Food for Thought on University Partnerships
On 21 January 2015 thirty five key decision makers from the cultural and higher education sectors gathered in the Grand Officer’s Robing Room at Freemason’s Hall. This imposing space was the backdrop for discussions on a weighty topic: the art of collaboration.
In a world of ever reducing resources many have seen partnership working as the silver bullet that will help us do more with less, yet collaborating with organisations that have different priorities and timescales can be a demanding experience. I believe that if we are going to encourage collaboration we need to have a greater understanding of the challenges, benefits and potential outcomes, and with the support of Arts Council England I’ve spent that last three years trying to do just that.
Since 2012 I’ve been leading on Share Academy, a partnership between University College London, University of the Arts London and the London Museums Group that was set up to explore the potential for collaboration between universities and museums in London region. Over the lifetime of the project we’ve been able to broker and fund 18 partnership projects. The projects confirmed our hunch that universities and museums have a lot to offer one another, and also revealed some of the complexities and difficulties of collaborative practice.
If carefully managed, partnerships between universities and museums can bring mutual benefit and deliver on core activities for both partners. However, collaborations tend to be makeshift rather than embedded at a strategic level. While lots of organisations are exploring the possibility of collaborating with universities, there is little co-ordination of this excellent work on a larger scale and sharing of best practice has been fairly ad hoc. What better way to mark the end of Share Academy than by creating a space where key decision makers with a vested interest in collaborative practice could have an honest conversation about what the future holds?
Sitting in the Grand Officer’s Robing Room were representatives from the National Trust, Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts and Humanities Research Council, National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement and the Association of Independent Museums to name but a few. Just having these people together in the same room for the first time marked a significant step forward as it’s rare that the different sectors have an opportunity to meet.
The scene was set with presentations on Share Academy (Annabel Jackson).
Creativeworks London (Professor Morag Shiach) and the Cultural Value Project (Professor Geoffrey Crossick). None were afraid to address the difficulties of partnership working as well as the benefits. Geoffrey Crossick was keen to point out that partnerships are labour intensive and not a way to save money (a key point for anyone who thought they were the answer to reduced resources). Morag Shiach talked about long-term relationships as the most worthwhile, while Annabel Jackson discussed the importance of brokering transformational rather than transactional partnerships. All three agreed that the tension of different cultures coming together could result in exciting outcomes.
Next, ably assisted by our facilitator Bev Morton, we broke into groups to discuss key issues. This was the meat on the bones of the event, but with only an hour and a half for conversation I worried that we’d been over ambitious in what we might achieve. Our aims were to raise awareness of initiatives exploring partnership working, engender greater connectedness among those who have the power to facilitate greater collaboration, identify shared priorities and responsibilities and come up with a list of tangible action points. Would the Think Tank deliver?
The room was soon buzzing with conversations addressing the importance of brokerage, leadership, entrepreneurial commissioning and research impact. A common theme of discussions was the desire for neutral ground where potential partners could meet. My group talked about ways of working with existing networks, such as museum development teams and the University Museums Group, to train universities and the cultural sector in the mechanics of good collaborative partnerships. Another group suggested that universities might be the place to ‘keep alive’ skills that were being lost in the cultural heritage sectors, while a third discussed the potential offered by greater knowledge sharing around existing funding streams.
When questioned by our facilitator about my best-case scenario for the event I’d responded that I wanted to walk away with three key action points that could really further the cause. In fact, I think we probably achieved more. By the end of the afternoon the University Museums Group had made a firm offer contribute to brokerage of new partnerships and dissemination of best practice, the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement suggested a partnership with Share Academy on a project exploring how the funding bodies for the higher education and cultural heritage sectors can work together to maximise impact while the Museums Association expressed an interest in using their networks and influence to support museums to work more effectively with higher education.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and in three hours it was unlikely we were going to be able to come up with the definitive answer for partnership working, but for me it was hugely exciting to see all those people – people who have the power to make things happen – gathered together in one room. The day left me with a strong sense that there are real benefits to be had from partnership working and more we could be doing to support and nurture innovative collaborative practice.
Most positively, participants seemed keen to carry on the debate and I have a host of business cards on my desk to follow up. It looks like 2015 is going to be a busy year.
Judy Willcocks is Head of Museums at Central Saint Martins, LMG Chair and Co-Founder of the Share Academy Programme.