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Setting Standards in the Arts

Dr. Gordon Munro, Deputy Director (Academic)

1 Mar 2024
Setting Standards in the Arts

As an arts educator and administrator, Dr. Gordon Munro, the Academy's new Deputy Director (Academic), has always set standards. High standards for himself, of course, but also high standards for arts education.


He served on the board and ultimately chaired MusiQuE, the European quality assurance agency for music in higher education. He also sat on the board of EQ-Arts, a similar agency establishing standards in creative disciplines, the performing arts, and design. As a result, he's taken part in multiple reviews of performing arts institutions.

Now he ponders how he can build on his expertise in Hong Kong. Dr. Munro sees many similarities between the Academy and his alma mater and former employer, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. After all, the goal of any arts academy is improvement.

"At the beating heart of the Academy, we talk about quality and standards every day," he notes. "Students are thinking about how they get better, the next step in their learning.


Teachers are thinking about the same thing. How to lead students; how to make it better in terms of the quality of our education?"


Objectivity in the arts


Dr. Munro finds it "intrinsically interesting" to consider how to measure the quality of artistic output, which in our response to music, a play or a movie is inherently subjective. How do you rate creations or performances that are better or worse in facing an artistic challenge, and make that objective? "I really love that challenge," he says.


"I'm going to be very crude here," he warns. "But if you think about science subjects, for example, mathematics or geography, there's usually a right answer and a wrong answer. I'm being very polemic, but there's no such thing as a right answer and a wrong answer in the performing arts. There's a better or a "less-good" solution to a particular artistic problem."


How to evaluate that objectively can take the form of a formalised assessment. But it also takes place in what Dr. Munro calls "café conversations," advice from peers and colleagues. There should be a reflective examination at the level of the institution, the department and the person.


"If we think we have all the answers, we'll never improve," he explains. "I have thoughts, I have views, but I don't have all the answers. And I'm willing to share those thoughts and views, but I want to hear what your thoughts and views are as well. To me, that's the essence of quality, of constant improvement."


A clear calling


Dr. Munro developed an interest in education from a young age. There was never much doubt in his mind about how his career would develop.


"I knew from quite a young age that I wanted to be a teacher," he recalls. "That was sort of the essence of my being, I guess - I wanted to try and teach and educate. And I was good at music, so that felt like a natural fit."


Dr. Munro's hometown, Avoch, is a harbour that lies north of Inverness in Scotland, on a peninsula across the Moray Firth. Although he soon moved to Glasgow, the few thousand residents of Avoch were steeped in a musical tradition that stuck with him.


"None of my family were classically trained, but they played folk music, on the piano or guitar or they sang," he recalls. "I began to be interested in music quite young, took up recorder as my first instrument in primary school, and then I moved to the piano."


It was through his piano lessons and grade exams that he realised he could develop and extend his musical talents. For a brief spell, he took up the bassoon as well, playing in an orchestra. He retains a baby grand piano in Scotland.


Dr. Munro has a skill in languages as well, and is currently learning Cantonese. He is also interested in photography, particularly infrared photography in pre-digital days. He knew, though, that he wanted to pursue a career in music education. So he took up a course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.


An understanding of quality and standards


That ultimately led him into arts administration. He believes it's essential for there to be accountability and benchmarking in arts education. "An understanding of quality and standards is absolutely essential to degree programmes in the performing arts," he asserts.


"Music degrees have been around for centuries," he points out. "But it's only in the last 50 years that we've understood properly how to talk about quality in degree education when it comes to music and the other performing arts."


At the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the staff brought in fellow educators from the nearby University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde. The insights from fellow professionals led to the development of a concept called "Tight/Loose."


Standards should be "tight" in that there's a threshold of expectations for education. Every discipline must meet certain standards. But the implementation of those standards can be "loose" in allowing each department and school to seek to meet those standards in way that suits their particular discipline or pedagogy.


"I'd like to bring some of that thinking here to the Academy," Dr. Munro says, admitting that some of the concepts already exist, perhaps under other names. "We can develop a certain tightness in terms of academic guidelines and regulations. And there's a certain element of freedom or 'looseness' in how each School might implement these guidelines. I'm glad to see it does exist here, and I'd like to explore that a little bit further in my work." 


Immersing himself in Hong Kong


However, Dr. Munro notes that it is very early days for him yet at the Academy. He says he's very much in the "listening, looking, observing" phase. He has immediately been impressed with the quality of the students, their hard work, and the high standards of his colleagues and deans. "There's so much good thinking in the Academy," he says. "I want to harness that good thinking. I don't want to impose anything." 


For now, Dr. Munro is keen to soak up as much of the culture in Hong Kong as well as the Vitamin D that's on offer. In Scotland, he jokes, "you just don't see the sun."

An avid runner, he also plans to hit Hong Kong's hiking trails. But there are academic and artistic events to attend first. Chinese music, Chinese orchestras and Chinese opera are all disciplines he intends to deepen in terms of his understanding.

"If I wanted to, I could be out every night of the week, attending some kind of cultural or performance event," he notes. That does lead him to three or four events per week. "I'm having to pace myself."

Dr. Munro first came to Hong Kong a decade ago, in 2014, when he was Head of the Conservatory of Music and Drama at the Dublin Institute of Technology. Rather than the Irish capital, he would see similarities between Hong Kong and Glasgow.

After Dublin, he returned to Glasgow, rising to the role of Director of Music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. "Glasgow is gritty," he says. "Edinburgh has got all the beautiful buildings, the castle and the monuments. Glasgow has less of that, but it has all the culture. It's a bit more "lived in", and I sense that here in Hong Kong as well."

Dr. Munro feels an affinity for Hong Kong as a result, despite his short time in the city. He took up his new post in October and feels like he is settling in swiftly. He is so delighted to share his new Chinese name (文國端), selected by the Academy Director Professor Gillian Choa, noting how the elements attached to each character and the pronunciations correspond to his English name.


"That feels very deeply personal to me, and I feel very grateful and humbled by that," he says. His former students in Glasgow who are of Chinese background have even praised the choice from afar. "It feels deeply meaningful to me," he adds.


Building an inclusive academic community


On the academic front, he is keen to explore the potential for developing programmes for research degrees. Promoting staff research is already one of his priorities, and the next natural step would be to develop doctoral degrees focusing on performance-based research.

When asked what other issues he would prioritise in his time in Hong Kong, "It's very important to me that I listen to the voices of everyone in the Academy community, and be able to respect groups and individuals who might feel like they are otherwise under-represented in society," he says.

Dr. Munro would like to see a more diverse student population, "There's strength in diversity," he emphasises. "That, to me, means encouraging more international students to come here to experience the joys of living and studying in Hong Kong."

Dr. Munro's experience of performing arts education has taught him that there's one overarching similarity between artists of all disciplines, whatever the language, whatever the medium.

"We're fundamentally about storytelling, so if you understand the storytelling of a culture, you deepen your understanding of that culture," he says. “That's the same for Russian plays as much as for Hong Kong films, as much as for Italian opera and Western classical music. Storytelling lies at the essence of all of us.”