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The arts and higher education have been working together in a number of ways to the benefit of both sectors, says Sue Hoyle.

Image of Walking the warp
'Walking the Warp’ performed by local students during the exhibition of ‘Cotton: Global Threads’ at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester

The arts are one of the UK’s great success stories. Over half the adult population is actively engaged in them, and as a report from the Third Sector Research Sector has evidenced, this has a “very significant and positive contribution to the development of Civil Society”1, and a positive impact on individuals and communities in terms of skills, wellbeing, learning, confidence and self-esteem, reducing isolation, increasing social networks and enhancing quality of life.

Internationally, culture helps build trust, heal differences and strengthens understanding between people and nations. The cultural and creative sectors employ around 8.5 million people across Europe and this is growing by about 3.5% a year, far outstripping the overall average of 1%. President Barroso recognises this, that “cultural activities generate new ideas, innovation and social cohesion”. That is why the European Commission is aiming to substantially increase its investment in culture, with a new Creative Europe budget of €1.3 billion.

In these difficult times, higher education will be strengthened by an alliance with the arts, and vice versa

And yet although many arts organisations conduct robust evaluations, we still need more rigorous and consistent empirical research to fully understand and quantify the impact on society. This is an opportunity for universities, social agencies and cultural institutions to work more closely. An example is the University of Kent and People United researching, developing and evaluating how the arts might create the conditions for kindness to grow (AP264). In these difficult times, higher education will be strengthened by an alliance with the arts, and vice versa.

There are many examples of collaboration between the arts and higher education. At the University of East Anglia the long-established Masters in Museum Studies is delivered inside the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. The resources and expertise of the centre’s workforce are combined with the research and curatorial experience of academic staff to ensure that the course is both intellectually rigorous and practically relevant to the needs of museums today.

King’s College London (KCL) has a track record of working in partnership across the cultural sector. Thanks to its recently established King’s Cultural Institute, under the direction of Deborah Bull, the college has an even broader array of cultural partners, including national companies and smaller organisations, independent producers and artists. Perhaps most importantly, it recognises the potential for culture to drive innovation across KCL: to encourage new perspectives and insights within its schools and institutes and to engage a wider and more diverse public with the college. No fewer than 20,000 tickets were sold for a recent immersive theatre production at KCL and Somerset House – a high footfall for any university.

When artists and academics combine they ask new questions, come up with new ideas and innovate across disciplines. Take the association between an individual arts practitioner and a higher education institution in the field of arts research. For the artist there will be many benefits, including academic rigour in establishing a clear methodology for evaluation of their practice, presenting the artistic outcomes of the research process in a ‘safe’ environment without immediate exposure to market, plus links to international peers, communities and students. For the academic institution, there is the benefit of building its esteem through association with exciting artists, opening up to a higher level of public engagement and developing external connections. Artists, academic staff and students will gain from the opportunity to stimulate thinking in new directions, through exposure to other expertise and fresh perspectives.

What happens, however, when the scale of collaboration runs even deeper and broader? Two outstanding examples, from Manchester and Derby, demonstrate how much can be gained from long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships. Both illustrate the potentials for enhancing civic identity and a sense of place.

Two of Manchester’s major cultural organisations − the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Museum − are part of the university. One of the benefits they offer is their public-facing role. The Manchester Museum's programme is dominated by subjects emerging from recent university research, translated into exhibitions that are seen by tens of thousands of people who would not otherwise engage with the university. A recent exhibition, 'Breed: The British and their Dogs', was the outcome of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research project. The museum and gallery offer unique opportunities for public impact, providing the university with real competitive advantage in the research arena. So, increasingly, research funding bids are building on this impact work, and collaboration with arts organisations is a factor in their success.

Both are also taking advantage of the distinctiveness that emerges from collaborating with internationally regarded academics. For next year's commemorations of 1914, the Whitworth and the city galleries are working on a joint exhibition called 'The Sensory War', led by an anthropology academic’s research into the effects of shell shock. These unique encounters between cultural organisations and the universities offer distinctiveness and competitive advantage in a crowded higher education marketplace.

The museum and gallery offer unique opportunities for public impact, providing the university with real competitive advantage in the research arena

In Derby, an imaginative and entrepreneurial partnership between the University of Derby and Arts Council England (ACE) is transforming a traditional producing house into an organisation of training, mentoring and artistic excellence, a ‘Learning Theatre’. The university has demonstrated an exceptional commitment to culture in acquiring the theatre building, making it fit for purpose, and supporting it financially. ACE has responded with strategic funding of nearly £1 million over the next three years. The Learning Theatre will combine professional in-house productions and draw in associate artists and companies, making it the creative base for new productions. It will connect with education and skills training in schools, colleges and the university, run a community engagement programme, with particular emphasis on young people, and have a continuing relationship with the amateur theatre sector. This will provide a social context, by helping build community identity and unlocking individual talent.

The distinguishing characteristic of the vision for the Learning Theatre is that it combines and places equal value on the University of Derby’s educational mission, on Derby Theatre’s commitment to professional theatre and on the need to nurture the next generation of theatre-makers through professional development. It has the capacity to attract partnership and resources from different parts of the public sector, and the potential to deliver considerable public benefit as well as make an important contribution to the local economy. Nothing else like this exists in the UK, and it has already been described as “an exemplary national model”.

In his inaugural lecture, Peter Bazalgette set out his vision for a ‘grand partnership’, delivered imaginatively between individuals, local authorities, businesses and higher education, and galvanising local communities. The examples above demonstrate some innovative ways in which that might be achieved.

Sue Hoyle is Director of the Clore Leadership Programme.

(1) Third Sector Research Centre, in partnership with Universities of Exeter and Glamorgan, as well as Voluntary Arts: http://www.tsrc.ac.uk/NewsandEvents/Impactofgrassrootsartsactivity/tabid/866/Default.aspx

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Photo of Sue Hoyle