— Cultural Sources of Newness

Making Art Work—and writing about it

A report that opens with the sentence “I have come to know that a good research project is like being on an adventurous journey” is an invitation that I cannot resist. And when the introduction summarizes the argument as clearly and personally as this one, I know that I will read every single page: “If I was to put forward only one thing of all the things I have learnt from the artists and designers interviewed along this journey, it would be how they welcome their ideas, process them, and then expose them to the world. Maybe that is the most important contribution of artists to society: how they are courageous enough to release their creativity, and how they inspire the rest of us to embrace our ideas.” (p.1)    

I learned about the author, Evelina Wahlqvist, from my Creative Clash colleague Anna Grzelec  at our projet team meeting in Copenhagen last week. Evelina is a PhD student at Gothenburg University’s Institute of Cultural and Economic Geography. She has developed an impressive reputation in Sweden as what she calls a “creativity researcher and speaker” and she won a ‘Communicator of the Year’ award in 2009. The report I downloaded is positive evidence of her ability to communicate in an engaging way about a large research project to academics and the broader public.

Not surprisingly, Richard Florida’s work is mentioned (also because Evelina was part of the team in Sweden that contributed to the international part of his project). But she avoids the simplistic causalities that irritate me in his work.

“The research scope is situated somewhere in the broader landscape of the much debated question of the contribution of arts to society and economic growth. I often find the discussion badly nuanced. I suppose that simply refers to the lack of nuances, or rather, to how the many nuances are forced to hide behind a single colour…. A far too common trait of these discussions is how the representatives for the cultural sector are bunched to speak with one voice.” (p.3) The study finds a good solution to this problem, by combining quantitative and qualitative methods, and taking a longitudinal view:

a) Statistical analyses of data bases about graduates from the schools of fine arts and design and craft graduates from the region of West Sweden, following their work and life choices from geographic, economic, and cultural perspectives, and

b) In-depth interviews with 12 graduates and other key actors in the nexus of arts and society in the region. Thumbnail sketches of four of the respondents provide even more colour to the report.

I underlined too much while reading, it is clearly the kind of report I need to go back to again, depending on the focus of my work at that particular moment. Among the points that struck me are how effectively she compares and contrasts the situations of the graduates from the fine arts and those from the crafts and design school, which she captures as “parallel truths” (p.13). One of the reasons that this interests me is that in our research unit my colleague Maria Oppen is looking at work with designers, while I am focusing on artists, and we often compare notes (which will hopefully lead to joint publications in the next couple of years).

The report contains graphs and charts based on the statistical analysis, a discussion about ways of preparing students for the marketplace and entrepreneurship, and suggestions for future research. Given that the study was published in 2009 and some of the data reached only up to 2003, updates would be most welcome. It would be interesting to see a gender perspective in the analysis, which is missing in the current report.

Berlin is mentioned at several points in the report, which is of course another reason that it interested me. Some really strong work has been done on the subject by my colleague at the WZB, Janet Merkel, whose master’s thesis about “creatives” in Berlin was so good that it was published as a book. She recently completed her doctoral dissertation in which she compared policies and practices in London and Berlin. Unfortunately, both studies are available only in German, but soooooon she will be publishing about her findings in English so that they can reach a wide audience.

Bringing me to a last reflection for now: Evelina plays with words and cultures when she points out that it is important to “mind the gap” (p.22) between “reality” and academia that graduates face in making the transition to work. The gap between the worlds is necessary by definition, but, as she notes, it is worth considering “The question is how far apart one would want them to be.” (p. 22) The gap takes many forms, one of which is in writing styles. Does the Swedish academic context have a wide or narrow gap between the style of report writing and the style of dissertation writing?  Will Evelina, who clearly excels at report writing for a lage audience, be shackled when she has to deliver a dissertation to the academic altar? My colleagues sometimes tell me that they think it is easier to write engagingly about research ideas in English than in German. What do you think?