Posted Nov 28 2023
In Conversation: Ben Walmsley, Centre for Cultural Value & University of Leeds

Interview with Lauren Smethurst, Alex Williams

Throughout 2023, our National Development team has curated a season of events and promotional activity to spotlight key conversations affecting arts and cultural institutions across the country. This included looking at “Levelling Up” in more detail and shining a light on some of the most ambitious and innovative cultural openings in the UK.

To round off the year and the series, our National Development team sat down with Professor Ben Walmsley, Director of the Centre for Cultural Value and Dean of Cultural Engagement at University of Leeds. We spoke with Ben to find out more about his role, the Centre itself, its relationship with fundraising and the decision behind its location in Leeds. 

Hi Ben, it’s lovely to connect with you today. Thank you for your time. Can you tell us more about your role, firstly at University of Leeds and at the Centre for Cultural Value?

So I do three things now at the moment. Two days a week I am the Dean of Cultural Engagement for the University of Leeds. That means looking after all of our cultural partnerships, including our institutional partnership with Opera North, and the development of a new relationship with the National Poetry Centre that will be based on our campus. My role involves developing strategic priorities for how we can best harness arts and culture across a big university like Leeds, looking at how we can feed into an innovative, interesting and impactful curriculum. I also look at how we can support research and how we can engage with local communities in an ethical and sustained creative way, as well as looking at how we can improve experience for staff and students on and off campus. 

My second job is running the Centre for Cultural Value, which I do two and a half days a week. And my third is everything else in between, including research, PhD supervision and a little bit of teaching. It’s quite varied… In a good way!

For more information about Ben, please click here for his full biography.

 

It’s obvious that your roles are quite unique and quite different. What have you done previously in your career that has led you to where you are now?

It’s a great question. And I suppose like lots of people who’ve worked in the arts, none of it, or not a lot of it, was very planned and quite spontaneous. I did a degree in French and German at Nottingham, just because I loved languages. By default, I had my arm twisted very hard to direct the German student play and it was that really that got me into theatre. I then did a PhD at Glasgow University and when I was doing the PhD, I worked in three theatres, carried on directing French plays and took a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So I guess, there was always creativity there and harnessing the creativity of other people. I found a flair for producing and being entrepreneurial and ended up managing a theatre company in Edinburgh and working for the National Theatre of Scotland. 

One of the best professional life lessons I ever learned was tour booking. I really enjoyed developing my interpersonal skills and working with a wide range of people, whilst ultimately being responsible for putting a jigsaw puzzle together. I learnt to be very organised and not take no for an answer and those skills have really helped get me to where I am today. It’s worth noting that I’ve never been a full-time fundraiser!

 

Please can you tell us more about the Centre for Cultural Value? We’re interested to hear more about the research you do, the purpose of the Centre, how it’s funded and what the staffing structure looks like.

The Centre for Cultural Value launched just over four years ago and is funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council England to the tune of £2.5million, with a contribution from the University of Leeds as well. 

The Centre exists to create a shared understanding of the difference that arts, culture, heritage and screen make to people’s lives and society. Our day job is to build that research and evidence so that organisations can articulate that with confidence and in a rigorous way. We started as a team of 5, and now we’re 10 and 6 FTE, including roles such as Centre Manager, Communications Manager, Project Coordinator, Administrator and two full-time Postdoctoral Researchers.

For the first two years, we researched culture, health and wellbeing, as we felt that this was one of the most timely issues. We could see lots of arts and cultural organisations trying to move into that space. At the time, policymakers were very interested in arts and health, and we wanted to shine a spotlight on some of the gaps in knowledge. Today in 2023, we are currently looking at cultural participation, the role of artists in society and lifelong engagement with audiences. We’re then about to move onto what we’ve called “Culture, Place and Identity”, looking at place shaping and the role arts and culture can play in this.

Essentially, our role is to synthesise research and make it accessible and digestible, picking out highlights for our key audiences — a cultural professional, for example, who may want to read or digest on the tube home. Also, the pandemic really moved us into creating much more dynamic content. We produce a podcast series, short films, “how-to guides” and events, either in person or online.

And then finally we look at policy engagement. We are increasingly working more with local and combined authorities, supporting them with data, evaluation and policy questions around things like arts and health or place shaping. We are currently working with Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority on becoming a creative health city region.

It’s very varied!

 

Had you planned for the Centre of Cultural Value to still be in operation four years after you first launched?

So, what happened was, there was a two-year research project between 2012 to 2016 by The Arts and Humanities Research Council called the Cultural Value Project. There were around 70 projects that were funded, one of which was where I worked at University of Leeds. One of the recommendations off the back of this project was to build a centre to collate research and methods. There was then a big call out in 2018 to run a Centre for Cultural Value for five years, and we were fortunate enough to get it. 

It was always planned to be five years and we had to produce a five-year delivery plan. But, six months after we opened in October 2019, the world suddenly changed due to COVID-19 and we had to pivot to being online. At this time, we realised that if we were going to understand our key audience (e.g. the cultural sector) we would have to do some research ourselves to really understand the implications of the pandemic for the sector. 

We then brought in another £750,000 to become the biggest project in the world actually looking at the impact of COVID on cultural industries. And through that, we really understood our convening power; that is our ability to bring together the right academics, the right policy partners and the right cultural partners to do the research that’s needed in a really timely way. So I suppose, unlike a lot of traditional academic research, we try to share our findings in real time to make a difference as soon as we can. Although it’s still very fragmented, we’ve now got one of the best cultural data sets in the world.

 

Who do you think your key audiences are in 2023?

Pretty consistently, our audiences for events and written outputs are made up of  60% cultural sector professionals, 20% funders or policymakers and 20% academics, which we’re really happy with. It’s quite a good balance, I think.

I see one of our jobs at the Centre for Cultural Value as sitting in a third space and being able to say, “Look, here’s some really useful research on reducing carbon emissions from the top universities around the world and here’s some advice on how you might be able to present it in a more people-centred way.”

 

And do you think the Centre for Cultural Value would operate differently if not based in the North of England or West Yorkshire more specifically? 

This is a really good question. When we applied for the Centre to be in Leeds, we made a big deal about it being in the heart of the UK. Having worked in Scotland for most of my professional arts career, I was very aware of the need for the Centre to be UK-wide in its remit.

There is an advantage in that “we are not London” and the optics of that are really important. It’s important we’re based in Leeds for lots of different reasons, partly because we, like any university, have our world-leading research pockets and one of those is climate change, at the Priestley Centre for Climate Futures. Data is another one. We have the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, which holds data from Public Health England data and big supermarket chains, for example, and of course, the expertise to analyse this data. So that opens up doors. We’re also partners with Born in Bradford and the University of Leeds. There are all sorts of institutional and geographic advantages.

There are drawbacks too. A lot of the important conversations do still happen in London, of course they do, so we naturally spend a lot of time in London. You’re not always in the right kinds of bars and conversations if you don’t live in London. But I do think the benefits absolutely outweigh the drawbacks.

 

Thank you, Ben. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. Do you have anything final to note for the Young Arts Fundraisers network, either about the Centre, yourself or the sector?

I suppose the main lesson that we’ve all learnt from running the Centre for Cultural Value is there is such a need for more dialogue between cultural organisations, artists, policymakers, funders and academics. And most people want to have those conversations, but they very rarely happen. It’s been really advantageous to create this third space for that. There is a real desire for collaboration between universities and the cultural sector.

We’ve also seen a real passion for understanding how to evaluate projects well too, which has really surprised us. One of our most popular events and resources by a mile is our Evaluation segment. People are keen to learn more about how to demonstrate their social impact and how to do this via qualitative methods or narrative enquiry, or artist-led research. 

My main message to young fundraisers would be, get out there and collaborate. Don’t be stuck in silo, whether it’s your organisation, your art form or even your discipline, like fundraising. Get out there and talk to academics, talk to marketeers, talk to producers, talk to artists, talk to freelancers. It’s a really complex ecology and we need everyone to make it work well for the future. 

For more information about the Centre for Cultural Value, events, resources and news, please visit their website.

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