“I find artists can often enter into the space of organisations and make a difference,” says Kate Pahl, professor of Literacies in Education at the University of Sheffield. “They are good at seeing things from an external perspective. Sometimes the artwork or the event or even a conversation lets them move in and out of situations and adopt diverse roles.”

Pahl is one of the contributors to a new set of resources for a-n members produced by the artist Steve Pool that looks at artists working in higher education. In recent years many changes have taken place within the infrastructure of higher education in the UK. Universities are creating wider links with industry, working with businesses, and developing their civic role, including financing close partnerships with cultural institutions and galleries.

With change comes opportunity. The potential to develop and trial wider collaborations and new ways of working has led to a range of roles and access to more diverse streams of funding for visual artists.

While developing a practice within a higher education context can be deeply rewarding, it is not without its challenges. The new resources map recent developments including public engagement and inter-disciplinary projects, considering the value of such relationships and identifying sources for funding strands and opportunities.

Crucially, Pool emphasises the importance of managing expectations and relationships, as navigating the world of higher education is not straightforward.

“Look for projects and people who share common interests, aims and ambitions,” he says. “Recognise the very specific remit of universities and what drives decision making, but also consider why you want to work with universities, how it relates to the work you do and how this can help drive and shape a project.”

Socially engaged

Discussing socially engaged collaborations, artist Paul Evans explains how he has developed and aligned his work to the research undertaken within universities. His ‘top tips’ for working in this area include: “Find your academic and don’t be afraid to approach them; allow for flexibility in what you do and be open to opportunities that may take you in a surprising direction; document your projects carefully and find a good strategy for promotion.”

The notion of aligning your work with research chimes with the views of Kwong Lee, director of Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. The gallery works with the universities in the city to provide professional development support to students and contribute to cultural policy research.

Lee describes a desire to work collectively that is shared across the region’s three art schools, local authorities, arts organisations and Arts Council England. He says:  “It is more than just about strength in numbers but about a depth in quality – what we all have to offer and our expertise.”

While many artists work across art and design courses, fruitful relationships can also be developed across other academic departments – artists often collaborate on health initiatives, cultural value and heritage projects.

Artist Paul Evans cites working with science departments, where there can be greater levels of funding available and a strong desire for an alternative, external perspective. “Sometimes I’m driving things forwards, other times I’m playing a small part in a big project,” he says. “I’m happy in either role.”

Anthony Schrag recently completed his practice-based PhD exploring the relationship between artists, institutions and the public within participatory public artworks. His advice to artists considering this option? Firstly, don’t look at it as simply a way to support your work – there’s more to it than that.

“It must be about a larger question that you can use your work to explore,” he says. “You need to fully commit yourself to the appropriate reading and writing, conferences, papers and seminars.”

He adds: “The ‘work is the thesis’. You analyse and unravel and explode and flog-to-death your ways of working. Be prepared for your practice to change, sometimes quite drastically!”

Artists working in HE is an a-n member resource.
Join a-n from just £36 for professionals and £15 for students for access to this and other a-n resources.

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1. Anthony Schrag, Make Destruction, 2014. Photo: Stuart Armitt
2. Aimee Walker, Sādhaka, 2016. Exhibited as part of ‘Launch Pad: Manchester School of Art 2015’ at Castlefield Gallery Manchester.

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