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A researcher-in-residence scheme is proving that high-quality research skills can benefit the cultural and creative industries, says Evelyn Wilson.

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Sorrell Foundation's National Art & Design Saturday Club: a masterclass with Jeremy Deller

Magnus Andersson

Set up in 2012 with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Creativeworks London is one of four knowledge exchange hubs currently running in the UK. The hubs are funded for a four-year period and although we undertake different kinds of activities, we are committed to creating opportunities to bring together arts and humanities researchers with the cultural and creative industries (CCIs) for mutual benefit and to demonstrate the value of research to the UK’s CCIs.

At Creativeworks London, our response to that challenge has been to establish several initiatives to support new research collaborations between our academic partners and arts, cultural and wider creative industries organisations and companies in London. Our researcher-in-residence scheme is perhaps the one that has taken us by surprise the most. All our initiatives have enjoyed great interest and uptake, but it is in this particular scheme where we are starting to see some really encouraging results and reports.

A researcher can be a significant catalyst in knowledge production, co-creation, investment opportunities and business development with the CCIs

The scheme was established in response to the fact that for many small organisations there has often been a lack of resource or capacity to embark on even relatively modest research projects that could really help to create new insights, evolve practices or develop new strategies and models. The way the scheme has worked is that a small arts or creative sector company applies to ‘host’ an academic researcher to work with them, typically between three to six months, on a clearly defined research project. Successful applicants obtain the services of the researcher for free and we pay the researcher for their work for the company throughout the residency up to £5,000.

Through the lifespan of the project we have supported 22 residencies, across a wide range of artforms in visual, performing, literary, digital and interdisciplinary areas as well as design and fashion. Organisations have included Furtherfield, Coney, Sorrell Foundation, Spread the Word, ICA, Clean Break and DACS. We have also supported a number of smaller museums in London including Freud, Ben Uri and the Ragged School Museum.

The research undertaken to date has fallen into the following areas: developing approaches to unlock the potential of archives or other under-exploited assets, understanding new markets and technologies, developing commercialisation strategies, shaping and influencing policy and evaluating impact. An example of a recent residency by Luke Kelly for Spread the Word investigated how writers have managed to secure work in the game industries, revealing how skills we may associate with traditional forms of writing can be aligned to a variety of interactive writing projects.

As with so many new initiatives, it has taken us some time to get to grips with how we really understand their value and impact, but the benefits are now being articulated as projects are completed and research reports and other material filter their way into the wider public domain.

First and foremost, what is being articulated by our host organisations (not to mention the researchers) is a real affirmation of the power of the residencies. Whether the desired outcomes of the projects have been to develop new work, change or evolve practices or to help inform wider policy landscapes, the recognition that having access to relevant, high-quality research skills and researchers who are generous, thoughtful and good ‘critical friends’ is seen as being a real asset in itself. Furthermore, the research is seen as a positive factor in matters such as future investments and funding strategies which is not just good news for the hosts but is also useful for us. This kind of information helps reinforce one of our key assertions which is that arts and humanities research has the potential to positively impact on the CCIs socially, culturally and economically.

When we brought the host organisations together recently to talk about the residencies, the conversation was fascinating. One organisation told us that its board was excited because the research report was going to directly inform a new multi-year funding programme to scale up the work. Sorrel Hershberg, Director of the Sorrell Foundation, referred to the residency as like “having a temporary mini-policy department in the organisation” and that the outcome of the residency would “help reinforce wider arguments that lots of people are making about the value of creative education”.

What we are seeing through the scheme is an increased confidence and ambition around the idea that a researcher can be a significant catalyst in knowledge production, co-creation, investment opportunities and business development with the CCIs. Furthermore, the understanding that research can be applied and therefore has a power and role beyond the academy, that it can make tangible and practical impacts on and with the CCIs is, for us, testament to the need for these kinds of schemes now and in the future.

The challenge is not simply to better understand, support and ‘present’ the values of these residencies and their longer-term impacts, but to encourage new partnerships across government departments, funding bodies and innovation agencies to sustain them beyond the life-cycle of Creativeworks London.

Evelyn Wilson is Head of the Knowledge Exchange Programme at Creativeworks London and Director of the Culture Capital Exchange.

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