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27th May, 2016

Pioneering Engagement With The Arts & Cultural Sector At King’s College London

Katherine Bond - Director, King’s Cultural Institute

In 2005 Prince Charles married his life-long love, Tony Blair was elected for an historic third term, the conservatives elected David Cameron as their leader and, no less significant, a new vision for higher education’s engagement with the arts and cultural sector was emerging.

At that time, I was working in cultural diplomacy at the Canadian High Commission in London after fifteen years of engagement with the arts as a practitioner, a government policy adviser and educator. The idea of working in a university had not entered my mind: I was committed to the intrinsic value of making art, and to the cultural sector’s development as a social, political, economic and creative force for the common good, and this was the sector in which I expected to stay.

However, eight years ago, my interests developed in unexpected ways: in 2007 I was appointed as Business Development Manager, Cultural & Creative Industries, at King’s College London. My remit was to promote the university’s interaction with the sector as part of a wider higher education effort to find new ways in which academic research and the intellectual capital it represented could inform policy, practice and production beyond the university walls. At that time King’s had a clutch of pioneering collaborations with arts organisations – the English Department’s MA in Shakespeare Studies with the Globe Theatre being at the forefront of these – and a small portfolio of doctoral research projects jointly conceived and supervised with museum and heritage organisations. Perhaps inspired by these collaborations, my ‘BDM’ role was the first of the university’s formal posts with a specific remit to identify and broker new interactions with the cultural and creative industries.

I was based in the university’s enterprise office ‘KCL Enterprises’, which was principally science-oriented, being home to the health faculties’ knowledge transfer, intellectual property and technology transfer operations. So, if I was not quite a fish out of water, I was certainly a new breed in a well-established pond: forget ‘driving innovation in the cultural sector’, this post was an innovation in itself. Though my own already-established networks across London’s cultural sector would stand me in good stead for the role, the world of academia was new to me. I spent many months knocking on academics’ doors to explore the potential of research at King’s to connect with the cultural sector in new ways. Given the newness of my role, and its experimental nature, I often had to justify its existence and there was, understandably, a certain amount of suspicion about what I was doing, and why. This was, no doubt, largely grounded in a concern about the ‘commoditisation of knowledge’ and the disruption of the lone-scholar approach to research. However, over the next two years, through trial and error, and the commitment, vision and enthusiasm of key academic colleagues at King’s, a new network of academics, artists and arts professionals grew, and a small portfolio of collaborative projects and programmes emerged.

Over this period, The Culture Capital Exchange’s previous incarnation, the London Centre for Arts & Cultural Exchange (LCACE), provided a very welcome home for me in which to find peer support, share ideas and develop thinking about the central challenge of the job: how to encourage and support new interactions between academics and arts organisations, professionals and practitioners in a way that would both enhance research and teaching on the one hand, and inform the development of the cultural sector on the other.

Intensive work brought increasing benefits, and in 2011 we founded the Cultural Institute at King’s. Finally, in 2012, the university appointed the former Creative Director of the Royal Opera House, a world-class artist in her own right, to lead Culture at King’s. Now Assistant Principal for Culture and Engagement, Deborah Bull has ensured that collaboration with the cultural and creative sector is a strategic priority for King’s, sitting at the heart of its academic firmament, and led a further transformative step-change in the university’s engagement with arts and cultural sector practitioners, professionals and politicians.

Today, the university’s collaboration with the cultural sector is flourishing; dozens of partnerships are now in place with new connections developing every day. These range from relationships with established, national-level organisations such as Southbank Centre, Royal Opera House and the BBC, to newer mid-scale companies such as Roundhouse, Wayne Mc Gregor | Random Dance and Young Vic, to smaller, perhaps edgier enterprises such as Caper, Coney and Fuel: these organisations, and many more, are informing research and teaching at King’s and benefiting in turn from the wealth of new knowledge and expertise offered by the university. The foundation of the Cultural Institute’s approach is to develop practical ways in which academic and cultural organisations can exchange their specialist knowledge. The notions of one sector leveraging value from another and vice versa; the university as a civic hub, the research power-house of a region; the imperative to ensure that publicly-funded research, art and culture is democratized by open access; the free flow of ideas and people between organisations and sectors; the need to ensure that the expertise in one sector is informing the development of another – all of this now seems a no-brainer, but in fact it represents, I believe, a seismic shift in higher education, and certainly in its relationship with the cultural and creative sector.

So what about the next ten years?

In the Middle Ages, universities did not have physical facilities to compare with the campus of a modern university. Classes were taught wherever space was available. A university was less a physical space than a group of individuals working together as a universitas, a community. My prediction is that over the next ten years, given the seemingly limitless potential for digital technology to connect individuals and communities, higher education will have come full circle to the ambition – or perhaps necessity – of embedding the benefits of education, research and enquiry across the whole of society. In taking the first transformative steps towards the modern university, the ‘ivory tower’ is becoming the stuff of fairytales, and traditional knowledge hierarchies reinterpreted in favour of many more new and equal dialogues between academia and the communities that it serves.

Katherine Bond – Director, King’s Cultural Institute

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