Curation on Campus: An Exhibition Curatorial Experiment for Creative Industries Students

Ulrike Sturm, Denise Beckton, Donna Lee Brien

Abstract


Introduction

The exhibition of an artist’s work is traditionally accepted as representing the final stage of the creative process (Staniszewski). This article asks, however, whether this traditional view can be reassessed so that the curatorial practice of mounting an exhibition becomes, itself, a creative outcome feeding into work that may still be in progress, and that simultaneously operates as a learning and teaching tool. To provide a preliminary examination of the issue, we use a single case study approach, taking an example of practice currently used at an Australian university. In this program, internal and external students work together to develop and deliver an exhibition of their own work in progress. The exhibition space has a professional website (‘CQUniversity Noosa Exhibition Space’), many community members and the local media attend exhibition openings, and the exhibition (which runs for three to four weeks) becomes an outcome students can include in their curriculum vitae. This article reflects on the experiences, challenges, and outcomes that have been gained through this process over the past twelve months. Due to this time frame, the case study is exploratory and its findings are provisional.

The case study is an appropriate method to explore a small sample of events (in this case exhibitions) as, following Merriam, it allows the construction of a richer picture of an under-examined phenomenon to be constructed. Although it is clear that this approach will not offer results which can be generalised, it can, nevertheless, assist in opening up a field for investigation and constructing a holistic account of a phenomenon (in this case, the exhibition space as authentic learning experience and productive teaching tool), for, as Merriam states, “much can be learned from a particular case” (51). Jennings adds that even the smallest case study is useful as it includes an “in-depth examination of the subject with which to confirm or contest received generalizations” (14). Donmoyer extends thoughts on this, suggesting that the single case study is extremely useful as the “restricted conception of generalizability … solely in terms of sampling and statistical significance is no longer defensible or functional” (45).

Using the available student course feedback, anonymous end-of-term course evaluations, and other available information, this case study account offers an example of what Merriam terms a “narrative description” (51), which seeks to offer readers the opportunity to engage and “learn vicariously from an encounter with the case” (Merriam 51) in question. This may, we propose, be particularly productive for other educators since what is “learn[ed] in a particular case can be transferred to similar situations” (Merriam 51). 

Breaking Ground exhibition, CQUniversity Noosa Exhibition Space, 2014. Photo by Ulrike Sturm.

Background

The Graduate Certificate of Creative Industries (Creative Practice) (CQU ‘CB82’) was developed in 2011 to meet the national Australian Quality Framework agency’s Level 8 (Graduate Certificate) standards in terms of what is called in their policies, the “level” of learning. This states that, following the program, graduates from this level of program “will have advanced knowledge and skills for professional or highly skilled work and/or further learning …  [and] will apply knowledge and skills to demonstrate autonomy, well-developed judgment, adaptability and responsibility as a practitioner or learner” (AQF). The program was first delivered in 2012 and, since then, has been offered both two and three terms a year, attracting small numbers of students each term, with an average of 8 to 12 students a term.

To meet these requirements, such programs are sometimes developed to provide professional and work-integrated learning tasks and learning outcomes for students (Patrick et al., Smith et al.). In this case, professionally relevant and related tasks and outcomes formed the basis for the program, its learning tasks, and its assessment regime. To this end, each student enrolled in this program works on an individual, self-determined (but developed in association with the teaching team and with feedback from peers) creative/professional project that is planned, developed, and delivered across one term of study for full- time students and two terms for part- timers. In order to ensure the AQF-required professional-level outcomes, many projects are designed and/or developed in partnership with professional arts institutions and community bodies. Partnerships mobilised utilised in this way have included those with local, state, and national bodies, including the local arts community, festivals, and educational support programs, as well as private business and community organisations.

Student interaction with curation occurs regularly at art schools, where graduate and other student shows are scheduled as a regular events on the calendar of most tertiary art schools (Al-Amri), and the curated exhibition as an outcome has a longstanding tradition in tertiary fine arts education (Webb, Brien, and Burr). Yet in these cases, it is ultimately the creative work on show that is the focus of the learning experience and assessment process, rather than any focus on engagement with the curatorial process itself (Dally et al.). When art schools do involve students in the curatorial process, the focus usually still remains on the students' creative work (Sullivan). Another interaction with curation is when students undertaking a tertiary-level course or program in museum, and/or curatorial practice are engaged in the process of developing, mounting, and/or critiquing curated activities. These programs are, however, very small in number in Australia, where they are only offered at postgraduate level, with the exception of an undergraduate program at the University of Canberra (‘215JA.2’).

By adopting “the exhibition” as a component of the learning process rather than its end product, including documentation of students’ work in progress as exhibition pieces, and incorporating it into a more general creative industries focused program, we argue that the curatorial experience can become an interactive learning platform for students ranging from diverse creative disciplines.

The Student Experience 

Students in the program under consideration in this case study come from a wide spectrum of the creative industries, including creative writing, film, multimedia, music, and visual arts. Each term, at least half of the enrolments are distance students. The decision to establish an on-campus exhibition space was an experimental strategy that sought to bring together students from different creative disciplines and diverse locations, and actively involve them in the exhibition development and curatorial process. As well as their individual project work, the students also bring differing levels of prior professional experience to the program, and exhibit a wide range of learning styles and approaches when developing and completing their creative works and exegetical reflections.

To cater for the variations listed above, but still meet the program milestones and learning outcomes that must (under the program rules) remain consistent for each student, we employed a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching that included strategies informed by Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, Frames of Mind), which proposed and defined seven intelligences, and repeatedly criticised what he identified as an over-reliance on linguistic and logical indices as identifiers of intelligence. He asserted that these were traditional indicators of high scores on most IQ measures or tests of achievement but were not representative of overall levels of intelligence. Gardner later reinforced that, “unless individuals take a very active role in what it is that they’re studying, unless they learn to ask questions, to do things hands on, to essentially re-create things in their own mind and transform them as is needed, the ideas just disappear” (Edutopia).

In alignment with Gardner’s views, we have noted that students enrolled in the program demonstrate strengths in several key intelligence areas, particularly interpersonal, musical, body-kinaesthetic, and spacial/visual intelligences (see Gardner, ‘Multiple Intelligences’, 8–18). To cater for, and further develop, these strengths, and also for the external students who were unable to attend university-based workshop sessions, we developed a range of resources with various approaches to hands-on creative tasks that related to the projects students were completing that term. These resources included the usual scholarly articles, books, and textbooks but were also sourced from the print and online media, guest speaker presentations, and digital sites such as You Tube and TED Talks, and through student input into group discussions.

The positive reception of these individual project-relevant resources is evidenced in the class online discussion forums, where consecutive groups of students have consistently reflected on the positive impact these resources have had on their individual creative projects:

This has been a difficult week with many issues presenting. As part of our Free Writing exercise in class, we explored ‘brain dumping’ and wrote anything (no matter how ridiculous) down. The great thing I discovered after completing this task was that by allowing myself to not censor my thoughts by compiling a writing masterpiece, I was indeed “free” to express everything. …. … I understand that this may not have been the original intended goal of Free Writing – but it is something I would highly recommend external students to try and see if it works for you (Student 'A', week 5, term 1 2015, Moodle reflection point).

I found our discussion about crowdfunding particularly interesting. ...  I intend to look at this model for future exhibitions.  I think it could be a great way for me to look into developing an exhibition of paintings alongside some more commercial collateral such as prints and cards (Student 'B', week 6, term 1 2015, Moodle reflection point).

In class I specifically enjoyed the black out activity and found the online videos exceptional, inspiring and innovating. I really enjoyed this activity and it was something that I can take away and use within the classroom when educating (Student 'C', week 8, term 1 2015, Moodle reflection point).

The application of Gardner’s principles and strategies dovetailed with our framework for assessing learning outcomes, where we were guided by Boud’s seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education, which aim to “set directions for change, designed to enhance learning achievements for all students and improve the quality of their experience” (26). Boud asserts that assessment has most effect when: it is used to engage students in productive learning; feedback is used to improve student learning; students and teachers become partners in learning and assessment; students are inducted into the assessment practices of higher education; assessment and learning are placed at the centre of subject and program design; assessment and learning is a focus for staff and institutional development; and, assessment provides inclusive and trustworthy representation of student achievement. These propositions were integral to the design of learning outcomes for the exhibition.

Teachers worked with students, individually and as a group, to build their capacity to curate the exhibition, and this included such things as the design and administration of invitations, and also the physical placement of works within the exhibition space. In this way, teachers and students became partners in the process of assessment. The final exhibition, as a learning outcome, meant that students were engaged in productive learning that placed both assessment and knowledge at the centre of subject and project design. It is a collation of creative pieces that embodies the class, as a whole; however, each piece also represents the skills and creativity of individual students and, in this way, are is a trustworthy representations of student achievement.

While we aimed to employ all seven recommendations, our main focus was on ensuring that the exhibition, as an authentic learning experience, was productive and that the students were engaged as responsible and accountable co-facilitators of it. These factors are particularly relevant as almost all the students were either currently working, or planning to work, in their chosen creative field, where the work would necessarily involve both publication, performance, and/or exhibition of their artwork plus collaborative practice across disciplinary boundaries to make this happen (Brien). For this reason, we provided exhibition-related coursework tasks that we hoped were engaging and that also represented an authentic learning outcome for the students.

Student Curatorship 

In this context, the opportunity to exhibit their own works-in-progress provided an authentic reason, with a deadline, for students to both work, and reflect, on their creative projects. The documentation of each student’s creative process was showcased as a stand-alone exhibition piece within the display. These exhibits not only served not only to highlight the different learning styles of each student, but also proved to inspire creativity and skill development. They also provided a working model whereby students (and potential enrollees) could view other students’ work and creative processes from inception to fully-realised project outcomes.

The sample online reflections quoted above not only highlight the effectiveness of the online content delivery, but this engagement with the online forum also allowed remote students to comment on each other’s projects as well as to and respond to issues they were encountering in their project planning and development and creative practice. It was essential that this level of peer engagement was fostered for the curatorial project to be viable, as both internal and external students are involved in designing the invitation, catalogue, labels, and design of the space, while on-campus students hang and label work according to the group’s directions. Distance students send in items. This is a key point of this experiment: the process of curating an exhibition of work from diverse creative fields, and from students located thousands of kilometres apart, as a way of bringing cohesion to a diverse cohort of students. That cohesiveness provided an opportunity for authentic learning to occur because it was in relation to a task that each student apparently understood as personally, academically, and professionally relevant. This was supported by the anonymous course evaluation comments, which were overwhelmingly positive about the exhibition process – there were no negative comments regarding this aspect of the program, and over 60 per cent of the class supplied these evaluations. This also met a considerable point of anxiety in the current university environment whereby actively engaging students in online learning interactions is a continuing issue (Dixon, Dixon, and Axmann).

A key question is: what relevance does this curatorial process have for a student whose field is not visual art, but, for instance, music, film, or writing? By displaying documentation of work in progress, this process connects students of all disciplines with an audience. For example, one student in 2014 who was a singer/songwriter, had her song available to be played on a laptop, alongside photographs of the studio when she was recording her song with her band. In conjunction with this, the cover artwork for her CD, together with the actual CD and CD cover, were framed and exhibited. Another student, who was also a musician but who was completing a music history project, sent in pages of the music transcriptions he had been working on during the course. This manuscript was bound and exhibited in a way that prompted some audience members to commented that it was like an artist’s book as well as a collection of data. Both of these students lived over 1,000 kilometres from the campus where the exhibition was held, but they were able to share with us as teaching staff, as well as with other students who were involved in the physical setting up of the exhibition, exactly how they envisaged their work being displayed. The feedback from both of these students was that this experience gave them a strong connection to the program. They described how, despite the issue of distance, they had had the opportunity to participate in a professional event that they were very keen to include on their curricula vitae.

Another aspect of students actively participating in the curation of an exhibition which features work from diverse disciplines is that these students get a true sense of the collaborative interconnectedness of the disciplines of the creative industries (Brien). By way of example, the exhibit of the singer/songwriter referred to above involved not only the student and her band, but also the photographer who took the photographs, and the artist who designed the CD cover. Students collaboratively decided how this material was handled in the exhibition catalogue – all these names were included and their roles described.

Breaking Ground exhibition, CQUniversity Noosa Exhibition Space, 2014. Photo by Ulrike Sturm.

Outcomes and Conclusion

We believe that the curation of an exhibition and the delivery of its constituent components raises student awareness that they are, as creatives, part of a network of industries, developing in them a genuine understanding of the way the creating industries works as a profession outside the academic setting. It is in this sense that this curatorial task is an authentic learning experience. In fact, what was initially perceived as a significant challenge—, that is, exhibiting work in progress from diverse creative fields—, has become a strength of the curatorial project.

In reflecting on the experiences and outcomes that have occurred through the implementation of this example of curatorial practice, both as a learning tool and as a creative outcome in its own right, a key positive indicator for this approach is the high level of student satisfaction with the course, as recorded in the formal, anonymous university student evaluations (with 60–100 per cent of these completed for each term, when the university benchmark is 50 per cent completion), and the high level of professional outcomes achieved post-completion. The university evaluation scores have been in the top (4.5–5/.5) range for satisfaction over the program’s eight terms of delivery since 2012.

Particularly in relation to subsequent professional outcomes, anecdotal feedback has been that the curatorial process served as an authentic and engaged learning experience because it equipped the students, now graduates, of the program with not only knowledge about how exhibitions work, but also a genuine understanding of the web of connections between the diverse creative arts and industries. Indeed, a number of students have submitted proposals to exhibit professionally in the space after graduation, again providing anecdotal feedback that the experience they gained through our model has had a sustaining impact on their creative practice.

While the focus of this activity has been on creative learning for the students, it has also provided an interesting and engaging teaching experience for us as the program’s staff. We will continue to gather evidence relating to our model, and, with the next iteration of the exhibition project, a more detailed comparative analysis will be attempted. At this stage, with ethics approval, we plan to run an anonymous survey with all students involved in this activity, to develop questions for a focus group discussion with graduates. We are also in the process of contacting alumni of the program regarding professional outcomes to map these one, two, and five years after graduation. We will also keep a record of what percentage of students apply to exhibit in the space after graduation, as this will also be an additional marker of how professional and useful they perceive the experience to be.

In conclusion, it can be stated that the 100 per cent pass rate and 0 per cent attrition rate from the program since its inception, coupled with a high level (over 60 per cent) of student progression to further post-graduate study in the creative industries, has not been detrimentally affected by this curatorial experiment, and has encouraged staff to continue with this approach.

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Keywords


curation; authentic learning and teaching; multiple intelligences; creative industries



Copyright (c) 2015 Ulrike Sturm, Denise Beckton, Donna Lee Brien

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