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Universities often lack the resources for large scale art programmes, yet the University of Kent has launched an ambitious creative season. David Sefton explores the relationship between academic institutions and the arts.

image of Little Amal
The Walk, Little Amal, London

Nick Wall

Having spent a significant part of my career in the arts working within major academic institutions both in the UK and abroad, I am convinced that there’s enormous benefit to be gained for both academia and the creative industries from an active and engaged partnership. 

At the Gulbenkian Arts Centre at University of Kent, there’s an explosion of new creative energy. We are committed to strengthening arts and culture across our communities and faculties to open up new approaches to learning, different perspectives on challenges, and to bring together minds from across disciplines to inspire our future. 

We have a long and impressive history of supporting arts and culture through the work of the Gulbenkian Arts Centre with its multi-arts programme and pioneering projects, such as ART31 for 13-25 year olds, and the bOing! International Family Festival. 

In 2020, Kent took that a step further, truly cementing its belief in the value of culture with the foundation of the Institute for the Cultural and Creative Industries (ICCI), bringing together everything the university does culturally on and off campus. As the public face of ICCI, the Gulbenkian Arts Centre energises our education and research, creates new opportunities for cross-fertilisation and builds partnerships beyond the campus and across the region, furthering creativity and artistic ambition in Kent. 

Setting the standards for other universities

A key factor driving these ambitions is a belief in our responsibility to make the case for the essential value of creativity and for the opportunities it opens up for students, for impactful research and for teaching. Forging partnerships with creative companies benefits us all.

With this focus, the university is leading on projects such as Creative Estuary and playing a key role in the Medway City of Culture bid. We are also hosting the Canterbury leg of the international project The Walk, a travelling festival of art and hope in support of refugees. Little Amal, the young refugee created by Handspring Puppet Company, will walk from Canterbury city centre to the university campus raising awareness of young refugees the world over. We are working with Refugee Tales to build a programme of thought and discussion around this moment. 

Daily I am inspired by the extraordinary potential of the university’s ambition. But this is only unlocked by investment and support from the university to artists and cultural organisations. This enables them to spend time researching, interacting with students, academics and data, and opening up new frames of reference to mutual benefit. 

This significant campus investment in the Arts Centre sets a high bar for other UK universities. Based on the clear returns, I hope our example will inspire them to increase their financial commitment to the arts. 

Bold, radical and experimental choices

My background in the UK arts world includes a decade at London’s South Bank where I originated the Meltdown Festival. In Australia, I was Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival and, for ten years I was Artistic & Executive Director of UCLA Live, the public arts unit of the University of California in Los Angeles. Through all this experience, I have a deep understanding of what culture can bring to a university.

Universities have a real opportunity to put themselves on the map internationally through a strong arts programme that creates relationships and develops and builds connections. It takes a lot to stand out to prospective students and a strong cultural identity is key. 

At UCLA we changed the profile and character of a university programme, taking risks and creating an identity. We set out to create a persistent buzz around our work, with the aim of becoming a cultural epicentre, and we succeeded. 

Our programme of music, dance and theatre included Elvis Costello & The Mingus Big Band; Hal Willner as Artist Producer in Residence; the Kronos Quartet; the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Berlin’s Volksbühne, Mikhail Baryshnikov and an International Theatre Festival, and avant-garde legend Romeo Castellucci amongst many others. Crucial to the success was the freedom to make bold, radical and experimental choices.

Associate Artist programme

Drawing on my experience across the interaction of academia and the arts, as well as venues and festivals, I am proud and excited to launch the first programme at the Gulbenkian. We have brought the superb Colyer-Fergusson concert hall into the programme presenting music and arts, and we have a small, purpose-built space where intimate work will happen, as well as our much-loved theatre and cinema. 

We have launched an Associate Artist programme in which we will bring together a community chorus for The Foreign Office and Wild Yak Productions’ staging of The Suppliant Women and we will continue to work with that company on the reimagining of Aeschylus’ lost trilogy. Composer in residence John Woolrich is creating new work for the Brodsky Quartet, as well as present his collaboration with pianist Clare Hammond and the Brothers Qua. And we are working with Conrad Murray and the BAC Beatbox Academy to engage our local schools. 

The Associate Artists programme demonstrates what the university can bring to artists and the university - whether that’s the accreditation of Jasmin Vardimon’s youth dance work or bringing our digital artists Aoi & Esteban into residence as part of our digital plan in Medway. No two relationships will look the same, but each will benefit the artists, the campus, the students and the programme.

Our ground-breaking work with and for young people and families has been rewarded with Arts Council NPO status. And we are fortunate to be supported by an enlightened campus which sees the benefits we offer. Such a bold and healthy arts programme is of enormous value to a university and its students.  My hope is that an emerging network of like-minded universities such as Kent can nurture and develop the creative landscape in the UK. It’s been a tough few years, but we look to the future with a real sense of excitement and possibility. 

David Sefton is Artistic Director of the Gulbenkian Arts Centre at the University of Kent.


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