I recently started a LinkedIn profile. It asked me to enter my job description. My brain then embarked on an existential journey of personal and professional identity. This post explores the joys and challenges of working in an interdisciplinary field and the potential it brings for creative innovation.
I, like most professionals working in the arts, have come into my current role from a diverse background. On different days, or even different minutes of each day, I swap hats between the role of an artist, an educator, a curator, a researcher, a designer, a photographer, a project coordinator and other things. Sometimes these moments are an amalgamation of multiple identities, at other times I am the love child of them all. My work with children is at the intersection of fine art, education, sociology, museum studies, critical social theory and architecture. When someone asks me what it is I do, my response is entirely dependent on the dominant thoughts in my head at that particular moment. To add to it, gallery education is in a state of continuous definition and redefinition with diverse job titles such as children’s curator, education officer, learning coordinator, family program manager for positions encompassing similar responsibilities. It is also highly likely that the professional roles which I will take on in the future have not been created yet as the industry grows in response to changes in curatorial and contemporary art practice. Consequently, the ability to define what exactly it is I do is near impossible.
The first few months of my PhD, during which I shifted from a practitioner to a full-time researcher, were professionally disorientating. In my heart I have always identified primarily as an artist. In my late teens, I discovered that the most accurate way in which I could explore and express the complexities of my soul was through photography. After an internship at ABC Kids I realised I had a second great love: education. But my love for education was not driven by the desire to be a classroom teacher. I have always been interested in how sites of informal learning such as museums, libraries, community centres and in particular art galleries can provide experiences to diversify children’s creative thinking pathways when offered in parallel to formal learning environments. So I studied for a Masters in Museum Studies specialising in gallery education. I wrote my thesis on intergenerational learning in American art museums that consisted of data collection in the education departments at The Dallas Museum of Art, The Denver Art Museum, The Met, MoMA and The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Centre. Upon my return to Australia I worked as a researcher in the Children’s Art Centre at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art and an Exhibitions Assistant at Artslink before being moving into my position as a children’s curator at The Ipswich Art Gallery. In August 2015 I left my motherland and set sail for England to take up my PhD position at Tate. I tell this slightly indulgent story, as I would like to illustrate my diverse and what may appear to be ‘fickle’ background.
I have often felt like a Jack-of-all-trades and a Master of none. I don’t quite fit into the contemporary art scene, I don’t fit within a traditional teaching setting, I am not a curator and I don’t quite have the expertise to call myself an academic. Merging these areas of work is often a very vulnerable place to be in. Some people get professionally territorial when traditional views are questioned and new connections are proposed. Finding your tribe is difficult, if not impossible when you are in a continuous state of metamorphosis and redefinition. Developing an artistic and intellectual identity is also challenging when you are navigating new seas as a solo sailor. It requires relentless confidence and drive whilst still being open and flexible to new ideas and knowledge. The process of creating new connections between ideas and disciplines otherwise viewed in isolation can be perplexing, confusing and incredibly exhilarating.
Every gallery educator has an equally diverse story to tell. People enter this field of work with varying degrees of studies and a wide array of professional and personal experiences. To me, this is a major contributor as to why the field is so interesting and dynamic. Under successful management, interdisciplinary teams are a recipe for radical creative innovation. The challenge is for organisations to construct systems that foster an individual’s strengths and take advantage of the heterogeneity of diversity.
In her TED talk , Linda Hill, Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, explored the qualities of successful leaders and how they champion collective creativity in the workplace. Over numerous case studies, Hill’s research found that what many directors believe are the qualities of good leadership does not work when it comes to creating innovation. She argues that in order to create environments which foster innovation, leaders need to embrace the role of a ‘social architect’ in which individuals are willing and able to share their talents, skills and interests with others. The role of the leader is then to bring these ideas together and not let the situation degenerate into chaos. This moves away from an outdated idea of a leader in which an individual’s role is to create a vision and the inspire others to act it out. Managers must create systems in which individuals can unleash their talents and passions whilst being able to bring these ideas together in an anti-hierarchical way that is useful. Creative innovation then becomes a process that arises when new connections and relations are made between ideas and people. Innovation is born from bottom-up hierarchical models in which discovery-based learning, experimentation, social interaction and anti-hierarchical models lead to an increase in the speed of new ideas being generated.
Whilst research has demonstrated that diversity in team can also lead to misunderstanding, suspicion, and tension in the workplace. Hill argues that such conflict should be understood as an important aspect in progression. Individual differences should be amplified and brought into heated discussions with other team members through which individuals advocate for their perspective whilst listening and discussing the ideas of others. The ability to celebrate diversity and differences in the workplace requires a fundamental reconsideration of corporate and project management. It demands a willingness from directors and senior managers to let go of a certain level of control and let’s be honest, many are not prepared to do this.