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Rosy Greenlees and Suzie Leighton have been reflecting on the challenges of knowledge exchange between the arts and higher education sectors. Here they explore the mutual benefits of co-curated collaborations and what support leaders in the field require.

The performance piece 'Alice' presented by Jasmin Vardimon Company features a cluster of individuals positioned with their heads stacked on top of one another, tilting towards the right. The group is clad in black attire, except for the person positioned at the forefront, who wears a red outfit. Together, their bodies form a visual representation of a centipede.
'Alice', Jasmin Vardimon Company

Tristam Kenton

Rosy Greenlees writes:

In these fraught and stressful times arts organisations are being pulled in many different directions. Demands to show the benefits of what we do only increase with ever diminishing funds. The opportunity to step back and reflect or to undertake research not aligned to a specific short-term project is limited. Yet when so many are reappraising their programmes, and asking how they add value to society, robust research that can inform future strategy is crucial. 

Few arts organisations have the resources to undertake such research internally; and using the expertise of higher education (HE) is an obvious solution. At the same time, the drive for research to demonstrate economic and social impact has created more opportunity for knowledge exchange (KE). It is a process which can provide meaningful and unexpected insights and results. HE collaboration brings wider knowledge and expertise and, importantly, financial resources.

It's a win-win: academics can develop their research and contribute to their institution’s impact while the arts organisation acquires knowledge and insight. Academics bring a different perspective and rigour while arts organisations bring ‘on the ground’ practical knowledge, experience and contacts. Together they can open up new ways of thinking. 

Taking time to find the right partners, being clear about objectives and confident about what benefits you offer create a strong foundation. Plugging into networks ensures you have the academic contacts that understand you, your work and shared ambitions.

Tangible outcomes for arts organisations

KE involving artists and practitioners or socially engaged work can create projects which are exploratory and open ended. While the emphasis is on the process and less about defined metrics, the research can reveal innovative and exciting outcomes especially in the case of cross disciplinary projects.  

However, HE is often the dominant partner – at least at an institutional level. The language, resources and process are often dictated by the funding, which almost always comes from HE. For the arts organisation, it can be a daunting process and benefits are not always obvious. So, funding such as the Centre for Cultural Value’s Collaborate Fund and NCACE’s micro-commissions are important in enabling arts organisations to take the initiative and facilitating connections with academics.  

Working in HE when KE was in its infancy, I could see the huge potential. But it is in arts organisations where I have experienced tangible outcomes: in the practical application of research; the confidence in knowing that strategy is underpinned by evidence (qualitative and quantitative); and the rich, stimulating relationships that have ensued.     

When each partner plays to their strengths, such collaboration is a powerful means of understanding the ecology of our organisations, communities and sector. The journey to create an evidence base is ongoing and the need for hard facts and measures will continue to be a requirement but research collaborations will help develop a more nuanced approach which recognises the positive complexity and impact of arts and culture.  

Suzie Leighton writes:

Although there is a huge amount of impressive collaborative work being done between universities and the cultural sector, there is often a lack of visibility and profile for cultural KE and collaborative research on both sides, albeit for different reasons. 

In higher education, cultural KE does not usually generate significant income (particularly in comparison with other sectors), although it undoubtedly has an important role to play in areas such as social impact and civic and public engagement. This can lead to a lack of recognition and appreciation for those leading the work, alongside a lack of career pathways and development opportunities.  

In the arts, very few companies have the resources for a role focused on developing KE collaborations. From our research we know it is often senior staff developing and leading this work, mostly unacknowledged, and un- or under-recompensed. Developing good, mutually beneficial collaborations takes time and effort before a relationship or project becomes functional and this leadership and development work is often underestimated.

Part of the mission at NCACE (The National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange) is to support the skills and capacity development of those who are instigating, leading and delivering collaboration and KE between the two sectors. Now in the third year, our events, research and conversations are raising some key leadership challenges for this rich and fast developing field.

Arts are ‘David’ to university’s ‘Goliath’

Many leading this work are not considered senior within their institutions, although they are exhibiting sophisticated leadership behaviours and developing complex work. In HE, cultural KE leaders are often relatively young, in the early stages of their careers. They are often women, on part time or fractional contracts, and tend to come from a broader range of lived experience than those following a more traditional academic career.  

Recognition of leadership can also be hampered by the gulf in scale between HE and the arts. While arts organisations often perform a valuable thought and practice leadership role in KE, they are usually David to the university’s Goliath - and their leadership role underestimated. This is particularly acute for freelance practitioners without the status of an institutional title.  

An important question for large institutions to consider, whether in the arts or HE sector, is how they can establish more equitable partnerships with smaller organisations. As KE develops, we need to recognise and reward leadership behaviour rather than job titles in cross-sector collaboration. The skills required to lead good collaborations are complex but can be seen as ‘soft’ compared with outdated hierarchical leadership models. 

Need for spaces and platforms

Many KE leaders are women and there is a need to value, support and platform female leaders to develop authentic leadership styles and practices. I have had fascinating discussions with women from across both sectors who are leading progressive and impactful work but when asked about their leadership approach, many are extremely reluctant to describe themselves as leaders.

When asked what was required to develop and support leadership in KE, developing and established leaders from both sectors articulated the need for spaces and platforms to provide peer-led learning, development, problem solving and emotional support rather than formal training programmes. 

NCACE aims to provide this through networks such as the Knowledge Impacts Network, Action Learning Sets and our Evidence Cafe which are free to all those working in or interested in cultural knowledge exchange.
Rosy Greenlees is former Executive Director at Crafts Council. 
Suzie Leighton is Co-Director at National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange.

@CultureImpacts | @suzietcce | @r_greenlees

To receive information about NCACE activities visit: ncace.ac.uk/#sign-up

Link to Author(s): 
Rosy Greenlees