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Art's revolution

Issue 18 | November 2006

Report: Melissa Marino
Photography: Melissa Di Ciero

The artist as doctor: Tony Hanning is one of a growing band of artists undertaking a PhD at Monash.

At the turn of the millennium, Monash University overhauled its studio-based doctorate in fine art. What has resulted has delighted its creators -- the biggest PhD program of its kind in the country, a growing stable of indomitable talent and an inspired and inspiring arts community.

Tony Hanning has seen many changes in art education since he was one of the first to graduate in 1972 from the "completely radical" Visual Arts School in Gippsland, now part of Monash's Gippsland campus. At 55, he is back there doing his doctorate with the Faculty of Art and Design in an environment that has seen the faculty's PhD program transformed in a way that he says now appeals to artists.

The changes made by the faculty in 2000 allow studio-based PhD candidates to have a body of artwork, rather than a written thesis, at the centre of their research. Today, 85 per cent of the Doctor of Philosophy by studio research is determined by exhibition and a supporting exegesis of 30,000 words, while 15 per cent is judged on coursework.

The popularity of the course among artists speaks for itself. Monash has the largest number of studio-based PhD candidates of any tertiary institution in the country, and it's growing every year. In 2001, 14 studio candidates were enrolled. Today there are 45, based mostly at the Caulfield campus.

For Mr Hanning, a full-time, established artist, the PhD structure is ideal -- far more so than when he completed his masters in the early 1990s and wrote his thesis about something entirely different from his own glass-based work that evokes dreams, place and memory through transmitted light.

"There's an acknowledgement that research is studio-based, and it's about time," he says. "This is a case of academia meets the real world."

The PhD has given Mr Hanning a chance to analyse and document his work, its place in the context of Australian art and associated philosophy.

It has also allowed him to teach one day a week -- an opportunity he rates more highly than the PhD itself -- and to also be taught. One of the most satisfying outcomes of his higher study, he says, is the chance to work under the supervision of respected peers and to have his practice enhanced through enquiry and research.

"Here's an opportunity for the 'real world' -- that is the art world -- to meet the academic world and to produce something meaningful, and it's the first time since the abolition of the old art schools that we've had the opportunity to do that," Mr Hanning says.

The faculty's Associate Dean (Graduate Studies), Associate Professor Robert Nelson, was one of those who put the program together six years ago as part of a systematic, deliberate re-writing of all postgraduate courses. When it came to the PhD, they chose a two-pronged attack.

First, they changed the structure, so the studio work became the key scholarly document presented as an exhibition, to be accompanied by an exegesis -- a learned body of writing that posits the artwork in both a historical and contemporary context and shows that the candidate "has been travelling widely through the history of ideas and asked very clever questions", says Associate Professor Nelson.

Second, they built a structure to enable candidates to meet and collaborate that involves compulsory coursework and forums as well as supervision.

What they have created, says Associate Professor Nelson, is a "vibrant matrix that really is electric", where artists share ideas, collaborate on exhibitions and encourage each other to greater heights. "The place is bustling," he says.

The buzz is one thing that Michael Vale, who completed his PhD at the start of the year with a celebrated exhibition, says is one of the best elements of the course. It's a buzz helped by studios being provided on campus and generated by the early emphasis on contact hours with fellow candidates.

"It made you feel like you were part of the place," says the artist and now Monash lecturer who, five years ago, was working as a scenery painter, bored and miserable and feeling "alienated from the art world".

Today, Dr Vale, who received a scholarship in his second year, is reconnected; his self-esteem is restored and his ability as an artist reaffirmed by what was ultimately a life-changing decision to take on the PhD.

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