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Research collaborations are messy and challenging – here’s why we need them more than ever

Two young people stood together writing on post it notes to stick to flip chart paper on a wall. One is wearing a bright orange shirt, the other a grey top and black beanie hat.

Centre Manager Liz Harrop reflects on what we can learn from the Centre’s experience of supporting collaborative research projects.

Evidencing the value of cultural activities is a complex endeavour. Yet, gaining a well-rounded understanding of how cultural activities create value, for whom, and in which contexts is vital for ensuring robust, people-centred policy and practice.

At the Centre for Cultural Value, we created the Collaborate programme to support research partnerships between cultural practitioners and academic researchers to investigate under-explored questions of cultural value. 

We were warned that cultural organisations, especially smaller organisations and individual artists, would lack the desire or capacity to engage in this type of research. 

Four years on, we have learned a great deal about the sector’s priorities and the value and challenges of research collaborations. We have also unequivocally demonstrated the cultural sector’s appetite for collaborative research.

What questions did the cultural sector want to explore?

Over two rounds of funding, we called on cultural practitioners to bring us their most timely and under-researched issues. We received 479 applications from the cultural sector, far exceeding expectations for our small and experimental programme.

Chart showing the number of Collaborate applications from the cultural sector, by size of organisation. Text reads: 479 applications from the cultural sector. The largest segment is micro organisations (1 - 9 employees) - 50%. This followed by: Freelance artists - 30%, small organisations (10-49 employees) 12%, medium organisations (50 - 249 employees) 4% and large organisations (250+ employees) 4%

The applications covered a range of topics reflecting the myriad ways that cultural practice intersects with broader societal issues. They broadly fell into the following themes:

  • How does participation in cultural activities contribute to individual well-being and personal development?
  • What role does culture play in fostering social cohesion and community resilience?
  • How do cultural practices and institutions help shape collective identity and belonging?
  • What are the social benefits of investing in cultural initiatives, both locally and nationally?
  • How can we measure and articulate the intrinsic value of cultural experiences, such as creativity, beauty, imagination, and emotional resonance?

The response to the programme showed that cultural practitioners, from individual artists to leaders of large institutions, understand the potential of their work to shape narratives, challenge norms, and foster empathy and understanding across communities.

Practitioners also recognise the potential of collaborative research to help them to articulate the impact of their work and provide actionable insights that can drive positive change within the sector. However, the response also reflects how current research needs to serve the cultural sector better. Each application represents a gap in the evidence base for cultural value. It shows the need for more interdisciplinary research and a greater diversity of methodologies to investigate cultural value more deeply.

The applications also reflect the shifting contexts in which cultural practitioners work. Post-pandemic, cultural organisations want to develop closer relationships with their communities and audiences. At a time of shrinking public resources, practitioners need to understand how to work more sustainably and gain a more nuanced understanding of the social value of their practice.

The need for a culture shift

The projects we supported through Collaborate show how practitioner-academic collaborations are indispensable in bridging the gap between theory and practice. They present a powerful opportunity to better understand and respond to these challenges.

Universities play a vital role in the exchange of knowledge between researchers and practitioners and creating space for discovery. Programmes like Collaborate can offer real value to both the research impact of universities and the professional development of researchers.

Three people sat together in front of an exhibit of books in a a museum. The books are in a glass case and one person holds a clipboard and is talking to the other two people.
Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery. University of Leeds. Photo by Mark Webster.

So why are opportunities like this so rare? 

Collaborations are inherently messy and challenging. After two years of running the programme, we have learned much about supporting partners to navigate competing interests and find common ground, and the care needed to develop these spaces ethically and effectively. Our guide on how to support people-centred research partnerships is essential reading.

The process of research collaboration requires us to rethink traditional research paradigms. It means embracing the uncertainty inherent in collaborative inquiry, relinquishing control and perhaps more crucially, being committed to investing time and money in the collaboration process itself.

This is perhaps why, while the academics involved in the Collaborate programme valued the work, many felt unsupported by their institutions, which often lack the structures to give researchers the time and space to nurture true research collaboration. 

The Collaborate model doesn’t sit neatly alongside the often risk-averse research frameworks of universities. But, of course, it is precisely in these uncertain spaces that transformative exploration can occur.

Too few universities actively support this way of working, and even fewer research funders are giving them the impetus to do so. Still, we are starting to see evidence that practice is shifting, and we have recently been supporting a number of universities to replicate the Collaborative model on a local and regional level. 

As we continue to share our learning with research funders, universities, and cultural sector partners, we hope to further open up this vital conversation about how research is conducted, for and with whom.

Related resources

Read our recommendations and learning about supporting research collaborations as a funder.

Read our guide to developing people-centred research collaborations.

Read more about the funded Collaborate projects and their findings

Top image: Rising Arts Agency. Photo by Olumide Osinoiki

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