AHRC looks for ways to welcome artists into the fold

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The Arts and Humanities Research Council is considering how to put research arising from the practice of arts on an equal footing with conventional research, its chief executive has said.

Rick Rylance argued at the annual forum of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts on 3 July that there was now “dramatically” less resistance to research in practice than there was 10 years ago. He also said that it was difficult to use measures of quality for arts-based research of “equivalent value” to those used for other research areas.

AHRC council member Deborah Bull, a former ballet dancer and now director of cultural partnerships at King’s College London, will be investigating how the council could become more welcoming to the arts. “I’m trying to stimulate a debate,” she says. One aspect to study is the extent of institutional links between research institutes and arts organisations.

Bull argues that, although artists and academics work together, there are rarely formal agreements in place between organisations. “Personal links are good but if you want sustainability you need institutional links,” she says.

The council already funds collaborative research by academics working with archivists and museum and gallery staff. But there is less AHRC-funded research in the performing arts, partly because researchers and artists work towards different outputs and at different speeds.

Much art is about the experience of the moment, whereas most research is about recording or analysing something after an event. Rylance said there was an increasing need for research to occur in real time. “This is an extraordinarily febrile, full-of-potential moment to define a new field,” he said, adding that he wanted the definition of research to become more “elastic” and that research itself must become “more and more flexible”.

For this to work, traditional structures such as peer review may need to be reformed, according to Karen Cham, director of Digital Media Kingston, a cross-faculty studio producing research and art at Kingston University. “The clue is in the title: you’re either in the peer group or not. But innovation is never part of the peer group; you’re always on the periphery.” Rylance sympathises with Cham’s view: “Peer review tends to be conservative rather than adventurous, so we’re looking at that.”

Elizabeth Lomas, a research fellow at Northumbria University, has a £42,000 grant from the AHRC to consider broadly how arts and cultural organisations define and value R&D. There is no definition of R&D within the arts and humanities that has equivalent status to that in the Frascati Manual, which was adopted by the OECD in 1962. The definition in the manual splits R&D into pure, applied and experimental work. “The question for the arts is whether we conceptualise research like that too,” says Lomas. Her project will be completed in 2016.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight –