Sometimes it seems like successful artist/academic partnerships all come down to agreement over who’s paying for the tea and biscuits, writes Glenda Cooper.
Last year, as part of the Contemporary Narrative Labs network, I helped put together a collaboration between the journalism department at City, University of London, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and interactive theatremakers Coney.
It was an exciting proposal bringing together artists, journalists, researchers and the public. But I quickly realised that there were huge lessons to be learned about common (mis)understandings, milestones and principles, as well as who was paying for what and when.
“Universities should be a public resource,” says Dr Aoife Monks, former theatre director and now arts and culture academic lead at Queen Mary University of London. “We have space, money and funding schemes and the expertise of both academics and students. We also stand to benefit from the expertise of artists.”
Irini Papadimitriou, the creative director of Future Everything, an innovation and culture lab in Manchester which frequently collaborates with universities and PhD students, agrees. In the arts world, she says, there is not the luxury of time or money to do research which can make such partnerships between academe and art so fruitful.
Set clear principles in advance
But as veterans of such collaborations, both Monks and Papadimitriou stress the importance of setting parameters and principles before projects start. “Forms of knowledge and modes of expertise are different,” says Monks, “and this can leave the power relationship unclear.
Academics don’t often realise how they trail authority. But there can also be an over-reverence and fetishisation of the artist, leading to academic genuflecting.”
“Transparency is key,” says Papadimitriou. “For example, we at Future Everything may not be comfortable working with companies who are not aligning with our principles, and we need to be clear about that from the start. We also need to consider what the objectives are for any collaboration, what the reasons are for the connection and how we work.”
Key issues to be worked out in advance are what roles people are taking on, who owns the project, who gets to evaluate the project (academics usually assume they do but this may not necessarily be the only solution) and crucially, what is the purpose of the collaboration. “You need to work this out explicitly and then set milestones in case expectations change,” says Monks.
Understanding each other’s worlds
In the project with Coney and the Bureau, one of the most useful things was setting up a practice-sharing workshop to explore similarities and differences in how we approached storytelling, attitudes to confidentiality, thoughts about audiences - and how we knew when a project was complete.
It was particularly valuable because it uncovered what we all did - and didn’t - know about each other’s working practices and assumptions.
The space that such a collaboration inhabits may also have a huge effect on the final event or partnership. For Papadimitriou, one of the most useful things can be to talk about venues. “This is the DNA of an interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary approach,” she says. “We need to think about what happens outside the academic institution; how do we approach working in a cultural setting.”
When Monks worked with the National Theatre to curate an exhibition on their costume department and write a book on it, she realised she didn’t understand their world. “I interviewed them, but then I also went and sat with them in their workplace, watching what they did, having a cup of tea with them and also working with them.”
Shared ownership and avoidance of hierarchies
When creative works are being produced, it is important to think about acknowledgment of people’s ideas. As Dr Josephine Machon, of Middlesex University says, it’s crucial to be transparent in crediting both sides.
While an artist may be focused on their own intellectual property, recognition of an academic’s contribution should also be made clear. "I've experienced offering ideas, and those ideas being taken forward without me,” Machon recalls. “An artist would fight for their IP but what happens when an academic shares knowledge and approach but is not acknowledged in any way?”
Following on from that, sharing work also needs careful consideration. Monks says she tries to avoid the default of a panel. While this might be a comfortable format for academics, artists’ confidence can sit elsewhere. It can lead to the academic dominating the discussion, or perhaps patronisingly, withdrawing to give the artist space.
If a panel is appropriate, both artist and academic should prepare well together in advance of their conversation in front of the public. Beware also of the inherent hierarchy of panels, and who (both on stage and in audience) they privilege. It’s worth looking at the work of Lois Weaver and her Public Address Systems for more on this.
Strong relationships bolster grant applications
Finally, the crucial part of any partnership: money. All too often, everyone involved in such partnerships assumes someone else is paying. Universities think industry has lots of cash; artists think universities are awash with funding. Neither is true.
Interviewees agreed on the importance of building academic/artist relationships gradually. That may mean starting small.
Even if you don’t get grant funding first time, the relationship can survive and strengthen. And a strong relationship makes the grant application more authentic. “People don’t realise how busy academics are, but it can seem to artists that they are left lying in the road if the grant doesn’t go forward,” says Monks.
These difficulties may be hard to iron out but, by being prepared, the benefits can be huge. “I've had rewarding conversations with artists where they've generously acknowledged that it's helped them articulate and understand their contexts and practice in new ways,” says Machon. “Academic and artist collaboration is enabling on both sides. Where it is a genuine knowledge exchange, it unpacks and elaborates the best bits that each has to offer.”
Certainly, the experience of collaboration made me enthusiastic for more. And I’d like to thank the Bureau who in the end were willing to stump up the money for the biscuits in our collaboration. Of course, because of the pandemic it all went online, so no digestives were ever eaten communally. But that’s another story.
Dr Glenda Cooper is Programme Director, BA Journalism at City, University of London
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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.