King’s College London has long had strong links with London’s creative industries. It was precisely because it played such a central role in marking the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death that Gordon McMullan, the director of King's London Shakespeare Centre, was inspired to begin assembling partners for the ambitious Shakespeare 400 celebrations.
Yet when Deborah Bull joined King’s as assistant principal for culture and engagement four years ago, she discovered that most of their cultural partners “looked a bit like King’s – big, building-based and with something royal in the title”.
Although they still work with such institutions, she has actively engaged with organisations that are “more 21st-century, more fleet of foot and, perhaps, project-based”. She has also overseen “a huge step change in what we are doing” and ensured that “it’s more closely articulated as part of the university strategy”.
The fundamental principle, she explains, is that “we are a university, therefore we do excellent research, we do excellent teaching, we engage with the public – and we use arts and culture as a mechanism to deliver those core objectives”.
After a career as one of the leading ballerinas of her generation, Bull spent 11 years at the Royal Opera House as creative director, ROH2, where she describes her responsibilities as “increasing the permeability of the organisation, finding ways for it to engage more effectively with new art forms, new artists and new audiences”.
Given that “the issue of public subsidy [for the arts] is very live and very public”, she believes that cultural organisations have generally been “a little bit ahead” of universities in thinking about access and ways of demonstrating their public value.
So how does the university’s cultural engagement pan out in practice?
Sometimes an organisation or individual artist working on, say, ageing, privacy or Virginia Woolf will seek help, says Bull, and her team can “broker a collaboration with an expert”. Sometimes third parties such as the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing or the BBC Get Creative initiative need research partners. And sometimes a King’s academic is “looking for an alternative perspective” and they can organise “open space sessions” or “sandpits” to facilitate partnerships with the cultural sector.
The final option is what Bull calls the “meerkat” approach, where “you pop your head up and say: ‘Everyone’s talking about that, but they are not talking to each other. What can we do?’”
One strand of the work of Bull’s team is developing “public-facing collaborations with artists to help university-based research reach a broader public”.
But although King’s has an ambitious exhibitions programme in its Inigo Rooms, “outputs” from its partnerships with the cultural sector are just as likely to be research papers, proposals for curriculum development or new teaching methods, or even a change in practice within an arts organisation.
A project with the architects Garbers & James called My primary school is at the museum is designed to “test the hypothesis that there may be beneficial learning, social and cultural outcomes for primary-school children and their families when they receive their full-time education in a museum setting, as well as benefits for museums”. As the schools and museums are based in Liverpool, South Shields and Tyne and Wear, this represents a deliberate effort by King’s to reach out well beyond London. The main output will be a research paper.
As an example of the wider support that King’s provides to the cultural sector, Bull points to CultureCase, a digital resource offering “short, accessible summaries of academic research that demonstrate the impacts of arts and culture” and “a range of insights to help inform future planning”.
So was this the kind of thing that she needed when she was herself working in the sector?
“If you think of my role in engaging new audiences with the Royal Opera House,” she replies, “yes, I should have been looking at the research that showed what worked or didn’t. But I couldn’t find it, partly because you get to a [journal] paywall or someone talking about ‘end values’ – and, unless you’re an academic, it’s very hard to understand those things.”
Now, rather than just relying on rapid internet searches, those working in the cultural sector “can go to CultureCase and get all the peer-reviewed published research. So you know that what you are saying is based on evidence.”