As the funding landscape shifted, universities emerged as an ideal partner for creative producers Threshold Studios. Uzma Johal and Barry Hale reveal how they have been collaborating with the University of Lincoln. 

Photo of light patterns on wall of building
Urban Projections at the Frequency Festival in 2013
Photo: 

Steve Smailes

Threshold Studios is a creative producer-led organisation, founded 18 years ago. Over this time we have seen the political environment change drastically and investment in the arts come under significant strain, especially across the sector’s bedrock funder, local government.

We have always worked with place-based partnerships, be it industry-led mentorship programmes, artist commissions or community-focused creative interventions. In 2009 we recognised that resourcing for this work was under pressure and this led us to seek out new collaborations.

Higher education institutions are vast entities with their own internal dynamics and funding ecology

Coincidently at the time, we were in the early stages of dialogue with a number of universities and realised there was an opportunity to foster innovative partnerships, noting the intellectual capital and resources that seemed more apparent within the higher education sector.

We also recognised that universities were reflecting on the impact of their work and reimagining their role within communities. Reshaping themselves to be more entrepreneurial and public-facing, universities clearly played a growing leadership and development role in the placemaking agenda.

Equally, we felt strongly that with our expertise and knowledge there was a role for us as a bridge, enabling universities to broker relationships with the creative industries and wider arts and culture sector, alongside meaningful engagement with communities and audiences.

Festival and internships

Our partnership with the University of Lincoln is by far the most exciting result of this thinking. It has been a long journey that began in 2010 when we were invited by Arts Council England (ACE) to meet with Lincoln’s principal arts venues and the university to offer support on a concept it had for a one-off digital arts festival to celebrate the 2011 Cultural Olympiad. The synergies were clear and resulted in us working closely with the School of Film and Media to establish the Frequency Festival of Digital Culture.

Since then, Frequency has grown its profile, reputation and international ambitions. It presents emerging and established artists across different artforms, exploring the impact of technology on our lives, practice and in the way experience is presented. It aspires to be a high-quality, no barriers experience for the general public.

We also established RADAR, a creative graduate accelerator scheme that creates paid internships for recent graduates and a bespoke mentorship pathway to nurture the next generation of talent emerging from the university. It delivers a high return rate of graduates achieving employability and progression within 12 months of participation at the university’s College of the Arts.

Navigating new terrain

The most significant learning from our work with the university is that higher education institutions are vast entities, with their own internal dynamics and funding ecology. We had grown accustomed to working within the local authority context and needed to learn to navigate this terrain.

As with any ambitious collaboration, fostering direct and trusting relationships is a cornerstone of success. For us, working with a visionary vice chancellor, and a strong allegiance with the head of school of film and media, backed by the energy and enthusiasm of the tutors, has ultimately led to a mature strategic alliance that continues to thrive, be entrepreneurial and imagine the art of the possible.

Reflecting on our work together over the years, Vice-Chancellor Mary Stuart said: “Frequency is a real highlight of Lincoln’s cultural calendar and RADAR is a scheme we are proud of. There is mutual respect and dedication in the pursuit of common shared objectives, backed by knowledge and expertise.”

Centre for Culture and Creativity

The university also recently pioneered the Centre for Culture and Creativity, which aims to foster new partnerships locally, nationally and internationally between organisations and individuals working across art, design, media and technology, science and engineering, life and social sciences disciplines.

Taking an entrepreneurial, cross-sector approach, the centre aims to establish new multi-disciplinary networks, support existing ones and identify opportunities to develop and deliver new creative projects. We hope that this centre will also be a catalyst for Threshold to explore large-scale, multi-partner projects connecting research and academic rigour to our practice and projects.

Embracing digital technology

Looking back on our journey, Peter Knott, ACE’s Area Director, said: “We want to see our investment supporting cultural organisations to embrace digital technology to create and share great art and culture with more people. Through its artistic programmes and successful partnership with the University of Lincoln, Threshold has put digital and creative media at the heart of supporting artists and engaging audiences.”

On the eve of our twentieth anniversary, we recognise that partnering with universities takes great effort and an astute eye for collaboration. But this can then lead to great impact and legacy for our towns and cities.

Uzma Johal and Barry Hale are Co-Founders of Threshold Studios.
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