Thursday, May 31, 2012


As marketing and PR transform how art institutions are presenting and processing art, we are also witnessing a radical change in the way art is produced in New Zealand. This time the change agent is an acronym. PBRF (Performance-Based Research Fund).

This is the process by which the Government now allocates around 60% of the research funding tertiary education receives (another 25% goes into postgraduate degrees and that’s a story in itself). In the 2012 about $1.6 billion was up for grabs. And remember a billion seconds takes 31 years where as a million would only rack up 13 days. It’s a lot of dough. 

Behind all this is a whole army of bureaucrats producing a forest full of methodologies, Q&As, guidelines and tips&tricks all with a single goal: to increase the quality of research. If you are employed in the tertiary system, quality research has been the name of the game since 2003 (the year the PBRF was introduced). 

Now if you are a biologist or an historian, the ways quality is assessed are pretty straightforward: you need to present at quality conferences, have papers accepted for peer-reviewed quality journals, write books accepted by quality publishers . Everyone in the field pretty much agrees on what counts and what doesn’t. But transforming artists into academics from around the 1990s has radically changed the whole idea of quality in the visual arts. 

Since the wider tertiary sector is not interested in minor exceptions to its quality research framework, artist academics have to squeeze themselves and their work into the common framework, and it's not easy. And this is why we now hear so much talk about “research-based art”. This is not a big new artist type ism, it’s an institutionally driven piece of bureaucracy. 

At first it was kind of comical as artist academics scoured the planet for obscure phenomena (out of the way architecture, forgotten moments of modernism, the entire sub continent, fringe cultures etc.) to research. But there is serious money at stake and serious implications for art museums, artists outside the academic system and the market.

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