiences and colleagues to co-produce new knowledge.

In this blog I worry away at questions relating to knowledge, expertise, rigour and authority and look at models of collaborative and practice based research being employed in art schools, universities and schools to see how these can be applied in the art museum.  I ground my ideas by learning at first hand from art institutions that are developing innovative cross-disciplinary and collaborative research-led practice, both in the UK and internationally. And I draw attention to writers and thinkers whose ideas are helpful and relevant in reconceptualising how research functions in art museums currently.

This blog began life as part of an AHRC funded fellowship I undertook from September 2017 to July 2018 to research and develop a framework for practitioner-led co-produced research for the art museum of the twenty-first century.  This fellowship allowed me to step away from my role as Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate to read, research and write.  I visited museums and art organisations, interviewed and spoke with colleagues in the UK and internationally, facilitated seminars and talks and wrote this blog and a book – ‘Rethinking Research in the Art Museum’ – that is due to be published by Routledge in 2019.  The experience challenged and broadened my thinking about my own practice and art museum research in its entirety.

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Participants at ‘The Physicality of Research’ seminar at Tate in June 2018

In August 2018 I returned to Tate and am curious to keep exploring what it means to be a museum-based practitioner researcher from within the organisation. In my current role I work alongside others to develop research projects and embed research-led reflective practice in Tate’s Learning department, whilst continuing to research and write.  I learn a great deal and benefit from working with extraordinarily dynamic and thoughtful people across different departments and disciplines in a creative and ambitious organisation. And I connect with a wide range of brilliant colleagues from across the arts and academia.  I can witness at first hand how the museum is attempting to shift from being the exclusive holder and dispenser of expert knowledge to becoming a more discursive space.  Yet I am aware of the challenges the institution faces in sharing and generating ideas with, as opposed to for, a more diverse public.  I will bring all of this experience to my writing in this blog going forward.  And I hope to include the voices of fellow practitioner researchers as guest contributors.

As I wrote when I began the blog, the title ‘Practitioner Research in the Art Museum’ is a little too wordy for my liking.  However the acronym PRAM is very appealing. As well as the familiar definition of a carriage for young children, the Oxford English Dictionary also describes a pram as a ‘flat-bottomed boat for shipping cargo’.  I still think, even though it is a bit cheesy, that this blog functions as a means to transport ideas, as a place where ‘young’ and emerging thoughts can be communicated and carried forward.  As I enter the next phase of my professional journey I look forward to sharing more of the cargo.

 

Addressing Diversity

In the UK, as elsewhere, a great deal of energy and thought is being given to issues of diversity, inclusion and difference in museums.  Network activist organisations including Museum Detox are challenging major cultural institutions and museums to bring about greater representation for those who identify as black, Asian, Arabic or of dual heritage in their workforce and programmes.  The 2018 Museums Association Conference took as its theme ‘Dissent: inspiring hope, embracing change’ with papers and discussions focusing on the need for ‘decolonisation’ of museum collections and a revised approach to interpretation that acknowledges the troubling history of many museum objects.  I recently attended a two-day seminar at the V&A entitled ‘Practices of Engagement and Contested Heritage Collections: Past, Present and Future’ which was one in a series of events organised under the AHRC Care for the Future theme.  Over the two days we explored a range of topics from reaching out to under-represented communities to provenance research and the repatriation of museum objects.

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Historian Hannah Young presenting at Practices of Engagement and Contested Heritage Collections: Past, Present and Future at the V&A

 

And this is just a tiny sample of the work going on. Museum professionals are needing to consider the language employed, attitudes revealed and current systems in place that maintain discriminatory museum structures.  Words such as ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘difference’ are themselves under scrutiny, as is the language of ‘decolonisation’, with rich debate happening across the sector.

But what role can research as a practice play in this debate?  Or put another way, how can research support greater diversity within the art museum? As a white woman I am aware of how much I need to learn and am very tentative about writing on this topic or claiming any expertise.  However my involvement in one particular research initiative at Tate is revealing a great deal to me about how research can open up a space to address issues of diversity, inclusion, knowledge production and power.  Hence I thought it might be of value to share some thoughts on it here.

Inclusive Futures‘ is a year long pilot research programme led by Dr Karen Salt, the Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at the University of Nottingham and Tate’s first Futures Fellow.  The project is examining Tate’s systems, discourses and practices in relation to issues of diversity and inclusion, with the aim of enhancing Tate’s organizational learning and informing its practices and potentially those of the sector more widely.

Key to Inclusive Futures is its collaborative methodology. The project draws on Karen’s deep knowledge of the ways that discourses regarding difference influence narratives, decision-making and systems of governance.  And it is shaped by her broader interest in the ways global minority communities marshal their collective power and participate in local, national and international governance structures.  The project is therefore structured in two phases. The first part – ‘Ghost Projects’ – addresses historic projects and activities at Tate which have focused on race, power, equality and social justice, but which may have faded from the organisation’s collective memory.

We are in the middle of this first phase wherein we have invited all Tate colleagues to share their Ghost Projects so as to build an internal database of Tate’s collective past experience for future study. The second phase – ‘Futures Work’ –  will see Karen working closely with teams across Tate to understand how they are applying diversity and inclusion strategies, policies and processes in a practical way and the ways that Tate can draw on and value the knowledge embedded within all teams.

Already the project is surfacing rich material and generating multiple insights, not least into the wealth of activity staff have undertaken over many years (we have colleagues coming forward with initiatives from 20 years ago), that were often very significant but which were never integrated across the organisation.  We are hearing about how  individuals’ profound commitment to change resulted in them doing work beyond their actual roles.  And we are witnessing how Inclusive Futures is being seen as a safe space to talk about the opportunities, alongside the difficult and frustrating issues that staff have faced and are facing today.

I have a theory that it is in part because the project is framed as an exploratory and collaborative research initiative that colleagues are generously sharing their knowledge and experiences with such openness. Karen is not a consultant on this project, but a co-researcher working alongside staff to unearth and make sense of past activity. She has made it clear that she will not be coming up with a series of recommendations for Tate, but rather is working towards research findings based on what emerges through the process undertaken with staff. This research is not seeking to resolve a problem but rather to make visible past and present activity from which the organisation can learn. In doing so the project is aiming to generate new insights into diversity and inclusion practices in the art museum and model a practice of shared knowledge production that foregrounds the multiple forms of expertise present within the organisation. The process is as significant as the outcomes.

Supporting practitioner-led research in the art museum – what can leaders do?

Recently I was contacted by a colleague from Australia, Sheona White, who has been reading the blog.  She posed a question to me concerning what it takes to lead and manage individuals and team(s) who are keen to undertake practitioner research in museum learning programmes. Sheona rightly pointed out that we tend not to discuss this a great deal and her question got me thinking about what my experience has been at Tate, what I have come across in my recent research and what can be learnt from both.  I have pulled five characteristics of leadership together here as a starting point for what I hope will be an ongoing discussion.  This list is not in order of priority – all these characteristics are equally important in my view.

  1. Modelling an explicit commitment to research

Leadership is vital to developing a vibrant research culture and supporting practitioners to undertake research.  In my experience team leaders need to model an enquiring perspective. Even if senior managers do not undertake research themselves they are crucial in creating a culture where speculation and reflexivity is encouraged and where change is welcome.  The exemplary leaders I have come across embody an approach that prioritises learning and encourages all staff to challenge themselves and their practice. They test their thinking explicitly and encourage their workforce to adopt this approach too.

2. Building a trusting culture where thoughtful risk taking is encouraged 

Leaders play a key role in enabling a culture of trust and risk where experimentation and ventures into the unknown are an ingrained element of practice.  In a trusting culture people are confident they will not be criticised if they query current ways of doing and thinking and they feel empowered to question and disagree with their colleagues. David Garvin and his co-authors (who have written on organisational learning) identify that such workspaces provide a supportive environment for productive change, because they manifest ‘psychological safety’. In a psychologically safe learning space everyone can express ideas openly.  However, a supportive environment for practitioner-led research in my view requires a further step. Here people need to feel able not only to question existing scenarios or correct existing problems, but also to test out their own original ideas.

Maintaining a psychologically safe space needs constant attention to everything. From more micro-level decisions on, for example, acknowledging challenging voices and opinions in meetings to more macro-level responses when, for instance, research or experimental programming does not yield the findings or experiences that were expected. If staff feel disempowered or silenced or if the focus is on ascribing blame or emphasising what went wrong, then trust evaporates and positive risk-taking disappears. Each time this happens the likelihood of staff embarking on fruitful enquiry is reduced. If, however, at difficult or disappointing moments, the emphasis is on what can be learnt, the space for innovative investigations grows. When a culture of genuine trust and risk is embedded it creates a positive upward spiral of new insights and greater understanding.

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Participants in a Tate Schools and Teachers Summer School. Copyright Tate Photography (Alex Wood)

3. Establishing clear and open communication

All those I interviewed for my research acknowledged the value but also the complexities and challenges of maintaining regular and transparent communication across an organisation. But I have observed that in organisations where practitioner researchers thrive, and research and reflection are nurtured, knowledge and information are shared openly. David Garvin and his colleagues also argue that knowledge that is shared in systematic and clearly defined ways, among individuals, groups, or whole organisations, is most effective in supporting organisational learning. They emphasise the importance of information and insights moving laterally and vertically, so that ‘essential information moves quickly and efficiently into the hands and heads of those who need it’.  One obvious way that leaders can contribute is by sharing information openly and establishing regular meetings and all-team catch ups where staff are encouraged to disseminate information and ideas, reflect together on what has happened and been learnt and collaborate on future plans.

4. Making time  

What my experience and research has told me is that without question the main factor that prevents practitioners doing research is their perceived lack of time. I have found that almost without exception people are keen to research, reflect and take time to learn, yet they can struggle to build this into their practice. Too often they are overwhelmed by the practical and administrative aspects of their roles, which are perceived to take priority. Practitioners want time to share problems and insights and consider ‘what if’ questions together as part of their working day. And they want their organisations to acknowledge the importance of the thinking that is required to do their work effectively, by not overloading them with tasks or programming.

It is the responsibility of leadership in the first instance not to overload staff with programming tasks that leave no time for more considered enquiry.  Associated with this is the need for leaders to make sure there are adequate resources to undertake the work the organisation wishes to do.  And finally leaders can play a key role in encouraging staff to take the time needed, by creating spaces for reflection and sanctioning formal research time away from the day to day routines.

5. Committing to honest evaluation

My experience and conversations have revealed that without ongoing evaluation, it is hard to know what is taking place or estimate the degree and nature of change brought about through an intervention. I know practitioners who shy away from evaluation, associating it with the tedious time-consuming ritual of handing out questionnaires at the end of event. It is true that evaluation which is not an integral part of the cycles of action research and practice as research can seem to be an irrelevance, undertaken to fulfil the requirements of a funder. Or evaluation is framed as an opportunity for advocacy; for the telling of a positive story without an in-depth and honest appraisal and presentation of a programme. But neither of these approaches help improve practice, hence the need for leaders to ensure that honest evaluation is at the heart of careful enquiry.

This list is by no means complete and no doubt there are a multitude of other actions leaders can take to support practitioner-led research.  At the same time these characteristics do not operate in isolation, but are interconnected and co-dependent.  Furthermore, in my experience leaders cannot bring about and maintain a practitioner-led research culture on their own, as it requires commitment on the part of each person within an organisation.  Nonetheless, effective leadership makes the task of embedding practitioner-led research considerably easier, especially if they enact these five characteristics.

Practice based research – revisiting some key questions

What are the types of knowledge produced through artistic research?  What are the fields of knowledge production in the art museum?  Is ‘knowledge’ an adequate term to describe what emerges from artistic enquiry or is there something beyond and outside of knowledge that needs to be accounted for?  These are some of the questions that were raised at an afternoon seminar at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, Lithuania that I was part of last week.

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The National Gallery of Art, Vilnius

 

The discussion that took place revisited some arguments that have been present within practice based research in art and design for some time, but also sparked, at least for me, some fresh thinking.  In particular I have been thinking pragmatically about the differences between practice based research in the university and museum context.  And I have been reflecting more abstractly on how we might negotiate existing definitions of knowledge in relation to artistic, but also museological practice based research.

In his presentation at the seminar, Professor Tom Corby, Associate Dean of Research at Central St Martins, University of the Arts London referenced Christopher Frayling’s influential 1994 conceptualisation of research in art and design.  In this text three categorisations of art and design research are described.  The first of these, Research into art and design covers historical, theoretical and aesthetic research.  The second, Research through art and design is the enquiry that happens through practice, that is through the doing of art making and which produces knowledge that is communicable in written forms that go beyond the artefact.  This might include action research where the findings are shared through a research journal, for example. The third category, Research for art and design is the process of questioning and discovery that culminates and is expressed solely in the art object. What emerges from this type of research does not find form in verbal or written communication necessarily.  Instead it is expressed, in the author’s words, in ‘visual, iconic or imaginistic communication.’

Since Christopher Frayling’s paper was published there has been a huge amount of debate around how Research for art and design sits within the academic structures of a university, which to my knowledge has not been resolved.  Instead research degrees in art and design conform more to the Research through art and design model in that there is a requirement for a written thesis to accompany the making of any art works.  Indeed Tom Corby ran through the quite specific requirements that are part of any PhD submission at Central St Martins in order for the new knowledge generated through the research to be made explicit to examiners and anyone else.   For some artists, including some present at the seminar in Vilnius, this formulation is problematic, in part because of the implicit framing of what constitutes new knowledge.

Put another way, how does an art and design PhD account for the new knowledge that cannot be expressed through words?  Does practice based research always have to be explained through writing, when in fact much of the value comes in the development of  experiential knowledge held by the practitioner or the ‘imaginistic’ knowledge held within the object?  How far do the frameworks of university-based research help or hinder artistic enquiry?  We grappled with each of these questions and more during the seminar.

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I have drawn on Christopher Frayling’s framework in thinking about how practitioners undertake practice based research in the art museum.  Research on, Research through and Research for takes place in curatorial, collection care and education practice for example.  Yet what I have become aware of is that the museum is a relatively liberal space in which to do practice based research.  Rather than needing to conform to the formalised procedures and assessment criteria of the academy, the art museum can potentially test alternative understandings of practice based research and explore how various knowledges are manifest in the doing of programming for instance.  This is something we have been trying to do in Tate Learning with an overall focus on practice as research and specifically in the Practice as Research programme. We hope to do more of this the future.

At the same time I have become interested in how we can complicate existing definitions of knowledge.  In particular I am intrigued by the possibilities afforded by the idea of poetic knowledge as a way of understanding what emerges through practice and through engagement with art.  I am very early in my investigations but am taken by James S Taylor’s articulation of poetic knowledge as that which comes intuitively through the senses as opposed to that which is acquired through engagement with the intellect alone.  He uses the example of how we can know and trust in another’s love as one example of poetic knowledge. I am keen to explore how thinking about the poetic can broaden our understanding of what constitutes practice based research findings and will report on this further when I’ve done more reading, talking with others and thinking.

Time to Listen

On Monday 15th October I attended the launch of the Tracking Arts Learning and Engagement (TALE) research findings at the House of Lords in London.  TALE is a collaborative project between the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Tate and the University of Nottingham that has been funded by Arts Council England (ACE).  Over the last three years we have been looking at young people’s experience of arts and cultural education in schools and how cultural organisations can support teachers and students to have a deep and rich engagement in arts activities.

The findings from this study could not be more important.  Over the three years the researchers at the University of Nottingham gathered 6,000 responses from students aged 11-18 and 63 teachers. The findings show the many ways in which arts and cultural learning in the classroom is valued by young people and the unique role paid played by arts teachers in nurturing students’ engagement in the arts. More than a third of the students said school is the only opportunity they have to engage in arts activities. I urge you to read the findings which can be found here in more detail.

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Schools Workshop at Tate Modern.  Copyright Tate (Samuel Cole)

One clear and consistent message comes from the thousands of students who took part: arts and cultural learning taps into their imagination, creative instincts and self-worth in ways that other lessons do not. Arts subjects are shown to significantly help young people develop their own opinions as rounded individuals ready to contribute to their community and the wider world. The research also highlights the positive impact that arts-rich schools have on fostering independent thinking and creativity, confidence, well-being and empathy.

However, the TALE research was carried out against a background of funding cuts and a rapid decline in the number of arts teachers and hours spent on arts subjects in state-funded schools in England. At the House of Lords event which was titled ‘Time to Listen’, Tate’s Director Maria Balshaw joined with Erica Whyman, RSC Deputy Artistic Director to call for five changes to ensure that arts and culture features in all young people’s education. These changes include ensuring that the arts have parity with other subjects at key stage 3 (when pupils are aged between 11 and 14) and the provision of an Arts and Culture Premium for all children in schools to make sure all students in primary and secondary schools are able to access arts and culture out of school.

The House of Lords event also saw the launch of the ‘Why Study Art’ film which has been produced by Tate that showcases key figures from the arts and business speaking about the critical importance of studying the arts.  It’s worth looking at this too to gain a sense of the many ways that engagement with art at school has played a vital role in these creative people’s development.

It has been a very rewarding process being involved in TALE.  From the initial meetings with Jacqui O’Hanlon at the RSC and the researchers at Nottingham (Professors Pat Thomson and Christine Hall) to plan and submit the bid to ACE, right through to the drafting of the document that summarises the findings and the organisation of the final event.  I have learnt a great deal about how collaborative research can be undertaken and the value of cultural organisations working with academic partners to explore issues that are relevant to both.  Most importantly this research has reaffirmed my view that research can be a vehicle to draw attention to key issues within and beyond the art museum.

On a slightly different but related note, Tate is inviting applications from international colleagues to take part in the third Tate Intensive programme.  This week long programme (7 – 12 July 2019) will be exploring the need for imaginative change within museums and galleries.  Do take a look at this too.

 

Reshaping the Collectible – exemplifying the qualities of good art museum research

Now I am back at Tate I am finding out about the research projects that have taken shape in the year that I was away. One of which is ‘Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum’, a large-scale three-year study funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which has just started, and which has been developed and is being led by Professor Pip Laurenson, Head of Collection Care Research. The focus of Reshaping the Collectible is what the project proposal refers to as ‘unruly’ artworks; those which might unfold over time and depend on re-engagement with the artist and with networks of others beyond the museum as well as technologies, materials and skills.

One such example is Tarek Atoui’s ‘The Reverse Collection 2014 – 16’ which requires the museum to connect with a current experimental music scene and work with musicians each time it is presented. The research is exploring how these artworks, that do not easily fit within conventional distinctions between the archive, the record and the artwork can exist and be cared for within the art museum. It is seeking to develop new collection management and conservation models to be able to achieve this.

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Joan Jonas, Mirage 1976 performance at the Anthology Film Archives, New York, 1976. Photo: Babette Mangolte © 1976 Babette Mangolte

The project is fascinating to me on many levels. In the first instance the subject itself is key to understanding how the twenty-first century art museum is grappling with changing artistic practice and the implications of this for their collections. It is addressing interesting dilemmas such as, are there works of art that are fundamentally uncollectable? Where does the artwork ‘end’ and the audience’s engagement with it begin? And as one of the research questions articulates ‘what needs to shift in terms of process, policy and practice to accommodate works that continue to unfold in the museum?’
The project is equally interesting in terms of how it is going about addressing these questions and dilemmas. The project is structured around six case studies that continue to challenge current collection and conservation practices. With each case study there will be a detailed interrogation of all aspects of the work, from the different records that exist within the institution, to legal and copyright issues, to thinking about how the work might be represented when it is not on display. The intention is to bring interdisciplinary scholarship to the questions and to facilitate the co-production of knowledge through hosting visiting scholars, organising workshops and drawing on the expertise of practitioners within the museum from curatorial, conservation, collection management, records management, the archive and learning.  Researchers will also be working closely with the artists and their networks to imagine the future of their works.
There are two further reasons why in my view Reshaping the Collectible exemplifies good practice in art museum research. One of the project’s aims is to make the work of collection management and conservation management more transparent to the museum’s audiences. So, rather than conducting the research ‘behind closed doors’ the intention is, as the proposal states, ‘to take seriously the challenge to make the invisible visible, exposing the lives of artworks and their interactions with the museum to a general audience, and testing the appetite for and engagement with these narratives.’ This ambition to conduct research openly, testing ideas with a wider group is inspiring. Secondly the project is looking explicitly at how a research project of this kind changes practices and how this adds value for the public and the museum. It is building in an evaluative strand that will explore and enable reflection on how we design research projects and what is distinctive about undertaking research in the museum context. The interrogation of how the museum undertakes and communicates research is so important yet happens relatively rarely.
During my research I came across the work of Charles Glassick and his colleagues who undertook a survey of the criteria and standards employed to evaluate scholarship in American universities. What they found was that common to many was a focus on the process of scholarship, which translates to how the research was undertaken rather than what was examined. On this basis they went on to construct their own set of qualitative standards, which I have adapted slightly. These are detailed below and form a sequence of unfolding stages
1. Clear Goals – are the questions being asked important? Are the ambitions realistic and achievable, are the purposes of the work clear?
2. Adequate Preparation – has the researcher got the necessary skills, do they show an understanding of the existing work in the field both practical and theoretical? Have they got adequate resources to realise it?
3. Appropriate Methods – is the researcher using appropriate methods, are they modifying processes and methods appropriately as the work progresses
4. Significant Results – does the researcher achieve their aims? Does their work add to the field (of practice and/or theory), does the work open up additional areas for further exploration?
5. Effective Presentation – does the researcher present their work effectively? Do they communicate their work to the intended audiences? Do they communicate with clarity and integrity?
6. Reflective Critique – does the researcher critically evaluate their own work? Do they bring an appropriate breadth of evidence to that critique? Do they use evaluation to improve the quality of their work?
When I read the Reshaping the Collectible project proposal I did an informal assessment against these six criteria. In my view the project scores highly, at least in terms of considering each of these, even if it is too early to say whether it has, for example achieved significant results. There is much the museum can learn from this project and I am looking forward to following its progress and hopefully getting involved.
For more information on Reshaping the Collectible please go to their project page.

Artistic practice and research in the art museum

Recently I have been revisiting my Phd. My doctoral research focused on the relationship between artistic ways of knowing and how this translates into specific forms of learning and teaching in the art museum.  I went about it by interviewing and observing five artist educators – Liz Ellis, Esther Sayers, Michele Fuirer, Lucy Wilson and Michaela Ross – who were working at that time (in the early 2000s) on the ‘Art into Life’ strand of community focused programming at Tate Modern.  In my interviews I asked these artists how they would define themselves as artists and what knowledge and experience they thought they possessed.  I then went on to explore with them how their understandings of themselves as ‘expert’ artists shaped the pedagogic exchanges they facilitated in the galleries at Tate Modern.

What emerged through this research is a construction of art practice as a continuous process of conceptual and practical enquiry, underpinned by questions and driven by these artists’ desire to understand their experiences and communicate these to others.  The five artists identified qualities necessary to carry out their art practice, namely looking, questioning and divergent thinking.  They also drew attention to the importance of playfulness and risk-taking as well as curiosity, imaginative responses, open-mindedness and the freedom to explore different ideas simultaneously.  I was reminded through speaking to them of the value of productive failure and of being able to feel comfortable not knowing something, to allow for new ideas to emerge.  Likewise my experience as an artist and educator resonated with their descriptions of maintaining spontaneity and intuition, yet needing to balance this with keeping a clear purpose and reflecting critically on progress at all times.

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Artist Alex Schady working with pupils as part of the ‘Art in Action’ programme at Tate Modern in 2012

Looking back on this research, which I have written about elsewhere, I was struck by the relationship between this construction of art practice and the research processes in the art museum I have been examining more recently.  Much has been written on how art making can be understood as a form of research, so this is not new territory.  Graeme Sullivan, for example, has argued for how studio practice operates as an intellectual and imaginative enquiry that produces new knowledge.  And the ongoing debate within art schools on how artistic practice can be framed within academic research criteria centres on this relationship.  Yet what struck me was that in art museums, where we might assume the parallels between art practice and research would be manifest in the forms of enquiry being undertaken, there seems to be at best uncertainty about and worst resistance to practice-based research being done by artists and others.

One obvious response to this conundrum is to point out that historically art museum research has centred on the collection – on the products of art practice, rather than practice itself – to the greatest extent.  Hence this research has taken place within the discipline and using the methodologies of art history.   At the same time research has been undertaken less by artists and more, although not exclusively, by art historians.  Yet my recent research into art museum research revealed that professionals including conservators and learning curators are increasingly researching their own practice, drawing on their expertise as practitioners and artists in some cases.  I am interested, therefore in how the qualities identified by the artists in my PhD study shape the approach to research being done by these practitioners and whether this differs from researchers from other disciplines.

Although I cannot draw definitive conclusions, what I have noted is that pretty much all the museum-based researchers I spoke to identified the importance of questioning, exploration, clear goals and critical reflection.  Less frequently mentioned are notions of playfulness, imagination and not knowing.  The art historians I interviewed tended to be mindful of the need for evidence-based arguments in their research, which the artists made no reference to.  And whilst all were conscious of the need for their practice and research to be of high quality, I have a sense that the artists’ perception of what quality entails relied more on the integrity of their processes and outcomes judged on the artists’ own terms, rather than according to any external peer review process for example.

This is a very informal comparison, but it has been an interesting exercise.  I’d be keen to know the qualities other museum-based researchers see as important in undertaking their work and whether they align with those of the artists I interviewed.

 

 

 

Reflecting back on a year’s research

Next week on August 21st I return to my role as Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate.  My sabbatical, which started on September 1st last year has come to an end.  In the last few weeks I have been fully occupied in finishing the book – ‘Rethinking Research in the Art Museum’ – which is due to be published by Routledge next year, all being well.  The book brings together this year’s explorations to make a case for an expanded conception of research in the art museum and to argue for the museum as a whole to be research-led.  Perhaps inevitably, as this period of research and writing ends I have been reflecting back on the experience and trying to distil what I have learnt from it.

In the first instance I have come to understand the workings of the art museum more clearly.  Stepping back from the institution has allowed me to makes sense of the various agendas and at times conflicting pressures that are present at all times.  In particular I have identified what I refer to as the four discourses of the art museum, which determine at various times how an organisation defines itself and prioritises its time and resources.  I wrote about these in a previous blog here.  These agendas – collection care and expansion, financial sustainability, academia and democratic participation – each have implications for research and how it is conceived and undertaken.  Articulating them has helped make sense of why the current framing of research is confusing for many of the museum professionals I spoke to, who are often caught between the discourses, trying to satisfy the demands of all of them.

I have also learnt a great deal about the role of the museum professional.  Looking at the literature on what constitutes a professional has helped me to understand the relationship between the specialist knowledge a curator or museum educator has, for example, and how this affords them independence to make decisions about their work.  This independence reflects the trust that these individuals, as professionals, are given but comes with a responsibility to make wise decisions in the best interest of the greater good.  In particular I have come to realise how much the museum professional’s and the museum’s credibility depends on trust by the public.  And I now see how important it is that the museum is mindful of its responsibilities, not only to art and artists, but to all those affected by the decisions it makes.  I wrote about how trust can be compromised here.

I have spent time interrogating my experience of implementing practice as research with colleagues at Tate and been able to gain a clearer sense of the value of this work, but also how much more can be done.  I wrote about some of my experiences here. Interviewing Tate colleagues reminded me of the importance of making time for thoughtful reflection, but also how difficult this can be when the pressures of programming are ever increasing.  Yet I remain inspired and hopeful. I have seen how practice as research embeds questioning, analysis, contextualisation and the sharing of findings into practice and the benefits this brings to people and programmes.

One of the delights of this research has been spending time at other organisations learning from their good practice.  My visits to Trapholt in Denmark, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the Harvard Art Museums in Boston and the Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol have revealed the potential for more inclusive, co-operative and action-oriented research.  I have witnessed how practitioner researchers in art museums and community arts centres can work in collaboration with academics, community members and visitors to the museum in a research relationship.  From this I have been able to picture what a thriving practitioner-led research culture in the art museum looks like.

My own visual representation resembles an organic and shifting, but purposeful constellation, where individual practitioner-researchers are involved in their own circular processes of questioning, exploring, analysing and creating new insights, within an overarching progression of ongoing learning. My visualisation sees knowledge coming in and going out from the organisation, in part through co-research with academics and non-academics. I see it as a transparent, non-hierarchical and dynamic yet reflexive culture, where practitioners are in dialogue with each other and others. Here they are testing ideas and exploring with care the relevant issues that can inform their work. And they are generating original knowledge that goes out into the world. It is organic in the sense of flexing and adapting as new learning emerges, and it is purposeful because it operates with a clear understanding of its values, aims and ambitions.

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I have seen this culture in action in different organisations and marvelled at the positive difference it makes to how people work and the quality of the knowledge and activity that is enabled within it.

My own research has been practice-based, in that it has been emergent, exploratory, interdisciplinary and situated in my own experience.  It has been centred in my own practices of art making, dialogue, reflexivity and creative learning.  And at the risk of becoming overly self-referential, undertaking this research has illuminated to me how research that originates in and acknowledges the experience and perspective of the researcher operates.  Yet within this I have come to recognise the absolute necessity of sharing and testing findings with colleagues throughout the research.  That more than anything has been the pleasure of this sabbatical; the opportunity to develop ideas and discuss and refine them with knowledgeable and generous colleagues.  More than anything I have come to see the value of dialogue in any process of enquiry.

Although my sabbatical has ended I fully intend to continue writing this blog, which I have found to be a fantastic vehicle for trying out and communicating ideas.  From now on, however, it will be written from the perspective of a practitioner researcher in the art museum, rather than observing it.