European network meets in Exeter to collaborate on arts and culture development

Lively discussions took place as to how best develop arts and culture, locally

On 7-9 June, a network of European universities and city authorities came together in Exeter, to discuss how cities and universities can work together to support arts and culture in their local areas.

The EUniverCities Network is a group of medium-sized cities (and their universities) who meet twice annually to share experiences and ideas about sustainable, inclusive urban development. For this year’s network meeting, they explored the challenge of developing creative cities through a packed programme of talks and workshops, featuring creative industry experts and change-makers from the host city.

A keynote speech from Charles Landry, the internationally-renowned author of The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Development, set the tone. Amidst the chaos, division and homogeneity of modern life, he said, it is possible for cities to generate more inclusive, open and collaborative spaces. Peppering his talk with examples of urban regeneration, in cities like Berlin, which place culture in the forefront of a city’s architecture, Landry argued that developers have a responsibility to put culture first – since doing so creates “zones of encounter and empathy” that bring residents into contact with one another and can, therefore, enrich communal life.

These words were followed by a lively discussion with Exeter’s culture industry experts.

Anna Cohn Orchard, director of Exeter City of Literature, showed how the UNESCO programme is nurturing literary life in the community, through a thriving partnership network, fresh literary events programme, and a new training course for bibliotherapists.

Belinda Dillon and Dom Jinks, two experts from the University of Exeter’s culture team, shared insight on the role universities can play in developing creative cities. They spoke about how in Exeter, for example, schemes such as Creative Arc and Exeter Culture have involved artists and groups at the grassroots level, to ensure they address local community needs, while also harnessing the university’s networks and expertise to secure investment and interest in new initiatives.

This mission statement was echoed by John Wedgewood-Clarke, academic director of the university’s Arts and Culture programme, which seeks to drive connections between academics, students and creatives through a range of creative collaborations that shed light on Devon’s roots, such as Here’s to Thee – a project examining the ecology and cultures of cider making.

Representatives from Exeter City Council talked about the ways Exeter is rooting its transformative housing programme in culture, and supporting new culture and social prescribing plans across the city. “The [previous] EUniverCities meeting in Ghent,” said Karime Hassan, Chief Executive and Growth Director, “showed the power of leadership in visualising a future.” Jon-Paul Hedge, the city’s Director of Culture, Leisure, and Tourism, spoke about the council moving from acting as a mere funder of culture to being an enabler, and about a collaborative ‘cultural compact’ involving the city, the university and other partners, that could deliver on key priorities in the field.

That quality of leadership was on display here, as representatives from the EUniverCities Network then went away to engage in discussions and workshops on the questions of creative city development. Students, academics and creatives came together to probe key questions on this theme – from how culture can become more inclusive and involve local and university communities working together, to how culture can address the health of our planet. Delegates heard presentations on how to involve the wider region beyond cities in cultural initiatives, and on the value of cultural designations (such as UNESCO Creative Cities).

Student representatives worked in breakout rooms to work on a short film about new ways of using culture to help integrate students into their local community. Their film, presented on the final day of the event, showcased both the creative passion and the spirit of collaboration that are essential in shaping a lively, inclusive, liveable future for our cities.

Willem van Winden, the EUniverCities’ thematic expert and founder of UrbanIQ, said: “EUniverCities is a network of city-university tandems from medium-sized European cities. During our 3-day network meeting in Exeter, we discussed the role of culture in city-university partnerships. We discovered that there are so many societal challenges in which science, higher education and culture can effectively team up. But such partnerships are never easy or self-evident. This meeting inspired us all, highlighting many exemplary projects from Exeter and other European university cities.”

Katherine Shingler, EUniverCities Network Coordinator at the University of Exeter, said: “This EUniverCities meeting really showed how productive a good relationship between city and university can be, and how working closely together can bring benefits to the whole region. It also showed how important it is for these large institutions to engage with and support local grassroots organisations which are the life blood of the arts and cultural sector.”

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