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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with NCACE

For a busy, freelance arts professional, carving out the time to attend yet another event can be difficult and sometimes not worth the effort. But, as Rebekka Kill found out, this one was different.

Little Lost Robot

Ruby Jennings

I have a portfolio-existence. I have three teaching contracts, one research contract, one consultancy, one mentoring job, two creative practices, two businesses, two kids. I like swimming, baking, gardening and playing records. I’m very busy, mostly financially solvent and constantly dashing about both in real life and online. And I love it! 

Why am I telling you this? Because I know it’s not unusual. My life is typical of many arts and cultural sector workers. A crazy, wonderful patchwork that, when it all comes together, is the best job in the world. But we need to be strict about what we say yes to. I attend an awful lot of events, some fascinating or challenging, some incredibly useful and necessary, some really dull so I end up switching off my camera and starting dinner. We’ve all done that, haven't we?

Managing my own expectations

I’m not sure what I expected from NCACE’s The Power of Collaborative Action: People, Place, Planet. I have worked for them before on Creative Leadership, Resilience and Knowledge Exchange and I know their work focuses on the social, cultural, environmental, and economic impacts of knowledge exchange. 

In this event, they were exploring some big ideas like place-making and levelling up, the climate emergency, and health and wellbeing. I have loads of experience of collaboration and partnership working and this event was jam-packed with great collaborations, and with people and projects that hooked me in. 

But being so busy, I needed to think what I wanted to get from it. So many events at universities, festivals and conferences cover the same ground: partnerships and collaborations are essential for innovation and development, impact is the aim. I was wearying of it all; “impact fatigue” was setting in. 

The event blurb said it would be “offering reflections from key thinkers, practitioners and policy makers and showcasing diverse models of excellent and impactful knowledge exchange, The Power of Collaborative Action: People, Place and Planet will be of interest to all those who are invested in the potential of knowledge exchange between the academy and the arts and cultural sector”.

Hmm, that’s good but doesn’t tell me much. I scanned the list of contributors. Claire Malcolm from New Writing North - great - I knew she’d been exploring interesting stuff about climate emergency. I like her idea that reading and writing can be purposeful, can make a difference to huge global issues. And that was it - the real thing that I wanted from this event; collaborations with proper impact that would reignite my frazzled brain and get me thinking about all that potential, partnerships that went beyond measurable outputs and addressed global issues and projects that genuinely have profound effects on people and the way they live.

Democratising complex technology

So did it live up to expectations? It kicked off with David Sweeney (Executive Chair, Research England) on the Levelling Up White Paper. He talked about the power of collaboration to bring together smaller projects with a wealth of skills, knowledge and talent to make a bigger difference to everyone.

There followed a gorgeous presentation on using soft robotics and creative play with children and working with marginalised communities on what our futures might be like. This project was a great example of democratising complex technology. The artist Ruby Jennings was enthusiastic about working in partnership with the university. It had helped her, as a microbusiness, get access to resources and funding. 

This led into a session on iMayflower, a project in Plymouth that used DCMS funding to work with creative and cultural industries to drive economic development. A consortium of partners, using immersive and digital technology, this project has big aspirations to permanently change Plymouth's creative economy and to make it a better place to be. 

What was outstanding about these sessions was how articulate all the presenters were about the benefits of creative collaboration: for innovation, for funding, for strategic partnerships with balance and mutual benefits, and for sustainability.

Culture as a connector

In the second session, Dr Karen Patel (Birmingham City University) talked about her work with the Crafts Council on questions of diversity in the sector, citing her recently commissioned exhibition, We Gather. Then, there was a Citizen Science Award-funded project from Manchester - Ancient History, Contemporary Belonging – which, working with young people from migrant backgrounds, examined the forced migration of historical objects. 

Both projects have the potential to make a difference. And there were some hard-hitting points made about collective, universal responsibility for EDI and the need to properly support and reward knowledge-making in the community in co-production contexts. 

Professor David Amigoni (Keele University) talked about Keele Deal | Culture, a knowledge exchange project with partners in Stoke aiming to realise the full potential of the University’s cultural resources and assets for the benefit of the local area. 

And then Claire Malcolm spoke about her Writing the Climate collaboration with poet Linda France and Newcastle University. This project focuses on how reading and writing can help us to respond to the climate emergency, asking what kind of broader purpose we can serve. She also spoke powerfully about ‘culture as a connector’.

Getting to the root of the problem

Professor Christopher Smith, the AHRC’s Executive Chair closed the session with some inspirational observations. He spoke about ethics and politics, and day to day life, extinction and conviviality. He pointed out that the word radical just means going to the root, going to the root of the problem and understanding it from the beginning. 

And he described how a radical arts and humanities approach can help us to be human better, using the ecology of our shared lives. He said we can work on this together within the widest possible contexts, local communities, national challenges and international tragedy.

This event was genuinely rich. Crammed into a two-hour time frame, I heard about citizen science, migration and refugees, climate change, race and inequality, inclusive robotics and so much more. 

But what really reignited my frazzled brain was that these speakers and projects were far removed from knowledge exchange as a purely transactional thing, for developing impact case studies and evaluations. These initiatives do material good in the world. And it’s that simple, but very powerful, message that I take away.

Dr Rebekka Kill is a freelance coach, consultant, researcher and artist.

 @drrebekkakill | @CultureImpacts

You can listen to an audio recording of The Power of Collaborative Action: People, Place and Planet here

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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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