We are witnessing a significant increase in diverse and highly ambitious partnerships between universities and the cultural sector. Evelyn Wilson and Emily Hopkins think it's something to shout about.
Earlier this year we established the National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange (NCACE), with a mission to support knowledge exchange and collaboration between universities and the arts. A key theme underpinning our work is place-making, in all its complexities and resonances.
In a survey conducted in March, which had over 500 responses, we weren’t surprised to learn that over 65% of respondents cited placemaking as a theme in their collaborations with universities. We know that the arts play a crucial role not just in shaping the nature and identities of where we live but in how well we live too.
We also know that universities are powerful civic, social and economic agents in the towns, cities and other places in which they are located. Both sectors furthermore are skilled at understanding and narrating the difference their respective work makes within their communities and place.
Where arts, culture and universities intersect
The survey gave us important new insights into the nature of place-based collaborations. We heard about large-scale, strategically focused partnerships, involving multiple actors, as well as smaller-scale projects enabling more everyday and intimate encounters. Consortia have been developed between academia, the cultural sector and local community organisations to deliver skills, business and entrepreneurship training to support local arts and cultural organisations and the wider community. Other partnerships have brought together multiple HEs within a region to form new relationships, bringing students and artists together and connecting graduating students with employment opportunities.
The survey also confirmed that placemaking collaborations are creating real socio-cultural impact within local communities too, empowering people and bringing unheard voices into the decision-making landscape. Creative initiatives such as exhibitions in temporary - ‘meanwhile’ - spaces or virtual walking tours have also allowed communities to interact with their locale in fresh and imaginative ways as a result.
Reflections and challenges
To further explore and understand the implications of place-based collaborations, we held our first annual policy workshop, ‘Collaborations in Placemaking’ in mid-June. It brought together around 150 people from universities, the arts and the wider policy landscape to learn from each other, share different models of practice and discuss challenges and aspirations for the future.
David Sweeney from Research England said that while universities can do great things they can’t and shouldn’t work on their own, especially with the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic. Val Birchall from Coventry City Council, reflecting on her work as part of the City of Culture, observed that the evolution of a place’s identity has important lessons for how partnerships develop and function. She advised collaborators to continually get to know their place, both figuratively and literally, and emphasised that universities can act as both critical researchers and expert witnesses.
The theme of the role of communities and local voices continued throughout the panels. Nazneen Ahmed’s AHRC-funded Making Suburban Faith project took place in the Ealing and Northfields neighbourhoods of London, exploring faith communities and the role of faith venues in cultural production. She described her project as ‘making in place’, noting that the communities she worked with became both experts of creative practice as well having in-depth knowledge of the place.
Joe Barratt foregrounded the role of young people in place-based initiatives through The Teenage Market, a network of marketspaces he co-established to showcase young and emergent creative talents. His work has led to a Junior Fellowship with the renowned Institute of Place Management, at Manchester Metropolitan University where he advises researchers about the skills young people gain through placemaking activities.
Models emerging from collaborations involving academics, local authorities, cultural venues, arts professionals and artists included Temporary Contemporary led by Dr Rowan Bailey (Huddersfield University) and Kath Wynne Hague (Kirklees Council) and Woven in Kirklees, a large scale celebration of innovation in textiles.
ACE funded initiatives led by Higher Education partners also featured with projects such as Create Place, a Placemaking and Co-Creation Leadership Programme led by Professor Carola Boehm (Staffordshire University) who in turn is also an expert in collaborations between the two sectors.
While it’s tempting to present a laundry list of success stories, and while the growth of such initiatives over the last few years has been really significant and worthy of listing, it is also important to recognise that fragilities exist in these ecosystems. This point was made by Graeme Thompson (Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of Sunderland).
Thompson, who has been instrumental in the development of another major place-based partnership Sunderland Culture, spoke of the need to recognise that funding cuts in areas such as arts education will invariably have knock on effects elsewhere and that carefully cultivated relationships need ongoing care, support and trust-building across the wider policy landscape, both regionally and nationally.
We are currently developing an online repository of materials, including a section on collaborations and placemaking. We would be very pleased to hear from you if you have materials or case studies that you would like to share at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our aim is for the repository to be sourced from the wider community and to be freely accessible to everyone. It runs to the very heart of our aim to better understand and evidence the nature, scale, drivers and impacts of collaborations, partnerships, conversations and relations between higher education and the arts and culture sector.
You can listen here to our podcast on Collaborations in Placemaking.
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This article from National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange (NCACE) is one of a series of articles and case studies to shine a light on knowledge exchange and cultural partnerships between Higher Education and the arts and cultural sector.