Social Theory, Politics and the Arts 2015

Note: I changed my title from Surry Hills PhD to the even more generic PhD 2017 as I’m not in Surry Hills anymore, Toto. But I still hope to finish my PhD by 2017, so there’s that. 

At AIMAC in June one of the loveliest people I met, Kathleen from Southern Methodist University, encouraged me to apply to present at STPA.  There’s not many chances to be involved in an international level academic arts orientated conference when you’re in Australia, so I thought why not?

Of course I knew going to Adelaide two weeks before Christmas and two weeks after we moved to Melbourne may have been stressful, but I only aliased how stressful whe I tried to change my flight to come home early (as I just couldn’t face going.)

Of course my paper was scheduled for the final session of the final day, thus ensuring I was not able to escape, forcing me to participate in the whole conference.  I should note, all this mental miserableness occurred before I actually made it to Adelaide.

What I did discover, within two hours of arriving, is that I knew a lot more people than I expected too. Which is always comforting.  People I’d met in France, people I’ve interviewed in Australia, and I few that are increasingly popping up on my social media feeds discussing cultural policy and the world of the arts. The second thing I discovered is, I’ve lost significant stamina in making polite, even academically polite, conversation. The downside of PhD life is the you forgot how to be in rooms full of people, as it’s usually just me and the dog.

But the conference itself. It kicked off with what has to be described as the rockstar dream team of David Throsby and Julian Meyrick. (The lack of women keynote speakers does have to be mentioned though, this is the second conference where there’s been no female plenary speakers. Come on guys, really?) Prof Throsby is undoubtedly a superstar in cultural economics and he rolled out all his hits in his keynote.  Prof Meyrick was a great theoretical counterpoint bringing his theatre driven charisma and style to discussions of cultural language. And he wore a good hat.

Paper sessions reminded me of a few things.  People still forget to present according to audience. Academics travel the world giving the same paper a lot (a few times I ended up seeing a presenter give exactly the same presentation they gave at AIMAC).  That it’s hard to pick what will be a fascinating presentation by the abstract.  (One of my favourite presentations from day one was an comparison of Indian and South Korean cultural policy, which I went to because I met the speaker previously. ) Storytelling, effective narrative, cannot be underestimated. Good storytellers are good presenters (And good leaders?) and panel sessions are never panel sessions but a series of short presentations.  The only panel sessions I’ve seen at any conference was a recent on at the Australia Council’s Arts Learning Forum where instead of a series of monologues the panel asked each other questions.  I’m stealing this idea, as it was great.

I was exceited that Prof Nancy Adler from Montreal was presenting (over lunch, which again pushed me #everydaysexism buttons.)  While she was lovely, and her presentation engaging, it wasn’t particularly useful and wasn’t really about leadership as I’d hoped.

More generally, I find the people at conferences are one of two types, overly generous and kind, sharing ideas and collaborating willingly or constantly looking past you to see who’s more important to talk to.  I hope I can be the former.

Research wise I find I’m still a little out there in my own. There’s very little work being done on how creative people learn. How arts education is taught maybe, but not practitioners themselves.  I was pleased to meet Dr Sheree Gordon from Western Sydney University who’s working on issues HR in the creative space, her research focussed on family balance and responsibility for actors and how that’s managed. Really interesting and I can see parallels in her finding to what I’m seeing.

I also caught up with someone I went to high school with, but a few years below, who happens to have the best job ever- head of research and policy for Screen Australia.  After I got over my extreme jealousy it was good to hear about her experience.

As to the reception of my paper, the feedback was pretty positive.  It was pleasing to have Ruth Rentschler come and see me present after providing me such guidance at AIMAC, and then tell me she thought I’ve come forward in leaps and bounds.  Each time I present I do get my ideas better formulated and more coherent.

Once again, however, I confirmed that academic life is not in my future. This wasn’t the tearing down of ideas type scenario, but more a confirmation of the logistics of academia being out of reach.  I can’t apply for fellowships or post docs in other cities when I’m done. The required mobile life of an academic, especially early in their career, is not achievable by a 40 something married to a lawyer aiming for partnership. And furthermore I could see how difficult this was for people, especially women, socially.

This does a couple of things, it removes my self inflicted anxiety about publication in academic journals (though I will still aim to next year.) It also has me planning again for life beyond the PhD. And to that end I’m reaching out to organisations with the aim of volunteering next year.  One, I want to return to community service, two, I want to build my Melbourne network towards a post academic career.  So let’s see how that goes.

But it has left me undecided about going to another conference in 2016.  I had thought maybe one would be on the cards, but maybe it will be hard to justify the expense when my scholarship runs out mid-year and we are about to buy a house.  I have to think honestly about this one.

Now I’m heading back to transcribe the last of my interviews, ending the year how I began I suspect.

(L)eadership and (l)eadership

I mentioned in a last post I’m thinking about gatekeepers and power. Lots of different thoughts are swirling about and I thought putting them down here might help them coalesce.

One of my interviews raised the idea of gatekeepers and the holders of legitimate power in the creative sector.  Those names we all know, the families that dominate giving and board seats.  But also the people that get into positions of power, in government bodies and arts organisations, and hold on to them for dear life, controlling money and access.

These are traditional leaders. The ones that get studied and written about.  I laughed when someone told me at STPA (post on this to come) that there’s a belief we don’t have enough C-level education for creative leaders.  Come on, when you get to C level you can travel the world, generally with your organisation paying for it, and access all sorts of executive leadership (cultural and not) at world famous universities and institutions. These types are not ‘my people.’  My people are outside these structures (mostly), in some sense they are the next in line (emerging) but in another they are saying ‘fuck it’ (sorry) to closed doors and just getting on with what they do.

They are creating a different type of leadership.

One reason why they are rejecting the role of leader is they are not Leaders (capital L).  They haven’t (yet or ever) been granted access to those positions of power. But they are leaders, small l, doing leadership.

On a Monday not so long ago we had a lecture from Cara Kirkwood in my UNSW class on cultural leadership . Cara is the Indigenous Programs coordinator at the NGA in Canberra and spoke about how she operates in two organisational worlds. The first is the traditional leadership and power structure of the NGA (and organisations.) Hierarchical and linear.  The second is the cultural leadership of her community, that runs parallel but has completely different structure. It’s collective and communal, that involves communication and consensus decision making. It’s networked and goes across departments and organisations.

Her real strength is that she navigates both worlds. She’s clearly highly intelligent and charismatic as all get out, so she does it with skill and panache. (If I didn’t already have way too much data I would have killed to include her in my study. She is textbook.)

It’s this second type of structure that is more akin to the leadership that I’m seeing in my data.  This traditional, indigenous cultural leadership is similar to what occurs in the networked world of the people emerging leaders in the arts. And it’s creeping into the mainstream.

This is the area I really want to explore in my thesis, this new relationship to leadership.  When I say my subjects reject leadership I really mean they reject the traditional notion of power and gatekeepers, but it doesn’t stop them from using leadership to achieve often significant things.

Interviews and analysis

In my previous post I attempted to position my research within the social constructionist framework and map out my thinking. Recently I have been digging down to a deeper methodological area, exploring the importance of interviews and analysis.

In some ways this is work I should have done prior to conducting my data collection. And I can’t say I didn’t try, but my thinking was just not yet that advanced.  I mentioned to my supervisor last (physical) meeting that I can now see things (like understanding what theoretical or conceptual models inform articles) that I just could see a year ago.  While I probably did read up on interviews an analysis before I didn’t really absorb the ideas, because I had no frame of reference to put them in. Now,having undertaken 40 interviews and got a bit smarter in the last 12 months things are starting to make sense.

Yesterday I tried to explain to my supervisor how my methodological approach captures narrative of of, and contributes to the formation of, leadership identity. (For the record I think my new research question relates to the formation of leadership identity, I just haven’t nutted the words out yet.)  I mocked up a little diagram that shows how the interaction between myself, the primary and secondary subjects works.  In each shaded area narrative about leadership are created and leadership identity is formed through them. (And I’m attempting to overlay this diagram on the Kempster model to show how I’m exploring theory through my methodology.)


The social constructionist view I’m taking means I’m interested in how the primary subject creates leadership meaning, how they do so in interaction with secondary subjects and how they do so with me. What is clear in this is that my role is crucial. I cannot avoid considering my own view of leadership, and the formation of my own leadership identity.

This flows on to my view of what interviews are.  They are not a collection of facts, but a process that involves the interviewer (me) as much as the respondent (Kohler-Reissman).  Consequently I must incorporate questions into the analysis process (Rapley). The interviews are a personal narrative as politcal praxis (Langellier) – that is they demonstrate the way the world is seen, by me and by the respondent. I need to address the potential for fragmentation and connect interviews to sociocultural meanings, and in some way the secondary respondents are triangulating this notion of meaning.

I’ve been thinking about the differences between my visual arts and theatre groups.  I realise now I framed my conference paper (to be given next week) incorrectly. I should have shown how the narratives within each interview demonstrate a different contextual view for the participants, that shape their leadership identity formation.  They uniquely see their context  – one as aggressive an competitive, one as collaborative and nurturing –  even though they are likely facing the same economic challenges (for example.)

What this thinking has lead me to is the  realisation that not defining leadership in the interviews allowed for respondents to shape their own version through their dialogue with me. How they engage shows what their perception is. A bit of a lucky break there as it was defined by gut feel.

I still have a lot of questions, some of which will unfold in data analysis stage.  My supervisor raised the question of what I will learn from secondary participants and how that differs from what I’m learning from primary, and importantly, how am I viewing them differently. A good question, I hadn’t thought of.

Today I starting putting chunks of writing together to start shaping my methodological chapter.  Far from starting with a black piece of paper I actually have about 10,000 from my stage one, blog post and a draft context chapter.  That’s without even getting into the interview and analysis information here and my proposed plan of work.  It’s daunting, but not in the way I expected, it will test my ability to ‘kill my darlings’ as much as write new content.

But I’m very happy where my thinking is right now, and with my new, light, highly organised study space in Melbourne. It’s good to be home.