Collaborating with Universities

I have been spending time reviewing what the interviews I did reveal about research collaborations between arts organisations and universities. And I have been reflecting on my own experience of partnership working.  A fair bit has been written on the challenges of interdisciplinary collaborative research between academics and ‘publics’. However, I am keen to draw together common characteristics of successful collaborations and explore what needs to be in place for it to be productive for all those involved.  How can everyone be positively challenged, grow their knowledge and achieve their respective aims?

My experience of collaborating with university colleagues has been positive.  I have worked with generous, thoughtful, creative researchers on research projects small and large.  These academics have brought their varied disciplinary knowledge and methodological approaches to problems of common interest.  Coming from the fields of business, education, psychology, philosophy and art practice (to name a few), they have tested my thinking and helped inform my and other colleagues’ practice.  They have introduced new theories and concepts of research rigour that have undoubtedly strengthened the work of Tate Learning and developed our thinking.

Similar stories emerge from the interviews. Colleagues spoke of academic partnerships enabling them to imagine alternatives and think differently and to re-evaluate their own narrow disciplinary focus.  This suggests that dynamic research can be achieved by bringing diverse expertise together. Ash Amin and Joanne Roberts describe this type of collaboration as an ‘epistemic/highly creative’ community of practice. In these scenarios, ‘experts’ come together to ‘unleash creative energy around specific exploratory projects.’ Epistemic communities thrive on difference and allow for new insights to emerge from the juxtaposition of potentially contrasting knowledge.


Summer School, Exchange Space, Level 5, Switch House, Tate Modern. 27.07.2016
Teachers participating in a Schools and Teachers Summer School, 2017
Photography © Tate 2017 Seraphina Neville


So what can be done to foster a positive epistemic community that unites arts professionals, academics and in some cases collaborators from a community?  According to my interviewees, a number of key elements need to be in place.  I will spend time on three of these which surfaced most insistently.

The first is openness to new and divergent ideas and ways of being. This encompasses what David Garvin and his colleagues describe as an ‘appreciation of differences.’ Being open to exploring with others means accommodating diverse questions and approaches and respecting a variety of perspectives. With openness comes a non-hierarchical sense of the contribution made by the various expertise present in any collaboration. As Roz Stewart-Hall from the Knowle West Media Centre pointed out to me, successful research collaborations involve ‘an exchange based on equal value being attributed to different experiences and different knowledge’.

Intertwined with openness is effective communication.  Several of those I interviewed spoke of the need for ‘translation’ between the worlds of academia and practice. They were mindful of the sensitivities of working with university colleagues whose ambitions for research might not align with their own.  I have written of the different agendas and pressures faced by academics and practitioners in a previous blog and know of the challenges of developing research that fulfils the needs of both.  However, my experience and that of the interviewees indicates that honesty, coupled with explicit recognition and agreement on what each party wants from the research at the start of a project contributes to a functional collaboration.

Openness and communication requires, and also builds, the trust amongst collaborators that their collective effort will result in something of greater value than any one individual’s efforts. Interviewees’ described how the differences between participants need to be outweighed by the perceived collective benefits if collaborative research is to succeed.  So, all those involved need to trust in a process that is creative and unexpected, but is likely to involve improvisation, compromise and circularity.   Kate Pahl and Keri Facer talk about collaborators needing to commit to research processes that ‘are enmeshed, entangled and complex, and are associated with divergent outcomes as well as sometimes-difficult experiences and contrasting clusters of ideas’. This resonates with my experience.

As with any collective effort,  collaboration with university colleagues requires time and additional commitment, which busy arts professionals may not feel they can spare.  This situation is improved immeasurably if practitioners are resourced appropriately in research collaborations with universities and recognised as equal partners. What is needed, I believe, is more conversation between the domains of practice and academia to allow for fruitful collaborations to grow.

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