Oliver Mantell examines the many benefits of working in close collaboration with university partners on developing skills in the arts sector.
I’m writing this in the foyer of a university building, waiting for a performance of an opera (Northern Opera Group’s Maria de Buenos Aires, by Piazzolla, at Leeds School of Art).
In one way, that’s totally unremarkable: we expect to see arts in university contexts, especially when it’s innovative or unusual. And the relationship between the arts and universities - and especially innovation - is grounded in shared values and approaches.
It’s because of these shared values that we at The Audience Agency are so keen to work with university partners.
Universities can be a great source of new ideas, or technology. We’re just starting an exciting partnership with the University of Leicester to explore how AI can support innovative approaches to audience segmentation.
Partnerships like these aren’t just about the development of new technologies or products. They are opportunities that can make a substantial contribution and they carry potential for learning and skills development - ‘human capital’.
The role of universities in skills development for consultancies and research agencies like ours are fairly obvious. They develop skilled graduates, with technical know-how and broader aptitudes, that we can employ.
They offer training and/or learning to those we already employ deepening specialisms, enabling transformations, suggesting new possibilities, and they produce knowledge we can take away and reuse, by working with us on projects.
It's not about us
We work with universities in many ways: guest lecturing, sharing data, participating as interviewees in research, delivering joint projects. But our most fundamental interest centres on two areas: furthering our core mission and developing the cultural analytic skills base in the sector more widely.
Put another way: it’s ultimately not about us, but about what our collaborations with universities can make possible. The mission role is perhaps most evident in our deep collaboration with the University of Leeds’ Centre for Cultural Value (CCV).
By helping inform the Centre’s work, and connecting it with the sector, we’re directly delivering against our core purpose: to provide knowledge, data and insight enabling cultural organisations to increase their relevance, reach and resilience.
When talented colleagues have moved on to work directly for CCV, that has only strengthened that bond and that impact.
Better for all
We feel passionate about strengthening the sector’s capacity for cultural analytics. We’re fortunate to have a range of skilled colleagues, competitors and collaborators in the sector, but the more the better. And the better the better.
We know there is potential for growth in capacity within organisations to undertake and understand cultural analytics too. This is a particular challenge given the financial and operational constraints people in the sector work under: requiring efficient mastery in a wide range of areas, of which analytics are only one.
But the wider those skills are shared, the more the sector will be able to use insights to achieve its goals and articulate its value.
We decided to collaborate with the University of Sheffield to enable people to develop data science skills using cultural data and addressing cultural sector challenges.
As Dr Mark Taylor, one of the PhD supervisors, says: “I've worked with The Audience Agency in the past, with data from Audience Finder to analyse how attendance at ticketed events for a wide range of activities varies by the Index of Multiple Deprivation.
“An opportunity arose through the Centre for to apply for PhD studentships in New Forms of Data. We jointly made a case for two researchers to interrogate inequalities in cultural activity.
“As my own research uses quantitative and data science methods in arts and culture, I think it's really important to have these in the mix of techniques we use to understand the sector.”
Those two PhD students are now entering their second year of a four-year programme, which contains intense technical training, alongside internships and specific projects.
The purpose of this type of collaboration is to enable deep, and long-duration, research. As Mark says: “It's still early days, but the people we've appointed are both fantastic and I'm very optimistic about the projects … There can be a bit of a culture clash between people inside and outside of universities in terms of how long it should take to deliver a project, but The Audience Agency has at least known what to expect.”
Learning to adapt
Part of ‘knowing what to expect’ is also knowing what you can’t know: the results of the analysis, the direction the PhD student will ultimately take, what they will do with those skills, or what the long-term impact of the work will be.
In that sense, working with universities echoes a creative process. You need to establish and hold the space for creativity, exploration and experiment to occur, knowing the results are likely to turn out differently from what you expect.
And while, as a research agency, we may sometimes be envious of the longer timescales and more open briefs of academic research, we also recognise its value and trust in those unknown outcomes.
Hopefully, our way of working (shorter timescales, client-focused and centred on practical impact) can offer a stimulating, rather than conflicting, syncopation with the rhythms of a PhD, too.
It’s important to be sensitive to that blending of tempos and manage how those different timescales interact. For example, we couldn’t know exactly what context the outputs of the PhDs would emerge within, either in the sector or our own work, but we could have a broad sense of what was likely to be useful on that time horizon and how we could continue to develop in parallel.
This is very different from our client work, where we know from the outset when it will be completed, what events or cycles it will coincide with (exhibition or season launches, planning cycles etc), even what specific meetings it will be presented at, and by whom.
Dealing in longer timescales, and to a less goal-oriented brief, requires a more probabilistic, rather than deterministic, way of thinking. What’s likely to be useful, rather than what will be. But it also foregrounds values as a type of ‘north star’ for that long-distance navigation.
For example, finding out more about inequality of cultural engagement is likely to be useful in the future because it’s a subject that does, and will continue to, matter to us. We know it will be relevant, even in unknown future contexts, because it will be relevant to us.
A value-led approach
Part of working in these types of partnership is also recognising that long-term impact requires long-term commitments and the need to trust in the process. It’s about ensuring we're ready at the right point to take the outcomes of the partnership and apply them practically to benefit those with whom we work.
A value-led approach means that, just as universities and the arts more broadly are natural partners, we at The Audience Agency feel natural partners for them too.
Watch the recording of our latest tea break event, Understanding Visual Arts Audiences, which includes a presentation from one of the PhD candidates.
This article, sponsored and contributed by The Audience Agency, is part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.