Kerry Harker explores the potential for partnership between small cultural organizations and HE to play a crucial role in supporting the arts ecology.

Over the last few months I’ve been carrying out a research project funded by the Forum, thinking through how really small organizations can work in partnership with Higher Education providers. The project seeks to rebalance an unintentional tendency towards larger organizations, or those already in receipt of core public funding, in the Forum’s work to date, and follows on from a blog I wrote last year responding to the Forum’s big launch event at the Howard Assembly Rooms in Leeds. It also dovetails with lines of enquiry that I’m pursuing through my PhD at the University of Leeds, which focuses on the artist-led sector in the visual arts, and notions of cultural value.

In that sector, where I’ve spent my career to date, first as an artist and now as an independent curator, I’m familiar with one of its key characteristics: the preponderance of micro-organisations which play a crucial role in supporting and maintaining the visual arts ecology. Often initiated and run by artists, curators and other creatives, these organizations collectively form a major support mechanism for other parts of the sector, and have intimate relationships with individual practitioners, especially those coming out of formal study, or still ‘emerging’. But their tiny scale and capacity, allied with their hybrid forms, rapid mutations, and the entrepreneurial tangle of how individuals and collectives work within and across multiple projects, results in them being somewhat invisible to other parts of the cultural sphere. Many policy or strategic level conversations focus on larger, publicly funded ‘Arts Organisations’ (capital letters) per se, those that are consistently visible, quantifiable, and therefore more easy to categorise. Or are these smaller manifestations just taken for granted? What we can’t see, we can’t measure. And what we can’t measure, we can’t value – right? Maybe it’s the terms of the valuation that we need to question!

So invisible is much of this small-scale cultural activity that Gregory Sholette coined the phrase ‘creative dark matter’, an analogy he borrows from astrophysics, to describe it.[1] Dark matter is the great unknowable mass of space, the in-between stuff that constitutes a large part of the Universe only discernible to science through examination of known quantities such as planets and stars. They know it’s there, but they just can’t see it. Nonetheless, its very presence is crucial – the Universe cannot exist without it, and so science is coming, slowly, to an appreciation of its constitution and its material role in the bigger picture. One of my central questions therefore, in the context of CFN, is whether partnerships with the Higher Education sector offer one possible way to better understand and value the role of creative dark matter.

My methodology with this research project has been, therefore, to concentrate on speaking to the micro-organisations currently going somewhat under the radar of conversations such as the one being had through CFN. A micro organization is technically defined as one which employs between 1 and 9 employees, but when we consider that figures quoted by the Creative Industries Federation put the average number of employees within creative businesses at just 3.3, it becomes clear just how weighted towards the smaller end of the scale the cultural sector truly is.[2] I started with the visual arts sector where my networks are strongest, and worked outwards from there, eventually contacting over 50 organisations and speaking with people working in community arts, literature and publishing, music, dance and choreography, place making and architecture, and digital technologies. Nearly all were located in urban contexts, but I tried to get a good geographic spread from coast to coast across the northern region.

So, what are the headline findings of the research to date?

Well, encouragingly, I found a lot of appetite among the micro organizations I spoke to about connecting with the HE sector and the potential for partnership working. But… they’re not always prepared for, or realistic about, the practicalities of this. There is often a vague intention to build a relationship with a HE institution, which may help with funding or sustainability in some unspecified way. Some naively imagine that a partnership with a University will come with some free cash attached. Many have no idea how to make an initial approach or who to contact, and barely the capacity to attempt it, nor the tenacity to pursue it when that first email falls into a black hole at the other end.

There are, of course, all sorts of ways in which small organizations work in partnership with HEIs. But what seemed to characterize most relationships in my study is the predominance of project-based work as opposed to longer research projects per se. Such informal partnerships, representing the ‘lower stakes’ end of the relationship scale, can bring benefits: small organizations often host placements, internships and one-off events, or recurring events such as degree show exhibitions from art and design courses. Such partnerships can increase the micro organisation’s capacity at the level of staff and programming, and give HE institutions access to spaces and audiences off-campus, as well as enhancing the experience of their students. But do they meaningfully change the terms of the game, or challenge the status quo? Interestingly, the Director of one small visual arts organization (a gallery in fact) that I spoke to expressed frustration that his HE partner automatically linked him with placement students from the Fine Art course, because his prior experience had taught him that their skill set weren’t really what he needed. What he actually wanted was to offer placements to undergraduates on courses such as marketing and English, who had the skills he was desperately lacking, but these pleas were falling on deaf ears. However, many micro-organisations evidently value placements as a way not only to increase their internal capacity, but also to bring new perspectives and critical thinking into their organizations. It’s also possible that placement students benefit from being in positions of greater responsibility when being hosted within smaller organizations, where of necessity in a pressured environment, they find themselves closer to the cutting edge of live projects.

However, when thinking about academic research culture, I found that this is practically a foreign language to many of those working in the very small-scale sector. Most micro-organizations I spoke to simply don’t think of the work they do as ‘research’. And why should they? A specific engagement with the context for academic research, its structures, processes, funding streams and priorities, hasn’t formed any part of most people’s formal creative education. And post-graduation, if they’re working within the cultural sector they’re more likely to focus on conversations with those holding the purse strings of public funding, as these offer the most immediate potential for support. Consequently, in my study sample, awareness of research culture generally was remarkably low. And it takes time, more time than most micro-organisations have, to get to know and understand the world of research, before being able to reframe what they do in terms that resonate back to the research community. For me, both through this research and prior experience, this echoes a disconnection between micro-organizations and cultural policy more broadly. It was noticeable in the course of this particular study that many micro-organisations struggle to articulate what they do within a broader cultural framework that might also encapsulate key current research trends and priorities, indicating a serious skills gap that impacts on their sustainability.

Nonetheless, some small organizations have forged longer-term relationships with HE institutions and entered into research projects, with varying levels of success. Where things hadn’t gone so well, some of the pitfalls were around research not having been genuinely co-authored from the start, and the subsequent research period coming to represent just another pressure among many and a feeling of being ‘researched at’. One or two had withdrawn from conversations about potential research projects because they just didn’t feel these were a good fit, or not productive, and were concerned that the conversation was taking them into unfamiliar, and uncomfortable, territory without an appropriate level of support.

However, it was also evident that even micro-organisations can forge very meaningful research partnerships with HE institutions. Perhaps not surprisingly, these successful examples seemed to be taking place within a mutually agreed framework with clarity of communications and consensus around the aims and ambitions of working together. Successful projects are a ‘good fit’, they have come out of mutual respect and understanding, on a level playing field, and research has been genuinely co-authored from an early stage of the relationship. I found examples of micro-organizations which were doing their own amazing research into the landscape of Higher Education, going to some lengths to understand both their own ‘offer’ to HE as well as the research interests of their regional Universities, before making an approach to partnership. Where these partnerships had resulted in funding being secured, it had often had a huge impact on the capacity of the smaller organization, bringing much-needed additional human resource to an already stretched environment, through funded coordinator roles, or through embedded researchers.

With these examples of success, the key role of Board members became clear. Indeed, unless the staff within micro-organizations are themselves also working within a HE setting, it is often Trustees who have tabled the idea of partnership in the first place. Their role extends from setting out the potential benefits of such partnerships and the way in which they might work, to brokering introductions to key individuals within HEIs, to supporting and facilitating the conversation through its early stages. Where Trustees have prior experience of this way of working, or are themselves employed within the HE sector, in teaching or research roles, this insight is potentially transformative. It also brings a deeper understanding of what benefits the small organisation might bring to bear on student experience, skills development and employability. At the successful end of the scale, and again with the direct input of Trustees, one micro organization had secured substantial funding through Innovate UK to support a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with a HE insitution, bringing a full-time coordinator post to bear on a project with transformative potential for the organisation’s future sustainability.

Given this, the obvious problem for many micro-organisations is that they may fall outside of formal charitable structures, may not in fact be constituted at all, and therefore have no Board members as such. A critical step in the process of building partnership with HE insitutions is therefore missing. Process came up time and gain in my research as the key to building partnerships: it manifests itself in everything from how micro-organisations can prepare themselves for making an approach to HE, knowing where and how to make that approach itself, and how to steward an initial conversation towards successful partnership outcomes. The period between making the link to someone working within the HE setting, to actually even identifying a project that might result in a joint bid for funding, emerged as the moment when many potential relationships break down. Why? Because, from the point of view of many micro-organisations, initial emails might have gone off into a black hole that discourages them from pursing things; or it just takes too long to move things on to tangible action. The timescales to which HEIs and micro organizations work are obviously frequently at odds. But there is also something around rhythm: whilst HE institutions might work to one dictated at least in part by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), micro-organisations are more likely to be responding to a cultural calendar governed by their art form or geographic location. Finding crossovers that work for both partners can be challenging.

One idea that’s gaining currency at the moment, and a potentially rich area for partnership, is that of the ‘fourth year’, a period of structured support and development that extends beyond the end of a taught course at degree level. The idea is to forge links with and enhance understanding of the arts and cultural sector, and to develop additional skills, supplementary to taught courses, that will benefit individuals embarking on creative careers and seeking to enter the professional workplace. And to deliver this through partnership between cultural organizations, HE providers, and art form-specific agencies or bodies working regionally or nationally.

There are, of course, many small-scale cultural organisations who demonstrably already deliver on aspects of what might constitute ‘fourth year’ programmes, doing incredible work with new graduates all over the north in diverse ways. Yet these rarely seem to originate (yet) within a framework of formalized partnership between the micro-organization and a HE partner. One micro-organisation I spoke to was working with new theatre graduates to improve their practical skills in making by offering them carpentry workshops. The organisation knew the value of these skills in the context of the small-scale theatre sector, yet the graduates’ formal education hadn’t prepared them for these realities. My own Fine Art degree at the University of Leeds similarly omitted any meaningful engagement with the realities of practice post-graduation. Admittedly that was the mid-1990s and things have changed. I was lucky – I had the aptitude to apply for a professional development programme initiated by East Street Arts in Leeds, and the fortitude to be accepted. Over the course of a year, and as one of a cohort of six participants, DCAP as it was called (it stood for Demystifying Contemporary Arts Practice) drew me back from that point of giving up that is so familiar to many practitioners a few years in from graduation. East Street Arts were incredibly generous – they opened up their little black book, connecting us to the individuals and organizations that were essential for professional practice within the visual arts, but which had hitherto been invisible to us (creative dark matter is nothing new!). DCAP saved me. It was an early example of a ‘fourth year’ programme well ahead of its time. It set me off on a course to curatorial practice and on a trajectory that ultimately led to me co-founding The Tetley in Leeds in 2013.

I feel particularly passionate about the way that the micro-organisations I’ve been talking about here could form a key part of such fourth year initiatives, working in partnership with the Higher Education sector, reimagined for the current environment, and in the context of the ‘alternative’ art schools that have come to prominence in recent years. I’m looking forward to continuing this discussion through Culture Forum North’s gathering in Hull, later this week.

Kerry Harker, June 2017

[1] Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter, Pluto Press, 2011

[2] Quoted in run up to 2017 General Election