Research Purpose and Design

Points of departure

In international research the art school domain has been described as a “preserve of the privileged” (Malik-Okon 2005) with a tendency to reproduce social inequality. Several studies show that “the study of the ‘liberal arts’ must still be regarded as a privilege reserved above all for ‘well-educated’ EU nationals from the economically prosperous classes” (Holert 2010). The pilot study undertaken by the Institute for Art Education, Making Differences: Schweizer Kunsthochschulen [Making Differences: Swiss Art Schools], examined the relevance of these hypotheses to Switzerland by means of quantitative and qualitative surveys at three Swiss art schools in Bern, Geneva and Zurich.

The pilot study revealed a complex and differentiated picture of inclusivity and exclusivity in this specific sector of tertiary education, which, while in no way only mediating “art for a few” (Burke/McManus 2009), does, however, doubtlessly engender and reproduce significant asymmetries and exclusions. Contrary to their promise of social mobility, the Swiss art schools in particular appear to be clearly characterized by processes of social closure. The results of the study indisputably indicate that – despite valiant efforts and measurable changes – the legally enshrined equal treatment of various social groups has yet to be fulfilled in the domain of the art school. The same applies to “gender equality” and, in much greater measure, to other disadvantaged social groups, especially candidates with immigrant or non-urban backgrounds.

A cooperative endeavour of 3 art schools

The research project Art.School.Differences builds on these insights. Three Swiss art schools, the Geneva School of Art and Design (HEAD – Genève), the Geneva School of Music (HEM Genève – Neuchâtel) and the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) are cooperating in its implementation. Its objective is to explore the complex configurations of inequality in art schools in more depth, to understand them and to institute changes. It takes into account both the transformation of the art school as an institution within the European university landscape, and the effects of globalisation and a migrant society in the context of inclusivity and exclusivity.

What distinguishes Art.School.Differences is that research and practice are enmeshed into the conceptual design of the project; i.e. practitioners are actively involved in the research process. This means that the project, from the very outset, is designed to integrate participatory research and the necessary methodological setting. Thus, various major players in the domain – teachers, students, artists – cooperate as co-researchers. Art.School.Differences desires to incorporate protagonists into the institutions with the aim to, on one hand, establish a sustainable debate about inequality, and, on the other, to elaborate a methodology for further participatory research relevant for other universities and institutions of higher education.

Two phases of the project

Based on principles elaborated in the pilot study, the first phase of the project investigates inclusivity and exclusivity on several institutional levels at all stages of the “student lifecycle”. It seeks a methodology adequate to meet the complex configuration of inequality through a combination of classic social- and cultural-scientific approaches. A major and intense focus on the admissions process is a crucial element of art school gatekeeping. The trans-disciplinary approach being particularly appropriate to the examination of this very intricate process of selection, which does justice to, for instance, the performative dimension and the multifaceted embodiment of habitus. Participatory observations, group discussions and interviews are held. Additionally, the examination of discourses and curricula are conducted. Outcomes from this phase are empirical findings on processes, policies and practices relating to inclusion and exclusion.

The second phase is determined by the achievement of expertise on issues around inequality in art schools. Such a qualification allows us to lay the foundations for participatory research in the field. For this purpose, seven groups of co-researchers (teachers and students) have been set up to undertake individually affilitated research projects at the participating schools. Furthermore, five colloquia in collaboration with major players have been organised at all of the participating schools, which, while primarily targeting co-researchers, are also  open to the public. On the basis of the dicussions and developments from the colloquia and affiliated projects, a set of materials and methods in form of readers have been developed and elaborated to serve as training-tools. These will at the end of the project, be made available to those committed to further research on inequality in Swiss art schools and higher education institutions on a broader level. Methodological reflections and fields of action furnishing propositions of amendments to existing processes and practices are part of the final publications, the reader and the final report.

Art.School.Differences thus is one of the few projects implementing a participatory research-model in the field of higher education with the aim to develop social equality. We indeed believe that art schools inevitably take profit if striving for more equality, plurality, heterogeneity.

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