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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with NCACE

To support the development of ideas and cross-sector partnerships, there is a need for flexible, low stakes funding. Suzie Leighton and Myra Stuart think micro-commissions offer a way forward.

Statue of Rabindranath Tagore at Shakespeare’s Birthplace
Statue of Rabindranath Tagore at Shakespeare’s Birthplace

John James

“As an arts organisation focused on delivery, we would not normally have the resources or time to do [experimentation and research]. The micro-commission has given us the opportunity.” Arts and cultural partner from the Micro-Commissions project. 

Our recent research and activity at NCACE have underlined that collaborators from both the arts and cultural sector and higher education feel a real lack of opportunity for creative thinking, relationship building and experimentation to explore new and future possibilities for their collaborations.  

Many partnerships focus on time limited projects in response to specific funding calls or policy agendas. They tend to only last as long as any funding, and are not as resilient, productive or impactful for collaborators or communities as they could be. We also know that there are pervasive barriers to dynamic and sustainable partnerships, particularly when engaging in collaboration between universities and small or unfunded arts and cultural organisations.  

Our Action Research Report into Skills and Capacity for Knowledge Exchange highlighted the need for the arts and higher education to work closely together to co-design appropriate methods for mutually beneficial collaboration and knowledge sharing, emphasising that HE could learn much from the sector’s relational and inherently collaborative approaches.

Thinking boldly about future ways of working

Last autumn we ran an interactive and action orientated Ideas Pool bringing together artists, arts and cultural organisations, researchers and knowledge exchange professionals to imagine a new and different future for mutually beneficial collaboration. Through a series of energetic, creative and (dare we say it) entertaining workshops and blue-sky provocations we encouraged participants to break down existing models and think critically and boldly about future ways of working.

We were delighted to be able to offer a modest amount of funding as micro-commissions to four partnerships arising from the event to support the development of ideas that have the potential to provide a mutually beneficial step change in the field of cultural knowledge exchange.  

  • The Independent Theatre Council (ITC) and The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH) are researching the key enabling factors that support a theatre organisation (or other arts and cultural organisation) to undertake knowledge exchange or collaborative research with a university partner, and will deliver guidance to help universities budget appropriately for this work within funding bids and their wider Knowledge Exchange (KE) work.
  • The Stables in Milton Keynes is working with the Open University's Music Computing Lab partnership on the Polifonia project, and with D/deaf and disabled artists, on a project exploring the use of adaptive technology to develop inclusive music with participation by D/deaf and disabled people. The project will interrogate barriers to knowledge exchange and HE collaboration from the point of view of a cultural organisation developing its disability and access work and expand how learning and insights are shared.
  • Sangini and Vamos are collaborating with Northumbria University to understand how knowledge exchange between HE and grassroots cultural practitioners (particularly small Black and Minoritised organisations and freelancers) can become more resilient, better understood and valued. The micro-commission supported two workshops that will begin to investigate a vision and practicalities for a joint, Black-led cultural resource centre and living archive in the North East. 
  • Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) and Birmingham City University have used their award to interrogate their existing successful partnership to better understand the civic role of universities and how this plays a part when developing relationships; how university resources can be unlocked, defining the benefit to the partnership to create sustainable, longer term, meaningful relationships. A particular strand of enquiry will focus on how knowledge exchange can help decolonise collections and learning resources.

We are currently undertaking an evaluation of the Micro-Commissions project, but it is already clear from speaking with the participants that the awards have been highly productive. All the projects have had impacts beyond the value of the micro amount of money awarded. The administratively light touch, low risk funds have offered flexibility; providing capacity to explore working relations without long term commitment, and the opportunity to pilot new ideas in a responsive and manageable way. 

The micro-commissions have also helped those working in a university setting raise the profile of their knowledge exchange with the arts and cultural sector, and make the value of their work more explicit, in most cases unlocking match funding and support that was unlikely to have been accessed otherwise.

All the micro-commission funded projects are intending to continue, building on the work they’ve started, applying for further funding and in many cases having built methodologies, cross sector working teams and advisory groups that they intend to continue developing and sharing with stakeholders.

Flexible, low stakes funding

This approach offers an important way of beginning to break down some of the barriers to cross HE/arts and cultural sector working, created by a lack of resources and often a lack of understanding of possible partners' working environments, motivations and funding structures. 

In view of the precarity of many arts and cultural sector workers' employment, it was particularly important that the micro-commissions were able to support time on the project, enabling a space where opportunities to find match funding for further development could begin. 

From the academic’s point of view, our evaluation shows that these projects provided an important opportunity for their arts and cultural partners to more fully understand the contribution that academic research and expertise can make. Additionally, being able to pilot a project highlighted the different potential benefits of working with arts organisations to their universities and created the beginnings of a space to examine the specific benefits and innovations that KE with the arts and cultural sector can provide for both parties.

There is a need to be realistic about what small funding pots can achieve, but collaborators from both the arts and higher education are clear that there is a need for flexible and low stakes funding to develop cross sector partnerships. The potential for this ‘proof of concept’ approach, to kickstart more resilient and impactful collaborations, innovative ways of working and the creation of new knowledge across both sectors is significant.

You can listen to the provocations from the Ideas Pool on the NCACE Soundcloud the Micro-Commissions Evaluation Report and the learning from the projects will be shared via the NCACE Evidence Hub. Sign up to the E-News Bulletin for further information. 

Suzie Leighton is Co-Director of NCACE and TCCE.

Myra Stuart is Engagement Producer at Something to Aim For and Micro-Commission Evaluator at NCACE. 

 @CultureImpacts | @suzietcce | @KaliGeo

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.

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