The auspicious university

Dear reader: Let me save you some time. This post is written specifically for practice-based researchers.

If you aren’t a creative type (artist, writer, poet, dramaturge, designer), you can probably stop reading now. If you are, please keep reading – I need your help.

What’s an artist to do?

Coloured grain/seed artwork that was filled by the general public

Seeking completion by Tseen on Flickr

I work with the cool people at the university: artists, designers, architects, social scientists, humanities scholars and educators – all sorts of excellent people.

Many of them are professionals in their chosen professions. That is, they are professional artists, designers, architects, poets, writers, etc. Their research is ‘practice-based’ research; they create stuff. The process of creation is an integral part of the research process. It meshes with their teaching, which is often studio-based, using workshops and mentoring rather than lectures and tutorials. These people fit very well into a university landscape.

Until it comes to funding.

Arts funding, like all funding, is built for the people who need it. It is organised around independent individuals (or small collaborations) or highly focused arts-based organisations (theatres, for example). These are the people who need the funds, so that is how the funds work.

Up until now, this has worked quite well. University lecturers who have been practicing artists have applied for funds as individuals, rather than as members of staff. They have been judged on their strength as practicing artists, and on the quality of the material they create.

Now, however, there is a much stronger emphasis on research funding. Funding is being used as a cross-discipline shorthand for quality. People want to be seen to be ‘research-active’, as well as getting on and doing what they do. Promotions often depend on it.

So, now, practice-based researchers want to channel their funds through the university.

The university as an auspicing agent?

Luckily, there is a way to do this. Not all people receiving arts funding want to be accountants and human resources managers. They just want to get on and do the work. So, arts funding can be channeled through an auspicing agent.

What the hell is “auspicing”, I hear you ask. Well, if you’ve read this far, you probably already know, but that’s what I said about a year ago when I first encountered it.

An auspicing agent handles all the bits of the project that a practicing artist may not want to deal with. They take care of the funding administration, providing accurate and timely information to the artist and the funding agency, as required. At the end of the project, they provide an audited set of accounts, as required for the final report. Auspicing agents can provide project management oversight and even communications between participants, if requested. They will do whatever you want, for a small fee.

This is where the university can step in. On the face of it, a university would make an excellent auspicing agent. It has professional accountants, a whole department devoted to human resources, and a legal team. It has professional photographers and videographers that might be able to document the work.

Once the funds are being channeled through the university, the project is covered by university’s insurance. It means that people like me can help with applications or contracts or finance, and the income is counted as research funding attracted to the university.

What can go wrong:

Having the university act as an auspicing agent seems to make a lot of sense. Everybody should be happy, right? Hopefully, this will be the case in the future. Unfortunately, at the moment, universities generally seem to make poor auspicing agents. It isn’t what the are built to do.

For a start, not all projects need auspicing. You don’t need a seperate organisation running your accounts if the project has one chief investigator and a three-line budget. In fact, having a university provide ‘advice’ about contracts, progress reports and payment processes can be a decided disadvantage.

This is particularly true if the project takes a new direction. This often happens when the research process is intentionally mercurial and agile. Suddenly, the chief investigator wants to spend the funds on something different from what was described in the budget. University finance departments, like all government departments, are generally not keen on those sorts of changes. They want it documented and authorised; they want it done by the book.

In particular, they might want to know why this staff member is going to get a payment above and beyond their normal wage. Artists’ fees are a well understood and well regarded part of arts funding. They are not even on the radar of most university finance departments. This can result in delays, makeshift arrangements and a sudden jump in taxable income. It isn’t always perfect.

In the end, universities will never make perfect auspicing agencies. However, it is my hope that we can get to the stage where the benefits of putting your arts grant through the university outweighs the disadvantages. That’s what I’m currently (slowly) working towards. If you have any advice, suggestions or war stories, I’d appreciate them! I need all the help that I can get.


About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

3 Responses to The auspicious university

  1. M-H says:

    I’m finding this an interesting area for discussion. When you say this…

    That is, they are professional artists, designers, architects, poets, writers, etc. Their research is ‘practice-based’ research; they create stuff. The process of creation is an integral part of the research process. It meshes with their teaching, which is often studio-based, using workshops and mentoring rather than lectures and tutorials.

    …I think that there are other people in a University, outside the fine arts etc, who might say that – for example, engineers who teach practical subjects in mechanics. My son-in-law made an NMR device for his PhD in physics and tested it; he now has a postdoc which is related to his methods and their application in practical devices in NMR. Of course, his device had a practical pupose and was judged on its usefulness; art objects don’t have to be useful (although they may be – in design or architecture) and are judged on aesthetic grounds. But I’d still be interested in your comments on theoretical similarities between the making of mechanical, electrical or digital devices as research and other kinds of research ‘making’.


    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Hi M-H

      You are absolutely right. The creative process contains it’s own power, whether you are creating a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) device or an operetta. I do think that there are differences, though.

      In some ways, the creative practices used by design and arts differ from the creative practices in science. I can’t claim expertise in either area, but it seems to me that sometimes the journey is the goal for practice-based research, with the outcome being an artifact of the journey.

      Art often actively seeks disruptive practices. In some situations, the process is as important (sometimes more important) than the outcome. I haven’t seen this much in science and engineering, where the outcome is generally the goal.

      Having said that, I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘science / arts’ divide. People make too much of it, and use it to create unnecessary ‘us versus them’ scenarios in universities. In actual fact, I think that they have more in common than they have as differences. But that’s just me.


      • M-H says:

        No arguments there. Thinking about these similarities and differences – what makes a university what is is – is really interesting. Glad it’s not just me! 🙂


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