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Artists as Researchers & Community Engagement

For the last 10 years or so, I’ve been exploring the notion of artistic research. This exploration began in earnest with the first Small Cities Community-University Research Alliance, or CURA (2001 – 2006), and became a defining element of our current CURA, “Mapping the Quality of Life and Culture of Small Cities.”

Adelheid Mers and Will Garrett-Petts at Banff Centre, 2008


The research projects included in the Small Cities CURA do not employ a single methodology; rather they reveal a commitment to methodological diversity, where the fundamental criterion is to use the most appropriate form of inquiry for the topic under study. Some projects incorporate traditional archival and historical methods; others employ ethnographic approaches and action research; while some use a combination of methods. One unique feature of this endeavour has been the involvement of artists-as-researchers.

From the beginning–and with an art gallery as lead partner–the directors of the Small Cities CURA saw the potential for “displaying” research as an important means of public dissemination. Once the research program was underway, at the first major meeting of researchers and community partners, the group reviewed its goals for (1) collaboration and assessment, (2) new partners and alliances, (3) additional funding possibilities, and (4) communications and dissemination strategies. In addition, Lon Dubinsky and I  presented a brief on the potential involvement of artists. Initially, including the artists was presented as an example of how new researchers could be drawn into the project, in this case through culminating exhibitions that documented the projects and presented artistic work reflecting major project concerns. The program quickly moved to attach artists to projects as they arose. In the meeting, we noted that this enhanced use of artist-participants reflected the progress of several current projects, and was generally supported by an increasing interest by the contemporary art world in what we might call ‘community-based art. We envisaged several possibilities, each contingent upon agreement by the researcher(s), community partner and artist(s) for each project. For example, some artists might participate fully as researchers with their work incorporated into, if not in some cases synonymous with, a specific project. in other cases, artists might work as more detached observers.

Since the first CURA, we have refined the roles of artist-researchers, with the artists now following one of three inquiry models:

(1) Affinity: where the artist is encouraged to match existing work with issues under exploration by a particular CURA research group.
(2) Response: where the artist is encouraged to create new work responding directly to the particular research group’s project.
(3) Integrated: where the artist works with a particular research group, becoming in effect a co-researcher by committing skills, insights and art production to the research findings.

A couple of years ago I submitted the following description of the artist-researcher team as part of a funding report:

A key aspect of our previous CURA continued here in the current CURA is the inclusion of artist-researchers, practising artists working alongside academics and community partners. We are encouraged by the potential we see for linking creative inquiry to more traditional methods of research. The presence of working artists as co-researchers (Doug Buis, John Craig Freeman, Laura Hargrave, Ernie Kroeger, Donald Lawrence, Eileen Leier, Adelheid Mers, and Melinda Spooner) provides enhanced access to, and credibility with, the cultural communities of our participating cities: as one of our partner organizations found when employing artists in the ‘‘Small Towns : Big Picture’’ project, ‘‘While the development of sustainability indicators is of academic interest to those working in the field of . . . performance evaluation, the [Small Towns] research would have been an insignificant blip in the community’s experience if it had not been for the involvement of the artists’’ (Rogers, 2005; Rogers & Collins, 2001). Involving participating artists and engaging communities via locally-developed cultural projects promotes dialogue and social interaction. In addition, artists offer opportunities for well-crafted critique, playful destabilization, and an identifiable ‘‘Third View,’’ not tied directly to either the university or the community partners.

Thus, the interest in artistic forms of inquiry and the role of artists in community-based research arose from our work with the community partners–and was especially inspired by our partnership with the Kamloops Art Gallery.

In 2005, Rachel Nash and I hosted an international symposium on “artistic inquiry”; and in 2008, in collaboration with the Banff Centre, we ran a 6-week residency devoted to exploring notions of artistic research.  The current research project, “Making Interdisciplinary Inquiry Visible,” builds on these earlier initiatives.

In brief, we are now looking at the following questions:

  • What happens to academic writing and research when non-linguistic modes, strategies, assumptions, and traditions are introduced?
  • What special opportunities, benefits, limitations, pressures, and obligations does involvement in academic and community-based research offer artists and their co-researchers?
  • What can we learn from visual artists, in particular, about image-based inquiry and writing?
  • How can such a focus on visual/verbal collaborations help construct a new paradigm for academic research, one that recognizes a “visual turn” in academic and creative work?


  1. Love these questions – are you still researching these? I would love to learn more about how this unfolds.

    Sunday, October 31, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink
  2. garrettpetts wrote:

    Thanks, Candee.
    Yes, we are just beginning Year 1 of a 3-year study. I’ll post updates as more develops. At present Rachel and I are working with artist-researchers Mika Hannula (Europe); Simon Jones and Sara Giddens (UK); John Craig Freeman, Craig Saper, and Adelheid Mers (US); and Donald Lawrence, Laura Hargrave, and Ashok Mathur here in Canada. Also, we just came back from a visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where we interviewed David Wilson and his staff about the collaborative aspects of their collective curatorial practice.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 2:42 am | Permalink

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