In July 2020 the Centre for Cultural Value at the University of Leeds commissioned Culture Forum North to create a guide to help cultural organisations consider the potential benefit of, and to develop research partnerships with academics.

The guide is based on interviews with arts practitioners and academics across the North, who all have research partnership experience. The arts organisations are diverse in size, geography, artform and scale of research project. Despite this diversity we found that the core pillars for success are in the main consistent, as is the framework through which a cultural organisation might broker a partnership that derives value.

Researched and written by Lesley Patrick, Head of Opera North Higher Education Partnerships, on behalf of Culture Forum North.

From Motive to Legacy
Brokering a successful academic research partnership

A partnership goes beyond a transaction or project evaluation. It is a relationship between academia and practice built on equality and a shared ambition to create new knowledge.

By engaging with academics to combine the expertise of the researcher and the practitioner, cultural organisations can generate impact internally and externally in ways unlikely to be achieved independently.

This Guide has been created by Culture Forum North to help arts practitioners and cultural organisations consider the potential benefit of academic research partnerships; to suggest how such relationships can be initiated; how they might be developed and managed; and the potential legacy to be derived.

It does this through the five phases that make up the initiation, development and delivery of a partnership.

Considering motive:

Relevant to organisational objectives

Finding a partner:

Using networks and contacts

Developing a relationship:

Through conversation and courtship

Preparing the ground:

With clear audiences, creative models and resources

Appreciating legacy:

Long-term impact beyond project outcomes

First off, think about motive

For a cultural practitioner, reflecting on broader motives helps consider a potential partnership in the context of organisational need and ambition.

Although seeking a specific project output can help catalyse a partnership, longer-term benefits can emerge through the process itself. These longer-term benefits may include organisational sustainability; positive civic impact; demonstrating sector leadership; developing new resources; new networks and opportunities; staff development; funding… Acknowledging the value of such benefits to your organisation helps identify and justify the potential return on investing time and resources.

We seek to inspire thinking and learning with young people through theatre. This ambition motivated our partnership with Alistair Ford, lecturer in geospatial data at University of Newcastle. His knowledge informed a new piece – Climate Change Catastrophe! – and the workshops provided valuable research insights into the perspectives of young people. Our relationship with the University has developed to include multiple initiatives. ”                                      Katy Vanden, producer, Cap-a-Pie

Be open-minded – you are seeking a meaningful, mutually beneficial collaboration.

Finding your potential partner

It can be challenging if you are seeking an academic connection without an existing relationship with a university.  They tend to be comparatively huge institutions, complex and difficult to navigate. Increasingly, universities are developing the equivalent of The Cultural Institute at the University of Leeds – a campus-wide portal to link academia and cultural practice.

Taking an open, exploratory approach can help find the right path. Ask the advice of your peers with academic connections and request introductions. Curious Minds played a pivotal role in enabling the partnership between Open Eye Gallery, Whitby High School and Liverpool Hope University on the project Belonging.

Seek the support of networks such as Culture Forum North, that can broker an initial conversation. Arts Council England can also advise, through its deepening relationships with Higher Education.

Get the word out that you are interested in a research partnership – use social media, speak with peers, and approach networks such as Culture Forum North.  The result may not be quick, but then that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.

The advice is patience, conversation, open-mindedness and respect.

Don’t rush the courtship

Understanding the values and drivers of the individuals involved is hugely important.

For a partnership to be successful it is important to spend time getting to know each other though conversation and exploration before any project discussions. It could involve things like attending each other’s events; informal coffee off-site; sharing recommended reading and listening; tours of facilities and organisational induction.

“The breakthrough came when we visited each other’s studios – we found common ground in how we approach our work.”  Dominic Smith, artist and writer, on a Leeds Creative Lab with Dr. Mike Ries, Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leeds.

This phase enables potential partners to demystify and navigate what can be very different cultures and language, and to appreciate the value and expertise each could bring.

“Take time to listen to and learn each other’s vocabulary. In cultural organisations for example, ‘research’ tends to be output driven whereas in academia it’s more about the process of interrogating a question. Developing a common language helps avoid confusion and tension later in the relationship.” Dominic Gray, Projects Director, Opera North.

Photo credit: The Reader, Joe Magee. “Through conversation and activity, we developed a shared language – a combination of the best of both partners – that bridged the world between academia, practitioner and community. Through the association, we gained authority and integrity.” Helen Wilson, Head of Shared Reading Programmes, talking about research partnerships with Liverpool John Moores and the University of Liverpool.

60% Reconnaissance, 25% Delivery, 15% Review. Preparation time was key to the success of ‘Belonging’, a partnership between Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool Hope University, Curious Minds, and Whitby High School.

At this stage, it helps to involve others you think may be involved in the partnership. In addition to developing mutual respect, it helps to cultivate a sense of shared ownership.

If I left the University now, our cultural partnerships, including our relationship with Castlefield Gallery, would continue. We made a strategic decision to engage others across our organisations, which secured buy-in at an early stage.” Lindsay Taylor, curator, Art Collection, University of Salford.

One model for triggering a courtship is the Leeds Creative Labs, developed by the Cultural Institute at the University of Leeds. It enables a three-day-long ‘conversation’ between an arts practitioner and an academic, with the sole aim of seeing what emerges. It is shown to motivate research and influence individual and organisational change.

“Participating in a Lab with an academic in social work has planted the seeds for a new way of approaching theatre for children.”  Wendy Harris, Artistic Director, tutti-frutti.

Not investing the time in conversation can cause challenges later.

It’s all in the preparation

Ongoing conversation may reveal shared ambition and areas of interest, which may in turn spark an idea for a partnership research project.  The start of this journey is the collective development of a Research Question (see a separate ‘How t0…’ on Culture Hive).

The preparation phase includes four principal stages leading up to an agreed Plan:-

  1. Identify  the audience
  2. Consider the research models
  3. Develop a schedule
  4. Clarify resources

1. Knowing who you’re doing it for helps ensure a usable output

It’s in the DNA of cultural organisations to identify the audience before embarking on the creative process, and to communicate with the public in ways that capture attention.  This expertise should be applied to partnership research too, particularly if we seek to inform and motivate change. When agreeing the purpose of the research, the internal and external audiences we seek to influence should be considered too.

They may simply be our own teams, or be broader and include peer institutions, governance and policymakers, funders, the public, and other sectors. Doing can kick-start thinking about effective methods of disseminating research outputs. This in turn may help decide how data could be captured in order to create impactful material.

A cultural partner brings extensive experience and expertise in translating stories for diverse publics. Be confident in sharing your ideas – a research partnership can bring multi-channel innovation into academic rigour.

“We appreciate the value of the skills and experience our partner, The Reader, brings to our relationship. In addition to established networks, they have a person-centred approach to learning that motivates academics to think differently about how they undertake and communicate their work” Professor Josie Billington, Department of English, University of Liverpool; Deputy Director, Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS)

With the aim of engaging the public and mental health professionals, Comics Youth and the University of Liverpool shared outputs through gallery exhibitions, film and sector publications.

The Reader, Liverpool University and Royal Liverpool & Broadgreen University Hospital NHS Trust generated a public-facing leaflet, academic article and 100-page report, illustrating the impact of reading on the management of chronic pain.

2. Building research models with creative energy

This is where the research expertise of the academic and creative experience of the cultural partner come to the fore – an exciting opportunity generated by partnership.

It is important to acknowledge at the start that the research findings may not be what you want to hear. Research isn’t a tool to prove a case, it is a process of investigation that creates new knowledge with the potential to inform thinking and practice.

Through your academic partner you will learn about qualitative and quantitative methods for, and ethics of, gathering data, including observation, interview, recording, questionnaires and more. You will gain insights into academic approaches to experimentation and attitudes to risk. To this you can bring your knowledge and experience of working with the public and peers – your understanding of how to motivate participation, and the implications of safeguarding and other legislation. You may be well placed to engage appropriate participants and you have the potential to animate the research process to capture more valuable insights.

In collaboration with Dr Paul Cowie from Newcastle University, whose research looks at how communicates come together to represent themselves, Cap-a-Pie devised The Town Meeting, an interactive workshop exploring how the public responds when faced with life-changing decisions.

3. Developing a realistic schedule and project plan, with identified roles

Navigating the calendars and decision-making processes of academic and cultural institutions is challenging, more so when multiple partners are involved. Things often take longer than expected and progress requires acceptance of conflicting priorities.

It is important to build in regular opportunities to meet – to revisit the purpose of the project, discuss progress, share ideas, and to highlight and resolve issues. Also, to share interim updates with those involved in the wider project.

Clarifying roles and responsibilities within the schedule is not only essential to ensure progress and maximise resources, it helps build cohesion and a sense of ownership. Building in areas of crossover and enabling academics to engage in creative activity makes for valuable individual and institutional learning, and strengthens the partnership for the future.

Having a detailed plan and schedule is an essential springboard for a project, though it is to be considered a guide rather than rigid. The keys to implementing the plan successfully are open-mindedness, open-endedness, flexibility and inclusion– approaches that are easier to apply after a decent period of courtship.

Enable all partners to contribute to discussion and be prepared to make changes to the framework in response to uncertainty and changing circumstances.  Acknowledge different organisational reporting timescales and negotiate up front a timescale for sharing results.

“We appreciated the need of our cultural partner, Comics Youth, to be sustainable and understood when incoming paid work had to take priority, adjusting the research timetable accordingly.”  Dr David Hering, University of Liverpool. Image, Comics Youth

4. Recognising resource implications

One challenge can be an imbalance in scale and access to resources, particularly for smaller cultural partners. It is important to identify the implications at the outset, and for the cultural partner to be honest about funding requirements.

The draft research plan should be checked against each partner’s available resources – those in kind and those requiring funding. Be transparent about what you can contribute in kind, and what requires additional funding.

Activity may need to be reshaped and funding sought, particularly for the cultural partner whose time has not historically been costed in research bids. This conversation is much easier when a respectful and equitable relationship has been developed beforehand, as is an agreement around Intellectual Property. This process will help partners work within agreed parameters. The sorts of things to bear in mind include access to space; training; materials; time for meetings; additional freelance expertise; hospitality; travel.

Opera North finds that accommodating the demands of the wider artistic programme within the research schedule ensures a more efficient use of resources and shows the implications of making changes. For example, the additional cost implications of contracting a singer because the chorus is on tour; or paying for space because the studios are being used for rehearsals. Opera North. Photo credit: Opera North, Moy Williams.

Navigating challenges

There will be tensions – all partnerships have them. A few have been mentioned above and a few more below. That they arise should not be considered a failure, the important thing is to address them quickly and collaboratively, which is easier when a mutually supportive relationship in in place from the start.

Shifting agendas for example – when the interests of one partner change, running the risk of destabilising the project. This may happen when new areas of opportunity emerge during the research journey. It can be an exciting benefit of the process which could be raised in a progress meeting and if not an avenue to follow immediately, logged for future consideration. It is important to acknowledge partner interest while retaining the original focus.

Losing sight of the original objective is a risk more likely in complex, larger-scale, long-term research projects. Partners may become diverted by other organisational priorities, timing may go awry, personnel may change. The creation of an Advisory Group of independent sector professionals can help motivate and maintain focus – and broker partner discussion when needed.

Scale of partner organisation, while irrelevant in terms of quality and value of creative and academic contribution, can impact the research timetable. A resource disparity and the necessity for a smaller arts organisation to remain solvent may mean a business opportunity has to be prioritised. It is important that a difference in scale isn’t perceived as a power dynamic and that a cultural partner feels able to talk about their challenges. Through an understanding of the organisation, an academic partner should appreciate the need to support necessary changes to the project schedule. Remember, you are working with an individual, in a department – you are not partnering with the whole university.

Multi-partner research can experience ‘too many cooks’, causing confusion and inhibiting progress. As is relevant to overcoming all issues, open and honest communication is key – with opportunities to explain concerns and talk through solutions. Agreeing in advance an identified leadership hub, with others as ‘associates’ may provide stability. An identified lead for communication, and an agreed cohort of decision-makers comprising one representative from each organisation, can help maintain clarity.


Just because one project is complete, it doesn’t have to mean ‘job done’

As suggested in Motives, above, there are positive impacts of developing a research partnership that might not be anticipated at the outset. When reflecting on the value derived, cultural partners highlight how the experience has strengthened the organisation and its team in ways that are unlikely to have happened otherwise. Just a few examples include: –

Institutional and individual learning

Through participating in Operatic Encounters: Common Voices, Opera North soprano Jess Walker recognised the value of academic research to her practice and went on to complete a PhD at the University of Leeds exploring how performers can better understand their own practice by creating as well as interpreting. Now, in addition to writing and performing, Dr Walker impacts the wider sector as an artistic advisor.

Elevating reputation, legitimacy and funding

Comics Youth enabled greater understanding of the relationship between comics and mental health through its partnership with the University of Liverpool.  Its expertise was showcased in activity at Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool, and a co-written book chapter – building recognition and validity within the health and wellbeing agenda. The partnership also unlocked £300k additional research funding.

Developing sector-relevant resources

Taking new research knowledge into the organisation, acquired through partnership with the University of Liverpool is enabling The Reader to create materials to support the organisation’s development. It has provided videos, transcipts and findings which used to showcase work, grow presence in different sectors and provides supplementary training resources for volunteers and partner organisation staff keen to learn more or take up a Shared reading group lead role themselves. Being able to demonstrate through research the impact of Shared Reading has helped to begin reworking a justice-setting model and hospital use of Shared Reading as a diagnostic tool and in treatment of symptoms for people living with dementia. This work has been nominated for a Patient Experience Network Award.

Being involved in research has also provided a staff CPD tool, amplifying understanding of the work in reference to psychological and social frameworks. This assists delivery, appreciation for evaluation processes and tools, report writing, presenting and personal engagement.

Underpinning work with robust academic research

Through its long-standing partnership with the University of Newcastle, Cap-a-Pie has become increasingly confident in not only providing a channel for the public dissemination of scientific research, but also instigating research to inform its own work. An ambition to create a theatre workshop for schools on the theme of Climate motivated an invitation to climate scientists and engineers to engage in the process.  The credibility of the partnership helped secure funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering to create Climate Change Catastrophe!

Inspiring and expanding artistic practice. 

Being able to apply creativity to research experimentation was appreciated by Dominic Smith, an artist and writer who experienced a Leeds Creative Lab in partnership with Dr. Mike Ries, Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leeds. It responded to his ambition to break down perceived barriers to artists working with academics and provided inspiration to work with alternative materials.  The partnership has led to him being included in two research funding bids, which has the potential expanded his creative and academic practice.



Culture Forum North is a network of partnerships between the cultural, higher and further education sectors across the North of England. It ignites and supports partnerships that have impact, build resilience, promote inclusion, and create new knowledge and skills.

This guide has been written on behalf of Culture Forum North by Lesley Patrick, in consultation with arts practitioners and academics across the North. As Head of Higher Education Partnerships at Opera North, Lesley co-led the creation of Culture Forum North and has thirteen years’ experience of developing multi-faceted partnerships with universities including the long-standing DARE partnership with the University of Leeds.

With particular thanks to: –

Professor Josie Billington: Department of English, University of Liverpool; Dep. Director, Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society

Sarah Fisher: Director, Open Eye Gallery

Dominic Gray: Projects Director, Opera North

Rhiannon Griffiths: Co-founder, Comics Youth

Sue Hayton: Associate Director, Cultural Institute, University of Leeds

Clare Jackson: Project Manager, Culture Forum North

Dr David Hering: Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Liverpool

Dominic Smith: Artist and writer

Lindsay Taylor: Curator, Art Collection, University of Salford

Katy Vanden & Brad McCormick: Producer and Artistic Director, Cap-a-Pie

Helen Wilson: Head of Shared Reading Programmes, The Reader



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