“We have arts researchers and facilities renowned nationally and internationally but within the city, and even the University, they are not so well known – we need to change that.”
These words from Professor Roberta Mock, Director of Plymouth University’s new Arts Institute, reflect the financial and aspirational investment that has gone into arts and culture within Plymouth in recent years. But they also emphasise the amount of work still needed to ensure that when people think of the University’s outstanding areas of research, the arts and humanities are up there with the very best.
In many respects, the foundations for that have already been laid, with around two-thirds of arts and humanities research rated ‘worldleading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). Within that, there was a focus on global impact, from Dr Gemma Blackshaw curating exhibitions in the National Gallery to Dr Adam Benjamin teaching dance to disadvantaged children in Ethiopia; from Gerard Donovan having his books translated into multiple languages, to Professor Eduardo Miranda using computer music to help people with locked-in syndrome.
These examples of research excellence complement a blend of outstanding and nationally renowned facilities, most recently with The House in November 2014. But, says Roberta, recognition levels across the city, and within the University, are perhaps not as high as they could be. And while she is under no illusion that such a change of perception is going to happen overnight, she is firmly of the belief that the talent and will are there, and that the new institute can drive the arts and humanities towards the higher echelons of the University’s research reputation.
“When you are looking at most of the science disciplines, it is really clear what the research agenda is all about,” says Roberta, Professor of Performance Studies. “But while we, in arts and humanities, are constantly pushing the boundaries and have outstanding pockets of impactful research, the natures of our disciplines mean people often struggle to separate out the research from the everyday engagement. We have to get that out there, but in a way that emphasises our unique contribution to the city, the region, the University and the country as a whole.”
The new institute encompasses an array of subjects, including Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory; Music, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts; English Language and Literature; History; and Architecture, Built Environment and Planning. And for its first year, it will focus on three core themes – Marine Cultures; Histories, Memory and Memorialisation; and Transdisciplinary Creative Practices. They have been specifically designed to spread the word about the impact of arts research, and at the same time provide a link to the University’s existing institutes and areas of excellence, and facilitate efforts to work across faculties and subject areas.
“Marine is one of the first things people associate with Plymouth, but what they perhaps don’t realise is that we have researchers in music, creative writing and digital art working in collaboration with marine scientists,” says Roberta. “The second theme is a nod to our historians, but also to the ways subjects such as photography and architecture can help us engage with memory. And the third is about developing existing and new collaborations, to facilitate projects that demonstrate how the arts can be relevant to other subject areas.”
An advisory board is in the process of being developed to provide a crucial and critical voice in understanding what Plymouth’s arts research is all about and enabling the city to connect with it. And Roberta is keen to create an environment where all researchers – from undergraduate and postgraduate students all the way up to professors – are encouraged to push the boundaries without constraint or fear of failure.
“As a University, Plymouth has always had a reputation for trusting its researchers and giving them the freedom to be creative,” Roberta adds. “Our goal is to share knowledge and understanding about art and culture in ways that are inclusive, life-affirming, challenging, informative and enjoyable. By doing that, at the same time as making people internally and externally more aware of our areas of truly quality research, I believe we can help the city achieve its rightful status as the arts capital of the peninsula.”