Arts and letters

London Essays – Issue 4: Culture

Arts and letters

London’s universities have much to contribute to the cultural life of the city, but also much to learn from its artists.

By Deborah Bull

For over 30 years, I was embedded in London’s cultural life: first as a dancer and then in a leadership role at the Royal Opera House. For several of those years, the Royal Opera House may well have seemed to some an impermeable place: the imperative to lead on the global stage often took precedence over the need to be connected with surrounding communities. But that was a long time ago. Over recent years, the organisation has taken significant steps to understand and fulfil its local as well as its international role, building a presence in Thurrock that is helping to transform the local landscape, providing communities with employment, education, skills training and a cultural offer, as well as raising aspirations among the area’s young people. What I learned at the Royal Opera House has informed my more recent work at King’s College London. My remit has been to capitalise on the university’s location and its existing relationships to strengthen and build symbiotic connections between the university and the cultural sector. That means identifying partnerships that might enhance academic and student opportunities and equally, add value to London’s artists and cultural organisations. In short: to explore, understand and extend the university’s role in London’s cultural activity and the part the capital plays in the life of King’s.

Over recent years, universities have come to understand the importance of public engagement – not just in terms of keeping the public abreast of what they do but, more importantly, recognising that if new findings and solutions are to deliver benefits to society, it makes sense to engage the end user in the process of discovery. Public engagement is much more than just ‘show and tell’. In academic research, as in artistic practice, engagement is a vital tool in the cycle of iteration, response and reiteration that advances learning and drives innovation.

Few universities, as yet, have identified the potential of cultural engagement to support their ambitions and achieve their missions. Higher education’s role as a feeder for the UK’s creative industries is certainly recognised, with Nesta’s Manifesto for the Creative Economy (2013) showing that 57% of the creative media workforce holds a degree, compared with 37% for the workforce as a whole. But the contribution in the other direction – of creativity, arts and culture to the university – is less well understood.

Nevertheless, arts and culture have a particular role to play in helping universities develop the change-makers, innovators and problem-solvers that will find the answers to our great global challenges. Artists share the characteristics of great innovators: they are acute observers of human behaviour, they unite head and hand, they experiment with instinctive knowledge, they subvert habitual responses, they are passionate and driven – and they see the world not as it is, but as it could be. Artists can inspire academics to see new perspectives and to develop the creativity that helps not only to identify solutions but also to communicate them to a broader public.

The contribution that art and artists can make to problem-solving and innovative thinking is not restricted to subjects within the arts and humanities, but extends across all disciplines. Research at Michigan State University has found that ‘arts and crafts experiences are significantly correlated with producing patentable inventions and founding new companies’ and that lifelong participation in the arts ‘yields the most significant impacts for innovators and entrepreneurs’.

Graduates from the arts, creative arts and humanities are popular with employers beyond the creative industries: figures from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit show that 2013/14 graduates went into nearly 200 different occupations in just under 500 different industries. Increasingly, universities are creating opportunities for students to develop entrepreneurial skills and gain hands-on experience in industry, helping them to acquire the ability to work across disciplines, to challenge current practice and to imagine new solutions and opportunities – all characteristics of the innovators who will be required to ensure the future growth of the economy.

Universities not only provide a talent and skills base for employers; they can also support cultural organisations to address key challenges and opportunities and to understand and articulate their purpose in the 21st century, providing access to the analytical tools, research expertise and net­works that can provide compelling evidence of the role arts and culture might play in tackling social and individual concerns. More broadly, universities provide skills, know-how and infrastructure to support SMEs – including many cultural organisations – to grow, innovate and develop policies, practice and productivity. The benefits of cultural engage­ment flow in both directions.

Achieving this kind of collab­orative working across arts, culture and higher education demands particular investment from universities and an acknowledgement of what is often called their ‘third mission’: engaging creatively to generate social and economic value. Professor Alan Hughes, in his recent report for the National Centre for Universities and Business (2016), goes even further, describing engagement not as a separate mission but as a ‘central element of the existing roles of the university, i.e. teaching and research’.

Effective partnership between sectors with such differing languages, time scales, roles, funding structures and ways of working requires universities to invest in specialist staff and spaces – sometimes called ‘third spaces’ – where projects and partnerships can be fostered that break down the binary between academic and administrative, the university and the external world. The staff who work in these areas are often also hybrids. They need to be able to span boundaries and capitalise on their awareness of different professional territories to conceive and control broad-based projects and to engage people from different disciplines and with different interests.

This model of an engaged university is a long way from the outmoded image of the university as an isolated ivory tower, staffed by employees who are interested only in the generation of knowledge for its own sake. At their best, universities are integrated into and connected to the cities around them, contributing through research, provision of a skilled and creative workforce and, as Nesta’s Connected University (2009) report pointed out, through their permanence and stability, which often allows them to act as an anchor around which clusters can form.

Given the growing complexity of London’s development, universities are likely to play an ever more valuable role in the city by providing the theoretical grounding, analytical skills and transdisciplinary perspectives that are essential to placemaking. As Dr Natasha Blanchet-Cohen has pointed out, ‘the placemaking process requires strong social antennas, abilities to sense and understand the functions, problems, and dynamics of both the city and public space. Local governments often lack such capacities, making the case for a stronger involvement of organisations from different sectors’.

Universities have some steps to take before they can fully inhabit this new role and maximise the benefits of engagement for themselves and the cities in which they are based. For engagement and collaboration to be embedded as either a third pillar or, even more ambitiously, as a central component of impactful research and teaching, the skills to engage will need to be learnt from the outset, incorporated into PhD training and early career experiences and, crucially, recognised by recruitment, promotion and rewards. Universities will need to build innovation networks, to support the kinds of people who can cross disciplines, and to review how the institution measures and communicates its own success.

Clearly, universities alone cannot effect this transformation. The funding system needs to take into account the importance of collaboration and external engagement, recognising it as more than just an ‘add on’ to the core business of research or teaching. There may be implications for local government too. The Connected University report suggests that if higher education is to interact effectively with business in order to support innovation and growth, local authorities may need to prioritise the resources this will require in their local plans.

For many years now, the contribution of universities to their cities has been well understood: universities have been seen as generators of knowledge with commercial, social and cultural value; as significant employers and purchasers; as producers of a skilled workforce; as coordinators of local efforts and activities; and as stakes in the ground around which clusters can form.

And yet there may be another role for a city’s universities within its cultural ecology. Creative placemaking is a process in which ‘partners from public, private, non-profit and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighbourhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities’. In the words of Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, ‘creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired’. Just as the capital’s cultural and creative life offers unique opportunities to London’s students and academics, so London’s universities have a distinctive contribution to make as creative placemakers within this global city.