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.

Alex schady
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.

 

 

 

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