Summary of Findings, June 2017: Kerry Harker

Read Kerry’s blog here.

Over 50 small organizations were contacted in the course of this research project, including from the Forum meeting in Rotherham in December 2016 onwards. A handful did not reply, as indicated on the spreadsheet. The project sought to interrogate why or how very small creative businesses might work in partnership with the Higher Education sector, seeking to rebalance an unintentional tendency towards larger, more established organizations in the Forum’s previous work.

The methodology was to concentrate primarily on micro-­‐businesses (broadly defined as those employing 1-­‐9 people) outside of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio, where organisations are more likely to have access to these debates. In actuality I concentrated on the smaller end of this scale. A small number of NPOs did take part given that they had already engaged with the Forum and chose to attend the relevant workshop in December. However, the intention was to reach out to those very small creative businesses generally not yet as engaged with cultural policy or strategic developments within the sector as their larger counterparts. Gregory Sholette has characterized this mass of less visible cultural agents – individuals, collectives, activists, micro-­‐businesses – as ‘creative dark matter’.1 Given that Creative Industries Federation figures indicate just 3.3 people as the number employed by the average creative business, we can see the importance of engaging with these micro-­‐organisations which form a substantial part of the cultural ecology.2

I used my personal networks, largely within the visual arts sector, to identify and approach potential participants. A combination of desk and online research led to potential participants in other artforms. Organisations contacted are working across visual arts, photography, community arts, literature, art writing, music, sound art, publishing, choreography, dance, place making, architecture, and new techologies/digital media. Many are working inter-­‐disciplinarily. The structure and governance of organizations contacted also varied, and included artist-­‐led organizations, collectives, and those formally constituted as companies limited by guarantee with CIC or registered charity status. Some are publicly funded and some are not. Geographically, I contacted organizations from coast to coast across the north, although most are based in urban locations, with a small number of exceptions.

As this was an informal research project, conversations were documented by taking notes rather than recording. I approached individuals, and am not aware whether participants sought formal permission to take part from their Boards, where they exist. I did not ask participants to sign a formal consent form, and findings have therefore been anonymised rather than directly quoting specific individuals. I looked for both commonalities and outliers across all of the conversations in preparing the summary below.

Key findings and suggestions:

Making the approach

It is encouraging that many small organisations have an ambition to engage with HE but often lack the skills and knowledge to make the approach. Some have sent emails that have fallen into a ‘black hole’ and this has discouraged further contact. Without existing personal relationships, many can’t find the right person with whom to start a conversation, indicating a lack of research skills among the small-­‐scale sector.

Many are vague about why they want to connect with HE, other than having identified this as a possible revenue stream. There is a common misconception that a relationship with HE will come with a financial transaction – many small organizations are not prepared for the longer conversation required to find common ground and develop a relationship before even getting to the point where a joint funding bid becomes a possibility. They therefore may mistakenly see a partnership with HE as a potential ‘quick win’ – when the reality is rather different some partnerships break down before really getting started.

Several small organizations commented on the longer timescales to which HEIs work, and that this can cause issues (for example in relation to cash flow) where an arts/cultural organisation is not prepared for this. Equally, HEIs may feel averse to the potential risk of developing work with smaller organizations which may not be around for very long. In fact, many smaller organizations approached have a genuine interest in becoming more sustainable, and one reported frustration at the rapid turnover of staff within a particular HE setting. This led to the breakdown of partnership working once the instigator of the relationship had moved on, and subsequent staff showed less interest in continuing it. Similarly, many micro-­‐organisations are run by founder/directors who remain with the organization over extended periods of time, forming a consistent point of contact. There are clearly assumptions on both sides to be countered!

Could HEIs do more to signpost cultural organizations to relevant staff and preferred methods of contact via their websites, or through gateways such as the new ‘cultural institutes’? Greater clarity and transparency is required.

Could CFN and/or partners develop a ‘toolkit’ for small organizations wishing to make an approach to HE but not knowing where/how to start? Is there scope for developing training tailored to the needs of smaller organisations that develops their research/networking/negotiation skills, and enhances understanding of what the possibilities are for partnership working with HE, including funding streams? (See A-­N’s recent work on developing the negotiating skills of individual practitioners through their recent ‘Assembly’ events: https://www.a-­ n.co.uk/assembly.

This highlights the importance of developing a representative set of case studies which outline the possibilities, pitfalls, timescales, funding streams, and project details of successful partnerships in order to share models more widely across the small-­scale sector. Could CFN bring some resources to bear on the development and dissemination of these?

The role of Trustees

Trustees emerged as critical in this conversation, and a material factor in the success of good models of partnership. Where smaller organisations have managed to forge successful partnerships with HEIs, Trustees have more likely than not been instrumental. This extends from tabling the subject of HE partnership in the first place, and a knowledge of what that might entail and what benefits it might bring, to making personal introductions to relevant individuals within the HE setting and brokering initial conversations. Trustees’ prior experience of working within HE (in teaching or research roles) is therefore crucial, as it brings specific knowledge of working processes, research agendas, funding streams, and staff. There is obviously also expertise around the needs of students and how project working with the arts/cultural sector might enhance their experience, skills, and employability. For small organizations which do not have charitable status and/or lack formal Board structures, there is therefore a gap in knowledge and the absence of personal relationships that makes bridging to HE more difficult.

How can micro-­organisations which do not yet have formal structures, but which want to become more sustainable, access relevant expertise in developing HE/arts partnerships as a central part of the development process? Scope for CFN ‘Angels’ scheme? Periodic ‘surgeries’ for small-­scale organisations wanting to develop this side of their work?

Partnership Projects

Most partnerships I encountered take the form of one-­‐off or recurring pieces of programming, rather than longer research projects per se, e.g. hosting exhibitions or events that involve students and/or academic staff. These are often about accessing spaces and audiences (for the HE partner), and are not necessarily attached to a wider research project. There were many examples of small organizations hosting HE events without receiving any funding or additional resource to do so, although these events obviously add to the host’s programming capacity, and potentially their audience reach, helping them to engage students. There are also many examples of these one-­‐off projects helping small organizations to develop their programming through input from the research interests of academic staff. These short-­‐term, less formal relationships can bring great benefits therefore, and whilst not necessarily impacting upon sustainability, may represent the most suitable way of working in partnership with HEIs for much of the small-­‐scale sector. Their success and impact does depend upon the strength and clarity of communications, and assessment of their ‘fit’ for both partners.

These types of project reflect the ‘low stakes’ end of the partnership scale as they are often one-­‐off, informal, and delivered within a shorter timeframe than research projects. They are therefore a useful first base as a way to test working with external partners and thinking through the potential of longer/higher stakes ways of working together in the future.

Many small arts organisations periodically host student placements, and internships post-­‐graduation, although these seem to be more often than not ad hoc and on an informal basis. The HE partner has often initiated these relationships. One visual arts organisation reported frustration with the assumption that Fine Art undergraduates would be most suitable for its needs, when in fact these were found to lack appropriate basic skills. This organisation preferred to take undergrads from courses such as Marketing and English, where it felt the students had skills that were more practical and applicable. There are examples of such placements leading to longer-­‐term opportunities and employment for graduates, but equally many also resulted in short-­‐term relationships that ended when the formal HEI requirement came to an end.

Many small organisations responded very positively on the subject of hosting placements, as they found it brought capacity, new skills, and critical perspectives into their organizations. Often these placement students have taken responsibility for areas such as marketing, and have excellent social media skills -­‐ these can be invaluable in small organisations where staff are already stretched and marketing falls into the gaps between several people’s roles. But placement students may also benefit from experiencing greater responsibility and more direct access to live projects within the setting of smaller organizations.

Research

The concept of ‘research’ within the HE setting is by and large poorly understood by many smaller organizations and awareness of the research councils and their work is very low. Language emerges as one of the major barriers to engagement here. Smaller organizations of necessity focus on the immediate delivery of core objectives. As these are likely to be funded (where they are) by Arts Council England, this relationship is the obvious focus for most. The language and structure of ACE funding policy is markedly different to that of the research community and micro-­‐organisations lack the capacity to develop multiple relationships.

Outside of the National Portfolio, there is broadly an alarming absence of connection to cultural policy and lack of understanding regarding the mechanisms and priorities of cultural funding, and the bodies and agencies responsible for its formation and delivery. This leaves a significant skills gap in developing approaches to HEIs, as some smaller organisations are unable to articulate their work within a broader cultural framework.

Some small organizations reported that entering into partnerships with HEIs, where the research had not been co-­‐authored, was frustrating and came to represent an additional pressure among many others. In these cases, organisations sometimes feel ‘researched at’ and the benefits of partnership working become unclear. One or two small organisations reported withdrawing from conversations where they felt uneasy with relationships that felt too one-­‐ sided, or where a potential research project was felt to be taking them into unfamiliar or unproductive territory. This highlights the need for absolute clarity about the aims and ambitions of joint projects, the framework for delivery, and the necessity to feel confident about relationships being a ‘good fit’ before undertaking funded work together.

A small number of organizations were forging very successful co-­‐authored research projects, sometimes with multiple HEIs. Key to these were:

-­‐   an early agreement on framework and concensus on aims and ambitions

-­‐   personal introductions to key staff, often by Trustees as ‘matchmakers’

-­‐   projects that genuinely arose from core mission of the arts/culture partner, avoiding ‘mission creep’

-­‐   good knowledge of the cultural/policy/funding landscape – arts/culture partner having done their research before approaching HEIs

-­‐   arts/cultural partners having thought through their own ‘offer’ to HEIs

-­‐   joint funding bids brought increased capacity to small, stretched organisations (e.g. embedded researchers; fully-­‐funded coordinator roles)

Some small organisations are also enterprising in looking beyond arts subjects at HE level to consider potential for developing partnerships with other subject areas. For example, one small organization working with new technology is looking to develop partnerships in the sciences, using coding as an area of shared interest.

Again, is there scope for developing training tailored to smaller organisations which sets out the wider landscape of cultural policy and funding, in order to better understand their own research value and potential? How can the findings of key research projects (e.g. AHRC Cultural Value Project), which are of genuine importance to the small-­scale sector, be better communicated and interpreted across and for that sector? Could such initiatives potentially impact positively on developing the overall advocacy and fundraising skills of the small-­scale sector, helping them to better make their case?

The arts/cultural sector

Some smaller organizations reported difficulties in being regarded as arts organizations at all by the HE sector. This may because many entrepreneurial individuals and collectives are working across multiple projects, combining various creative forms and working within different groups simultaneously. They are less likely to resemble traditional, single-­‐art form organizations, and are consequently more difficult to label. This reflects the fast-­‐moving territory of current developments in the sector, accelerated by digital technologies and online platforms, resulting in organizations being less visible or identifiable to HEIs.

Many smaller organisations are practitioner-­focused, working collaboratively with creative individuals. The work they support is often new, experimental and not yet ‘validated’ by the market or the museum. Although the arts sector is being increasingly characterized as the ‘R&D’ arm of the creative industries, does investment in this new work carry enough weight within the HE sector?

Smaller organisations work at a markedly different pace to HEIs, where bureaucratic processes often slow down progress. Many smaller organizations are freer to work quickly and have sleeker decision-­‐making processes. This sometimes leads to frustration on the part of small arts organisations about not being able to progress ideas and conversations quickly enough.

Sometimes the rhythm of small organizations and HEIs simply don’t coincide – for example, a HE partner may be working to a cycle dictated by the REF, whereas arts organizations are responding to a different calendar of events driven by their geographic location or art form. Finding crossovers that work for both partners can be difficult.

How can HEIs develop a more nuanced understanding of Sholette’s ‘creative dark matter’ and the direction of travel of this fast-­moving terrain? Where does Holden’s ‘Ecology of Culture’ support this, in understanding the increased fluidity of boundaries between publicly funded, commercial and homemade culture? Could HEIs value the ‘low stakes’ experimentation enabled by smaller organisations more, especially in relation to their students’ early years post-­graduation before they find direction or leave the sector? How can this cutting-­edge work be more effectively framed within terms that resonate with research bodies and agendas?

The ‘Fourth Year’

A small number of the organizations approached were already developing ‘fourth year’ type projects in partnership with HEIs. These varied in scale and scope, and some were more formal than others. One had secured funding for a Knowledge Transfer Partnership through Innovate UK, although this is a rarity: the arts organisation’s funding advisor relayed the statistic that in 40 years of KTPs, only 6 had been funded within the arts/cultural sector.

There are also examples of smaller organisations being initiated through ‘incubator’ schemes where graduating students have been given combined support by their HEI and the local authority to develop new initiatives. These effectively also resemble ‘fourth year’ projects. Crucially, in a number of small organisations this early partnership remained a key facet of their working methodology into the longer term. Not only were stronger links maintained, but the small organisations benefitted from being ‘under the wing’ of institutions with a more vested, implicated interest in their success and longevity. In a couple of examples this came into play when the organization either lost, or was threatened with, losing its venue due to development. Here, both the HE partner and the local authority felt more able to step in and help in successfully relocating the organization to new premises.

Some small organisations are delivering activities aimed at new graduates which are not yet badged as ‘fourth year’ or delivered in partnership with HE, but which have scope to develop in this direction. For example, one organization is offering carpentry workshops to theatre graduates because their formal education has not given them the opportunity to develop these skills which are essential in operating at the self-­‐organised end of the theatre ecology.

How can ‘Fourth Year’ initiatives work to engage and galvanise a greater part of the small-­scale sector, accepting that new graduates and those running micro-­ organisations form part of the same ‘supply chain’? i.e. how can these initiatives continue to build capacity and skills within the small-­scale sector given that many new/emerging graduates will either work within these, or go on to form their own? How can the small-­scale sector develop the skills needed to approach such potentially critical funding bids, where the focus is on transformation and learning within the organization?

With many small organisations in this research sample still unaware of the growing ‘fourth year’ conversation, is there a way to ensure that this is not another loop that they are effectively cut out of? Where will the resources be allocated in delivering such initiatives?

Culture Forum North

Awareness of the Forum is low, and there is broadly a lack of real appetite to engage from within the small-­‐scale sector. This is due to a lack of clarity around what the Forum is and what it can practically offer to smaller organizations. It is also a result of lack of capacity, as smaller organizations struggle to free up staff to engage, and some lack the resources to fund even modest travel costs to attend meetings, as these are additional to agreed budgets. Taken as a whole, this indicates that R&D capacity within small organizations, outside of immediate priorities, is low to non-­‐existent.

How can the small-­scale sector learn to recognize, value and therefore articulate its R&D potential more effectively? If CFN is not the most appropriate vehicle to take this conversation forwards, where else is there potential? Does CVAN and its regional sub-­groups have a role to play in relation to the visual arts (and where are the equivalents in other art forms)? Is art form specificity important in enhancing the appeal of this debate within the small-­scale sector, or should it identify crosscutting themes of relevance across all art forms?

1 Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: hdfjghd, Pluto Press, 2011

2 Quoted in run up to 2017 General Election, http://www.creativeindustriesfederation.com/news/research

The audit builds on an initial discussion paper in 2016.

 

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