A life model

Nick de Ville says Goldsmiths' influential practice-based doctorate is creating a new breed of professional academic

August 20, 2009

How does a university establish a fine art doctorate that is practice-based and academically rigorous? According to Nick de Ville, Goldsmiths, University of London, has the answer. In 1991, the college established one of the UK's first practice-led research doctorates in fine art.

"It was a big innovation. People from many countries have come to us to learn how one organises a practice-led PhD that has rigour but which is not constrained by an inappropriate academic model," said Professor de Ville, who has been appointed Millard chair of fine art at Goldsmiths in recognition of his role in founding and developing the practice-based PhD.

Most who embark on the doctorate are mid-career artists who want to develop their practice but also seek to contextualise their work. Students are set a 50,000-word target for the written element of the degree, and also have to exhibit their work.

In one example, a photographer chose to investigate the concepts of time and loss in art because the term "nostalgia" was often used to describe her own images.

The demands of academic scholarly writing can be "very intimidating" for research students who are artists, said Professor de Ville, who joined the college in 1971 and is currently director of postgraduate research in fine art.

He added that Goldsmiths nurtures innovative approaches. For example, one student produced three linked texts. "One was the voice of the artist, another the voice of theory and the third the footnotes, which ran as a scholarly commentary," Professor de Ville explained.

The Millard chair is a one-year ambassadorial role, and when Professor de Ville takes up the position in September, he plans to give presentations on practice-led PhDs around the world, starting in Korea.

Having helped to persuade the Arts and Humanities Research Council to fund research of this type, Professor de Ville is convinced of the benefits of the approach, which sees students work simultaneously as academic researchers and professionals who are actively involved in the art world.

"Students are improving their careers as artists because they are getting more shows, better shows and international exposure. But because they are doing a PhD, they are also able to enter into the system of conferences and symposiums," he said.

An added bonus is that significant numbers of the doctoral students have ended up working in higher education. Professor de Ville believes the PhD is producing a "new kind of professional academic" who is better prepared to teach by combining artistic practice and critical theory.


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