Building Bridges


The early medieval universities were initially integrated with the cities that nurtured them, and were more like districts like the Latin Quarter in Paris where scholars congregated. Eventually they became sanctuaries from the diversions of city life, a place where students could address the important work of scholarship without the need to indulge in manual labour. This separation was encapsulated in the expression ‘town and gown,’ reinforcing the distinction between those who laboured in the town and those who addressed the concerns of the intellect.

The Kent State Massacre in the USA in 1971, in which the Ohio State Guard shot four student demonstrators dead, was one of the most horrific outcomes of the suspicion and resentment generated by the ‘town/gown’ split, in this case between the citizens of Columbus and the University. The Ohio Governor, James Allen Rhodes , called the student protesters ‘un-American’ and referred to them as revolutionaries set on destroying higher education in Ohio.

Although it’s an extreme example, the distrust, anxiety and suspicion about what happens on the segregated university campus continues to fuel comments about esoteric research undertaken by academics in their ‘ivory tower,’ cut off from the harsh reality of everyday life.

At the heart of the on-going difficult relationship between universities and their host communities is the dual role of the university: it is both inextricably bound by the commercial interests and formal relationships with the local community, yet necessarily, as Stuart Macintyre and Simon Marginson put it ‘a place apart ‘ with a mandate to react critically and disinterestedly.

In the current climate of accountability promoted by successive Education Ministers in the Howard Government, and the Research Quality Framework  discussions, universities are now required to embrace ‘Community Engagement’ along with Teaching and Learning, and Research and Development as part of their contract with Government. Building bridges with local communities has become, and will continue to be, an essential platform of every university’s mission statement.

The university press, the university theatre and the university gallery and museum are becoming increasingly important for showcasing the work of the institution and for the dissemination of research .

The arts need an audience and have traditionally sought an avenue to engage their communities in a dialogue about current issues. Indeed, the arts have traditionally been the point of public access for many universities.

Since their establishment 150 years ago universities in Australia have commissioned and collected artworks to enrich the cultural milieu of their institutions and, by osmosis, ensure their graduates develop as fully rounded individuals. For Sir Redmond Barry, first Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, an enlightened education was an essential ingredient that would bind the fledgling colony together because of the ‘socially adhesive qualities ‘ of cultural activities.

That two-fold mission, of providing a centre for research while enriching community life, remains a priority for many universities. Over the past five years, the inclusion of new galleries as part of refurbishments or the construction of purpose-built facilities for art schools, and the opening of new or renovated gallery spaces on university campuses is evidence of this continuing commitment.

Inside the John Curtin Gallery, art by Tim Maguire

In September 2005, the Victorian Department of Education, Employment and Training produced a massive report ‘Beyond Rhetoric: University-Community Engagement in Victoria‘  spelling out the advantages of collaboration to both the university sector and the wider community. While acknowledging that all the Victorian universities engage with the community through public lectures, art exhibitions and cultural production such as dance, theatre and performance the report stated that ‘the role of universities as contributors to community engagement and a social justice agenda is difficult to quantify.’

The report also found that for the universities themselves there was some confusion: some suggested this activity is nothing more than a public relations exercise, while others vehemently support the view that community engagement ‘can contribute to public debate, community wellbeing and local revival.’ The University of Melbourne describes its involvement in the community as follows:

a university must be both a place apart where learning is not constrained by local horizons as well as being thoroughly grounded in its local community A major purpose of the university is helping local communities of students and neighbours to go beyond localness through education and training that provide critical appreciation of local beliefs and boundaries and open up new communities of association.

This would seem to be a fundamental principle of community engagement, and a platform for developing the program of any university museum or art gallery trying be more responsive to their local communities. However, while the public relations component of community engagement can be more easily measured through the number of events held, visitation rates, column inches in the press the idea of the university as a ‘site of contemplation and critical evaluation of cultural traditions [enabling]development of an independent perspective from which to view contemporary life’ is more difficult to quantify.

So how is this achieved, and how can university art galleries help their institutions build bridges with their local communities? University art galleries are in an excellent position to critically engage with different ideas and to offer both a vision beyond the local and a critical appreciation of local beliefs.

To conclude with an example: last year, the John Curtin Gallery at the Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia presented an exhibition that examined the connections between Indigenous healing and the vibrant visual arts practice of Aboriginal Australia. Indigenous Art & Healing was initially planned as a showcase of some of the contemporary Aboriginal artworks donated to the Gallery over the past five years. In the process of curating the show, the connections with Indigenous health and research undertaken by the Division of Health Sciences and the Centre for Aboriginal Studies skewed the project in exciting directions. As a result it was decided to focus on the links between art and healing within many Indigenous communities.

The relationship between art, health and wellbeing within Indigenous communities is inextricably linked to the notion of country a spiritual link with the land that lies at the core of cultural identity and offers a sense of belonging. The works chosen for the exhibition were from the Curtin University of Technology art collection and works from the private collection of Dr Jo Lagerberg and Dr Stephen Swift, reflecting traditional Indigenous healing techniques
and art practices within communities across Western Australia.

As well as showcasing current research undertaken by areas within the University, the exhibition and concurrent public program provided a resource for teaching within those courses, while also introducing the wider community to key Indigenous health issues.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.