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.

20180503_112715 (2)

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.

The model of the Practitioner Researcher – reflections and perspectives from Italy

What role does research and learning occupy in art museums in Italy?  Are the ideas I have been developing regarding the practitioner researcher relevant in a non-UK context? These were some of the questions in my mind at the start of July when I spent two days working with postgraduate students from the MA in Museum Education at the University of Roma Tre in Rome.  I was there at the invitation of Antonella Poce, Associate Professor in the Department of Education. It was a rich and illuminating experience talking with students who included art historians, anthropologists, geologists and archaeologists.  Each brought their experience of working in various roles – as educators, archivists and senior managers in museums across Italy, as well as tour guides at the main tourist sites including the Colosseum.  All were thoughtful and committed practitioners interested in changing how museums and cultural sites develop knowledge and engage with their audiences.


Over the two days we explored current constructions of research. I was reassured to hear that, as with colleagues in the UK, these cultural professionals see research not so much in terms of specific disciplines.  Rather they understood research to be a process characterised by questioning, experimentation, critical thinking, reflection and the creation of new insights that go out into the world.  Reflecting on their own experience, the students acknowledged that a competent researcher needs to be curious, flexible, passionate, patient and brave.  They were confident in describing their own modes of enquiry within their practice. Yet when I introduced the model of the practitioner researcher that I have developed, they hesitated, as other museum professionals have when I presented the model to them. I find this uncertainty about the model extremely interesting and helpful in highlighting the need for change in museums.

My model of the practitioner researcher draws on Charles McClintock’s construction of the Scholar Practitioner.  It outlines the qualities of the enquiring, ethical and collaborative professional that I see are essential for the twenty-first century art museum.  I introduce it by suggesting that people read it as if it described the key elements of a person description for a job.  So, the key qualities of the practitioner researcher are as follows:

  • Motivated by curiosity and ongoing questioning
  • Committed to developing their knowledge of practice (know how) and understanding of theory (know what)
  • Elicits and engages in reflection and the assessment of changes brought about by their work
  • Engages in collaboration and active knowledge exchange with practitioners and others – artists, academics, community members, museum visitors
  • Disseminates their knowledge and make their expertise visible to others in ways that are useful
  • Works with boldness, integrity, generosity and care

What I discovered in conversation with these students, as with other colleagues in the UK and elsewhere, is that their reservations do not stem from any fundamental problems with this model.  Instead the issue is that it represents an ideal that is hard to realise in the reality of their workplaces.  Pressures of time, limited resources, poor communication and institutional politics and priorities conspire against professionals being able to work in this way.  What I heard from the Italian museum professionals is that they value these qualities extremely highly and recognise this as best practice but see the current culture of museums and cultural centres as all too often acting in opposition to them.  These are common frustrations shared by curators and museum educators in several different countries that I have spoken to since embarking on this research.

At the same time, the suggestions put forward by the students of how to bring about change also resonate with those of practitioners elsewhere.  These included the need for effective and strategic leadership that recognises the value of research and reflective practice.  Likewise the importance of openness and a willingness on the part of the museum to learn and develop.  The dismantling of unhelpful hierarchies that privilege certain forms of expertise over others and the huge difference that good internal and external communication can make was talked about.  And as ever, the challenge of negotiating busy programming schedules with making time for thoughtful analysis was touched on.

In my mind, the model of the practitioner researcher is a means by which to help achieve these changes.  If museums committed to embedding these qualities in the job descriptions of those they employ it would formalise and communicate not only what they expect employees to do, but also how they go about doing it.  It would signal the values and priorities of the institution, opening up and legitimising research-led reflective and collaborative practice. And it would go some way to support practitioners’ desire to undertake more inclusive and expansive modes of knowledge production.

My conversations with my Italian colleagues gave me much to reflect on.  Not least, they have strengthened my view that, rather than being seen as an ideal, the model of the practitioner researcher needs to be seen as a non-negotiable element of a thriving research culture within museums.




How can we determine the ‘validity’ and ‘reliability’ of research?

As I get closer to the end of my fellowship and the writing up of my research I have become preoccupied with whether it is any good. Running through my mind are a series of questions: is the investigation thorough and the argument logical? Has the methodology been appropriate, given the questions I am asking? Am I generating new insights that make a useful contribution to the field? Needless to say, I am keen to produce research of high quality and have been paying attention to how others define this, comparing their ideas with my own sense of what constitutes valuable work.

I have written in a previous blog on the concept of ‘care’ in relation to qualitative and arts-based research and how this makes more sense to me than notions of ‘rigour’ derived from scientific research. I have the same unease with the concept and language of ‘validity’ and ‘reliability,’ both of which are frequently invoked alongside rigour to suggest that qualitative research is or isn’t of high quality and worth believing. Yet often I am unclear what validity or reliability criteria are being applied and not sure if these are appropriate for my own or others’ qualitative, practice-based studies. I have, therefore, been reading up and will briefly outline what I have gleaned in relation to these terms in the hope that it will bring some clarity.

Validity, I have discovered, refers to the credibility of any research. In other words, are the research methods and findings authentic and useful. There are two aspects of validity, internal and external, that are brought into play within the scientific paradigm. Internal validity refers to the procedures or methods used in the research and the extent to which they are appropriate to address the research question. In the case of quantitative research, for instance, will they measure what they need to measure. So, for example, in a study of the relationship between an arts intervention and children’s attainment in schools, any research setting out to test and measure this would need to employ methods that could reveal the strength of the causal relationship between the two variables. That is, between the art project and the children’s attainment.

External validity refers to the extent to which the results from any research can be generalised to situations beyond the study itself. In the case of the quantitative children’s attainment research, external validity would be granted by whether the findings could be confidently applied, say, to a different school with different students. Again, within the scientific paradigm, reliability concerns the repeatability of findings. So, with the arts and children’s attainment research, the more times this study is implemented and produces the same results, the greater the reliability of the findings.

But are these scientific criteria always relevant in the art museum? Take the question of reliability as determined by reproducibility. With my research, the aim has not been to undertake a quantitative study that could be repeatable by a different researcher. I am seeking to unearth and understand how specific people perceive and enact research practices and identify the implications of these perceptions for the sector. I am concerned with internal validity, although I would not use this term, in the sense that I have employed methods best suited to explore my question. But external validity poses more difficulties, since I am not concerned with the extent to which my results are generalisable. So, is my research ‘unreliable’ or should different criteria of trustworthiness be applied here?

20180607_124255 (2)
The academics Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln draw together alternative validity criteria, all of which are potentially relevant to the museum research context. The first of which is transparency. Because I am not testing a hypothesis (as with the arts and young people’s attainment study mentioned above), the validity or believability of my research needs to come through the clarity of my enquiry process – I must make explicit what I’ve done – and the credibility of the findings in relation to that process. High quality research is that which provides convincing evidence and a systematic logical argument to support the findings. In some ways it can be seen to resemble, as my colleague Christopher Griffin pointed out, ‘a GCSE maths question’ in that a researcher needs to show ‘their working out.’

Reflexivity is also important. To avoid the criticism that my research is merely a collection of anecdotes and personal impressions I need to recognise my situation, acknowledge my subjectivity and make explicit my values. So, in my study, validity will be established and quality ensured, not via my objectivity, but through my reflecting explicitly on what takes place and my responses to it.

Going still further Denzin and Lincoln argue that any social-justice oriented approach to research should be evaluated according to its emancipatory potential. Here validity should be judged in terms of emotionality and caring, personal accountability and the representation of the experience of oppressed people. These are clearly some way from any scientific criteria of reliability, yet they resonate with my experience of art museum practice and my research, which aspires to some degree to address issues of emancipation and representation.

For these reasons it is these criteria of quality, rather than the understandings of validity and reliability drawn from scientific research, that I am bringing to my own study.


The Physicality of Research

What does the ‘physicality of research’ mean? How can materials disrupt, change or unite the role of theory in relation to practice? And what is gained or lost through research that positions a material engagement at its centre? These are three of the questions posed at an all-day seminar I co-facilitated at Tate Modern on June 7th.  The event was devised and led in collaboration with artist and researcher Kimberley Foster, artist and Tate Learning Research Assistant Curator Helena Hunter and artist and Tate Learning Research Administrator Rita Evans, with assistance from Beckie Leach-Macdonald, artist and Learning Research Convenor.

20180607_111100 (2)    20180607_115822 (2)

We invited everyone to bring something that weighed 500g, related to their research or not.  People arrived with objects ranging from bread dough to antique spoons, cous cous to wool.  These were displayed and their significance discussed.

The seminar looked specifically at materiality, or more simply at stuff, and the relationship between this and research. Our aim was for the form and content of the day to embody the values and ideas that we were exploring.  So we exchanged objects we had brought, we made things, we drew, we talked and we listened.  Together we interrogated how physical objects and material processes operate in the creation of new insights and knowledge. And we thought about stuff and ideas – not just as one (stuff) that manifests or develops the other (ideas), but as messy, disruptive but also essentially productive partners in the research enterprise.

We used metaphor and analogy to explore how research develops.  Specifically, Kimberley and her partner Karl Foster took the metaphor of the jug as a mind and each button as a thought, filling and emptying and demonstrating the negotiation between control and disorder that is necessary in any generative epistemological process.

20180607_142307 (2)Meanwhile I invited everyone to map their research processes as animals, food or architecture via the game of ‘Consequences.’ I watched as people embraced the to and fro of research, the giving and accepting of ideas as they passed their drawings across to each other.

20180607_144920 (2).jpg

Later in the day Rita took us through a creative process prompted by a quote from Brian Massumi that talked of ‘wriggle room’ and reaching beyond. We read, spoke, enacted the words, drew and finally made a three dimensional object.  We experienced the translations that take place between word and thought and thought and materials.

20180607_152518 (2)

To enable reflection on the day’s activities at the end of the afternoon, Helena invited us to first lie and think and then represent our thoughts using everyday materials.  To explore documentation as a mode of production and invite materials to speak for us.

20180607_154057 (2)

Looking back on the day almost a week later, I am struck by the possibilities offered by thinking about research materially.  How my ideas and preconceptions were disrupted by encountering objects and stuff that at times rendered me speechless.  Others spoke of the articulacy of materials and how objects behave actively, determining meaning and dislodging or undoing established ways of thinking.  There was talk of being productively silenced and also mobilised by materials.

I was aware on the day and believe this more strongly having experienced the seminar that there is nowhere more appropriate to think about research and materiality than an art museum, packed full of objects that are themselves packed full of ideas.   I talked then about how the museum of the 21st century is not only preoccupied with the preservation and building of the collection – in other words the material objects in and of themselves – but is necessarily concerned with processes of knowledge production that inform and emerge from those objects. Exhibitions research, pre-acquisition research, conservation studies, learning, art historical research, audience engagement and outreach. We could even expand this list to include marketing and public relations. Each of these processes engage in some way with the materiality that sits at the heart of the organisation.

So in my mind, the more we can understand about not only what objects and materials are, but also what they do and how they function epistemologically, arguably the more explicit and transparent the museum can become. This seminar did not provide me with definitive conclusions or explanations.  Rather it revealed the value of letting go and allowing ideas and new insights to emerge through engagement with matter and in discussion with others.  It reminded me how important people and stuff are in shaping how I think.

Careful Research

Last Friday I had the pleasure of listening to the anthropologist Tim Ingold give a keynote presentation at the Art, Materiality and Representation conference organised by the British Museum and SOAS. Over the course of an hour, he spoke eloquently about the connections between art and anthropology and the responsibility both have to supporting a sustainable future.  He drew attention to how each are processes of enquiry that are speculative and necessarily incomplete. Both in his view need an ‘inquisitive approach’, one that is ‘modestly experimental.’ But they must also be critical, in the sense of seeking change.  Art and anthropology, he argued, need to recognise difference, embracing a variety of approaches so as to explore the essential question ‘how are we to live?’

20180604_124701 (2)

One topic that Tim Ingold touched on resonated particularly strongly for me.  This was his argument that artistic and anthropological research that follows ‘the evolution of ideas from the inside’ relies neither on the testing of an hypothesis nor on conjecture and refutation to build theory, but on care and attention.   He identified how ‘curiosity’ and ‘care’ derive from the same Latin root – curiosus – to make the point that research thrives on enquiry, but requires tending and looking after.

I have long been interested in the idea of care and the need to be careful (that is, full of care rather than cautious) in practice and research.  In an essay on the Tanks Programme at Tate Modern I draw on Anthony Huberman’s concept of institutional caring, alongside Paulo Friere’s articulation of love to argue for collaborative programming that manifests the emotional and intellectual commitment needed to do work of quality.  In my mind, undertaking work with care involves doing exactly what the English Oxford Dictionary definition of the word describes, namely working with serious attention and consideration because of the concern and interest you have for something.

More recently I have become interested in the possibility of substituting ‘careful’ for ‘rigorous’ in relation to research and using ‘care’ as apposed to ‘rigour’ to describe research programmes and initiatives that are trustworthy, transparent, coherent and credible.  In part this comes because of the disquiet and frustration many of the arts practitioners I interviewed expressed with the language of rigour and their concerns regarding the negative application of validity criteria derived from scientific research to  arts and education based studies. These practitioners don’t in any way think that their research should be exempt from tests of quality or reliability. But these judgements need to be appropriate to the questions being asked, the methodologies adopted and the aims for the research itself.  ‘Rigour’, as with all terms of appraisal, is loaded with baggage, not all of it helpful in the context of art museum research. So I am trying out ‘care’ to see how it works.

Prior to listening to Tim Ingold I had spent the day convening a session at the conference under the heading ‘Curating with an Anthropological Approach.’  In addition to my own paper, eight other presenters explored how contemporary curatorial and artistic practices address the ethics and practicalities of presenting art from beyond the West in western contexts and how artists and others can disrupt the museum in productive ways.  We heard speakers from Italy, Latvia, Poland the USA and the UK. And we learnt how performance, activism, conservation, curatorial, education and artistic practices are being explored and questioned as professionals and audiences become more aware of the sensitivities of working with indigenous artefacts and of representing diverse communities.

Listening to each paper I was aware of the care that the presenters evidenced by the quality of their talks. The content was rich and fascinating, we had helpful images to look at and each talk prompted interesting further thoughts and questions.  Everyone had planned their presentation so they kept to their allotted time.  This last point might seem a minor one, but to me it is a crucial indicator of care.  According to Tim Ingold, a further characteristic shared between art and anthropology is generosity, in the sense that practitioners in both fields need to pay attention and receive ‘with good grace’ what is offered to us by others.  Thus research is a process of giving and accepting, of speaking and listening and making-room for everyone.

Research processes and cultures and the joy of drawing

What are our processes of research and how can a supportive research culture be nurtured in the art museum?  These were the questions posed during the half-day seminar I facilitated at Tate Britain on May 24th.  Following on from the event in April, this seminar was attended by many of the same colleagues, with some new faces.  Once again the afternoon comprised moments when I shared ideas emerging from my research, along with rich and stimulating discussion prompted by what I said and the tasks everyone took part in.  As with the first seminar, we addressed several issues, not all of which I will cover here.  Instead what I want to focus on is the value of drawing as a means of communicating ideas, since during the afternoon we explored and made explicit our thinking at times diagrammatically.

The first task each person undertook was to draw their research process.  In my interviews with museum professionals I have often asked them to do this and have found it reveals the complexity, but also the commonalities of research across different fields.  The same is true of the drawings completed by curators, academics, museum educators, policy makers and artists at the seminar. People highlighted the ‘troubling’ and/or interesting issue that generates the questions that prompt and underlie research.  They represented how these questions are explored through experimentation and testing, nearly always with others.  Collaboration, consultation and co-investigation in different forms is represented across the diagrams.

20180529_115510 (2)

The language of looking, reading, investigating and ‘getting underneath’ something crops up often, as does thinking, refining, evaluating and analysing.  Diagrams are frequently linear, but incorporate feedback loops and circular processes, indicating how knowledge and ideas return and inform the research process, but also shape and change practice.  Dissemination through different forms is present in the drawings, and in some there is a clear indication that research needs to bring about change in the world.

20180529_115446 (2)

Looking through the drawings I am struck by how individuals portray research as a creative and analytical process.  Pictures of seedlings and rivers appear alongside test tubes and graphs, for example.  At the same time, the images convey the intensity and the excitement of exploring questions and ideas with others and the ongoing nature of enquiry. ‘Repeat indefinitely’ is written at the bottom of the page on one, whilst someone else writes; ‘conclusion = OR IS IT? Can it be taken further?’

20180529_122725 (2)

To me, the diagrams communicate how vital research is and why museum professionals can gain so much from engaging with it.  There is an immediacy and humour in the drawings that is not always evident in text, yet they provide a clear and compelling record of each person’s ideas.  There is growing acceptance of visual methodologies within social research, with drawing seen as a practice that allows for knowledge production. ‘Visual products’ as Marilys Guillemin identifies in her study of how drawing can be used to explore how people understand illness conditions, illuminate how people  ‘make sense of their world’.

My own art practice is centred on drawing and in the latter half of the seminar I shared an image I have been working on.  ‘The Practitioner Researcher Tree’ attempts to encapsulate the elements needed to foster a culture of practitioner research in the art museum. It represents my sense of an ideal organisational culture.

20180515_121105 (3)
The Practitioner Researcher Tree

Underpinning the Practitioner Researcher Tree and providing the necessary support is leadership that is committed to research. These experts model curiosity and maintain a commitment to learning. Embedded at the base of the tree are an explicit set of values and ongoing evaluation. Together these provide clarity and evidence to inform careful and purposeful enquiry. At the core of the tree lie the intertwined principles of trust and risk. These sustain an environment where practitioners feel empowered to explore and test ideas.

This tree is expansive and open, with branches of different knowledge that co-exist non-hierarchically. These are connected throughout the whole and shared through continuous communication. Furthermore, the tree is enriched and shaped by the diverse expertise that it comes into contact with and brings about change through its own explorations. It is part of a wider community of knowledge. The tree, like all living entities, is continuously growing and transforming, but at a pace that is appropriate and sustainable. Finally, the tree requires nurturing so that it develops productively. It cannot be left unattended, but instead thrives on care and attention to its constituent parts.

The ‘Practitioner Researcher Tree is very much work in progress and I see this image as the first iteration. The process of considering the ideas and how best to communicate these visually is extremely rewarding.  It has helped me to think more laterally and tangentially, to explore connections and move away from a strict linear trajectory.

I received some helpful critical feedback at the seminar on how it might be improved.  At the same time the image prompted interesting discussion, not least on whether the analogy of the tree could be expanded further.  Could I represent the elements such as ‘diverse knowledge’ as the leaves that grow and then fall, replenishing the tree through this ongoing cycle?  Could I include a cross-section of the tree, to make the connection between time and the annual rings that reveal the tree’s age?  In this way the drawing seemed to offer open possibilities for interpretation and exploration.

This feedback and the conversations throughout the two seminars have demonstrated to me the importance of testing ideas with colleagues and the considerable contribution those attending have made to my thinking.  Drawing and dialogue, I am learning, are extremely helpful to my own research process.

Continue reading “Research processes and cultures and the joy of drawing”

Collaborating with Universities

I have been spending time reviewing what the interviews I did reveal about research collaborations between arts organisations and universities. And I have been reflecting on my own experience of partnership working.  A fair bit has been written on the challenges of interdisciplinary collaborative research between academics and ‘publics’. However, I am keen to draw together common characteristics of successful collaborations and explore what needs to be in place for it to be productive for all those involved.  How can everyone be positively challenged, grow their knowledge and achieve their respective aims?

My experience of collaborating with university colleagues has been positive.  I have worked with generous, thoughtful, creative researchers on research projects small and large.  These academics have brought their varied disciplinary knowledge and methodological approaches to problems of common interest.  Coming from the fields of business, education, psychology, philosophy and art practice (to name a few), they have tested my thinking and helped inform my and other colleagues’ practice.  They have introduced new theories and concepts of research rigour that have undoubtedly strengthened the work of Tate Learning and developed our thinking.

Similar stories emerge from the interviews. Colleagues spoke of academic partnerships enabling them to imagine alternatives and think differently and to re-evaluate their own narrow disciplinary focus.  This suggests that dynamic research can be achieved by bringing diverse expertise together. Ash Amin and Joanne Roberts describe this type of collaboration as an ‘epistemic/highly creative’ community of practice. In these scenarios, ‘experts’ come together to ‘unleash creative energy around specific exploratory projects.’ Epistemic communities thrive on difference and allow for new insights to emerge from the juxtaposition of potentially contrasting knowledge.


Summer School, Exchange Space, Level 5, Switch House, Tate Modern. 27.07.2016
Teachers participating in a Schools and Teachers Summer School, 2017
Photography © Tate 2017 Seraphina Neville


So what can be done to foster a positive epistemic community that unites arts professionals, academics and in some cases collaborators from a community?  According to my interviewees, a number of key elements need to be in place.  I will spend time on three of these which surfaced most insistently.

The first is openness to new and divergent ideas and ways of being. This encompasses what David Garvin and his colleagues describe as an ‘appreciation of differences.’ Being open to exploring with others means accommodating diverse questions and approaches and respecting a variety of perspectives. With openness comes a non-hierarchical sense of the contribution made by the various expertise present in any collaboration. As Roz Stewart-Hall from the Knowle West Media Centre pointed out to me, successful research collaborations involve ‘an exchange based on equal value being attributed to different experiences and different knowledge’.

Intertwined with openness is effective communication.  Several of those I interviewed spoke of the need for ‘translation’ between the worlds of academia and practice. They were mindful of the sensitivities of working with university colleagues whose ambitions for research might not align with their own.  I have written of the different agendas and pressures faced by academics and practitioners in a previous blog and know of the challenges of developing research that fulfils the needs of both.  However, my experience and that of the interviewees indicates that honesty, coupled with explicit recognition and agreement on what each party wants from the research at the start of a project contributes to a functional collaboration.

Openness and communication requires, and also builds, the trust amongst collaborators that their collective effort will result in something of greater value than any one individual’s efforts. Interviewees’ described how the differences between participants need to be outweighed by the perceived collective benefits if collaborative research is to succeed.  So, all those involved need to trust in a process that is creative and unexpected, but is likely to involve improvisation, compromise and circularity.   Kate Pahl and Keri Facer talk about collaborators needing to commit to research processes that ‘are enmeshed, entangled and complex, and are associated with divergent outcomes as well as sometimes-difficult experiences and contrasting clusters of ideas’. This resonates with my experience.

As with any collective effort,  collaboration with university colleagues requires time and additional commitment, which busy arts professionals may not feel they can spare.  This situation is improved immeasurably if practitioners are resourced appropriately in research collaborations with universities and recognised as equal partners. What is needed, I believe, is more conversation between the domains of practice and academia to allow for fruitful collaborations to grow.