Skip to main content

Closure of Bristol Ideas: Farewell Event 1 May 2024

Share this

The final event of Bristol Ideas saw the publication of the history of the organisation Our Project Was the City (@JonCraig_Photos).

Nearly 200 artists, poets, scientists, writers, audience members and organisations who had worked with Bristol Ideas for more than 30 years gathered for the closing event and book launch 1 May 2024 at Watershed. Four speeches were made by patron David Olusoga; chair Simon Cook; former chair Suzanne Rolt; and director Andrew Kelly. These are lightly edited transcripts of the presentations made.

Marti Burgess (former board director), Jaya Chakrabarti (project partner), and Clare Reddington (Watershed) (@JonCraig_Photos)
Yoma Smith and Gus Hoyt (project collaborators) (@JonCraig_Photos)

Simon Cook (chair, Bristol Ideas)

I’m Simon Cook. I’m chair of Bristol Ideas – for a short time now. We are going to give four short speeches. Can I ask you to welcome a national figure and a tremendous supporter of Bristol Ideas, David Olusoga.

David Olusoga

David Olusoga addresses guests (@JonCraig_Photos)

Thank you. It’s lovely to be asked to say a few words. 

I’ve been attending Bristol Festival of Ideas events since I was a young producer when I first came to Bristol in my late twenties. The Bristol I found myself in was a city that made some of the best television in the world, a city with some great nightclubs, with exhibitions, with events, and I threw myself in to being in Bristol. It seemed to be one of those cities where the greatest challenge was making the most of what was on offer, and I was racked with what we now call FOMO, Fear of Missing Out. And the Bristol Festival of Ideas, not that I always noticed that it was at the centre of so much of what I was involved in, was just critical to that. There were so many spin-off projects that it’s only latterly that I realised that all of it was interconnected, that the festival was the catalytic force at the centre of all of that. I learned more about the city that I’d moved to thanks to the festival, the Brunel 200 events, the programme in 2010 about the city’s critical role in the history of aviation. And these have been decades in which, for all sorts of reasons, Bristol as a city has got to know itself and its history in a much more deeper and much more challenging way. And again, the festival has been part of that somewhat difficult journey. 

A few years ago, actually it was many years ago, let’s be honest, when I was writing my first book, to be able to get on my bicycle, to come into the centre of Bristol, sometimes to this venue, and to hear writers who I admire speaking about books that I was in awe of, was just so inspiring and so instructive. Anyone, and I know there’s many people in this room who have written books, will know that what seems to be an inevitable part of the process is that you reach that moment when you wish that you’d never started. When you sit down at the end of a day in which you’ve written utter nonsense. And you start doing the maths about whether if you cut back on your spending, if you hide from your landlord, you can give back the advance, change your identity, turn off the phone and just hope it all goes away. In those moments, the inspirations that I found from just being face to face, not just in the talks but in drinks afterwards, to people who had done this miraculous thing and finished a book, was just critical. 

So years later, when I was invited by Andrew to talk about my own books from the same stages of the same venues, and to interview other writers who’d come to Bristol to share their ideas and their work, it was the fulfilment of all of my ambitions and it felt like a dream come true. I was brought up in the North East of England, I was born in Lagos in Nigeria, but it’s been in my 20 plus years in Bristol that I’ve become really who I am, that I’ve found my voice and worked out what matters to me. And part of the cultural infrastructure that’s made that possible for me and so many people, has been the work that Andrew and his team have done over so many years. 

Bristol has been made richer, more exciting, more dynamic, more connected because of that work, because of the amazing people who have swept through our city, who’ve been embraced by Andrew and his team. And talking to other writers, one of the notable things about the festival is that they really do feel welcome. They have felt that their work has been understood. Andrew has a reputation for actually reading your books. Andrew is one of the best-read people I’ve ever known. It’s obviously with sadness that the festival is leaving us, but from my perspective, I’m just filled with thanks. From the perspective of all of those who’ve been involved in it behind the scenes in the engine room, the overwhelming emotion I hope that the feeling of this moment is pride. Thank you very much.

Guests listen to speeches (@JonCraig_Photos)
David Olusoga talking to Jane Duffus, contributor to Our Project Was the City (@JonCraig_Photos)

Simon Cook

Simon Cook addresses guests (@JonCraig_Photos)

Thank you. David. That’s great. I was going to say this is a sad day, and I feel even sadder listening to you, and you recalling all those times that you’ve worked with us, and it just makes you feel that we are losing a lot. And it’s no joy for me to be the last chair of Bristol Ideas, I can assure you. I’ve been on the board for 23 years now and I’ve seen so much great work. So many great festivals, so many events, so many books published have taken place over that period. As David says, who can forget Brunel 200 or BAC 100? The work we did on Green Capital in 2015, or the Great Reading Adventure when we worked with schools, reading individual novels all together? And the fact that we led on the Capital of Culture bid, for the European title of 2008, can you believe? A title, of course, we can no longer apply for. 

This has all been done with a very small staff, with a very small revenue budget, but a huge amount of fundraising, very successful fundraising. And the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership (BCDP), which of course is its legal name and what it started out as, was a unique creation back in the early 1990s as a partnership between the City Council, the Arts Council and the local chamber of commerce, now Business West. It was set up to improve the city’s cultural offer, because it was felt that we were punching below our weight in terms of the other core cities outside London, to boost our profile, to improve our ability to attract the skilled people we need to work in the city, to attract business relocation and, of course, inward investment. And I think to give the ordinary people of this city a lot more pride in what we do and what we are. And when you think about where we were then in the early 1990s and where we are now, that’s a job well done. We have certainly fulfilled our purpose, providing a lot of the energy behind a wholesale overhaul and improvement of our cultural spaces, for instance, which Bristol Beacon is the most recent. 

It’s been a fantastic organisation to which so many people have contributed. I think, this is a strange thing to say, but I think that because we were so successful that in a way has caused a problem. Our achievements have been so many and so varied. And we’ve been the engine behind so much of the cultural development in the city that our funders began to say, ‘Yeah, good, job well done. Do we really need to go on funding?’ And there is no doubt that coincidental with that, we developed into an organisation actually less concerned in the last ten years with cultural development, but more becoming a forum for debate about the great concerns of our day. Vital work, but it was different from what we started out doing. Festival of Ideas, for instance, started out as a festival every May, but then grew into a series of lectures and debates that went on all year and gave us a national and international reputation, I have to say. But the trouble was, we always needed subsidy. The stuff we do is not commercially viable enough to keep us going as an independent organisation. It just isn’t. 

The fact that the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England came onto our board, providing financial support and a huge amount of help, really did support us for a long time. But as austerity bit both into the council but also into commerce, into Business West, and the Arts Council felt that, because of the huge demands on their funding, they could no longer fund us as a National Portfolio Organisation, we went into a financial downward spiral. So, all of us on the board – and working with Judith Squires from the University of Bristol, Lynn Barlow from the University of West of England, and Matt Griffith from Business West – spent a lot of time trying to see if there was a model which we could keep going, but unfortunately we had to come to the conclusion, after many months of work, that we couldn’t continue and that staff redundancies had to begin immediately. That, I’m afraid, is the sad news. 

However, I am pleased to say that while the Festival of Ideas had to cease quite quickly because it was our chief loss maker, we have managed to salvage a future life for two of our regular festivals, the Festival of Economics and the Festival of the Future City. The Festival of Economics will take place under the auspices of the University of Bristol. And the Festival of the Future City will change into being a regular series of events around devolution and developing flourishing city regions, such as we want the West of England to become, and which are absolutely essential for the nation’s economic health. We did have a good amount of reserves in the company, and we felt that rather than use those reserves to prolong its life for a year or two, they would be better used to provide a financial bridge to ensure that the two newly remade festivals will have time to develop a financial model that can ensure their sustainability. So that is good news to announce today. 

There are too many people who’ve contributed to this great organisation to mention specifically, but I personally just want to mention three. Many of you will remember the late Louis Sherwood, who was a leading member of the Initiative, a philanthropist to the company, and a dedicated and really hard-working board member. John Savage, who, of course, set up BCDP. He was the motivator, because he set up the Bristol Initiative. He was the motivator behind creating this organisation, and has really contributed so much and put so much hard work in. And finally, of course, none of BCDP’s work could have been achieved without our founder director, Andrew Kelly. His extraordinary ability, boundless enthusiasm and tireless dedication, he’s not going to forgive me for this, carried the company forward. And it’s no exaggeration to say that I think he and his wife, Mel, of course, who also worked for us for such a long time, really has been one of the chief driving forces in making Bristol’s cultural life what it is today. He is an extraordinary character. 

I well remember at a board meeting after the first Festival of the Future City, him coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m actually knackered. We did 90 events in that festival.’ And I remember saying, ‘Andrew, nobody asked you to do 90 events. Why don’t you do just 45?’ But that’s the nature of the man. He will take on nothing unless he is going to do it to the absolute maximum and will come out always with wonderful results. I’ll miss the board meetings. I’ll miss the company. I’ll miss the endless texts and phone calls from Andrew. But hopefully we’ll still have as many lunches and coffees as we always did. 

Hopefully he’s not going anywhere. I mean, with the two festivals continuing his work and his help is going to be needed, and I can just see he will be here in the city centre, popping around and contributing as much as he always has. So, in many ways, this is a sad day. But I do think that the fact that we’ve kept it going in some way is a good day. No organisation ever lasts forever. They come and go. We have to accept that. But Bristol ideas was a job well done. A mission achieved. A huge legacy. And that legacy will still be available in the City Archives. And we’ve allocated money for that, too. To Andrew, to all of you, to all of the people who’ve worked tirelessly for the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership as was, I say, ‘Thank you so much, Bristol is a better place for it.’ Can I now introduce Suzanne Rolt, former director of St George’s, now chief executive of Quartet, to say a few words.

Donna Speed (We The Curious) speaking to Simon Cook with Jenny Lacey (chair of festival events) in the background (@JonCraig_Photos)

Suzanne Rolt

Suzanne Rolt addresses guests (@JonCraig_Photos)

There are some days you hope never to see. I think it’s fair to say that this is one of them. But face it we must. And we’re going to use the moments that we have today to reflect and just celebrate the amazing richness and brilliance of everything that’s been achieved. And to look to the future as well. I’ve been given three minutes. Yikes! I could probably fill this time just reciting the names of all the individuals and all the organisations who’ve contributed to the success of BCDP and to Bristol ideas along the way. Many are in the room today and many have become friends. I think we’re all united by shared values. But just first, two brief reflections really to add to those made by David and by Simon. 

My association with Bristol Ideas has been a close and a really fond one, and it goes back many, many years. I’m not going to say how many. As an enthusiastic audience member, like David, as a partner, director and as chair for several years. So, what have I learnt? Well, firstly, I’ve learnt that it’s us, we’re the people who make the cities the places that we want them to be. Places that provide essential services, of course, but which nourish us too, and bring to the fore the things that truly matter in life. Cities with spaces where we can gather, share time together, express ourselves through art, science and culture in their countless forms. And where is the sloppy bit? For minutes, for hours, sometimes longer, we become more than we ever thought we might be. And sometimes things spring up and they grow of their own accord. And there are great examples of that all around Bristol. But sometimes they require help, a nudge, a little hand to ignite the spark. And sometimes you have to hold that spark aloft for years, decades even, to see it through. And this is where Bristol Cultural Development Partnership – let’s just call it BCDP, it’s quite a mouthful – this is where it’s been so brilliant. It’s convened exceptional individuals and organisations, and it’s been responsible for the consulting, planning and taking on the delivery of transformational projects, large and small. Bristol Ideas has certainly been the catalyst for partnerships and ventures right across the city. It’s been a vehicle for visions and for change. 

Secondly, perhaps rather obviously, what have I learnt? That ideas are precious things and they’re to be championed. They cannot be owned, only shared. Free thinking, in its purest form. And this is where we all come in, because no one is ever too young, too old, too anything really, to play a part. And we learn from Bristol Ideas that no subject is or should ever be beyond anyone’s reach. And while the best ideas may well descend from some of the outstanding minds of our time, few arrive fully formed and most benefit from a bit of pull and push, some challenging, bit of chiselling here and there, and Bristol Ideas created the space and supported this approach in spades. Audiences came in their thousands and their lives were changed. They listened in rapt silence. Many sat on their hands, desperate to ask a question at the end, and they cheered on, and they rose to their feet for the people who opened up new thoughts and ideas for them. 

Many people have asked, without Bristol Ideas, what will we do now? All I know is that the energy generated by the organisation has spread out all around us. It’s deeply embedded and it’s not going anywhere. It resides in buildings, cultural institutions, it inhabits the programmes and the cultural planning of organisations right across 42mi² of the city and beyond. It is here for all of us, and it’s our choice as to how we direct that. So, use it wisely and share it generously. 

Now the thanks. We’ve all just been passing through really. Simon has mentioned the board and my very personal thanks here to all who have poured their time and commitment over the years into that, supporting the organisation. But as we know, the real energy and the drive has come from within Bristol Ideas itself. Teams who have sometimes been off stage but critical players in all aspects of our work. I’d like to give some special thanks. Not everyone is here, but to Mel Kelly, who penned so many of the books and publications that you’ve read over the years. To Naomi Miller, who led in recent years, and to Zoe Steadman-Milne, Amy O’Beirne and Julia Trow. They have been kind, thoughtful, generous players who have been the face at hundreds, thousands of events. They’ve moved heaven and earth to ensure events can be enjoyed by all and that they run smoothly. And they’ve done this with really good humour and great expertise. So, we thank them, whether they’re here today or not, for all their involvement, and we wish them success upon success in their future careers. 

And finally, the person who was here at the beginning and at the end, the person who so often created the ideas, who reached out to grasp them when they passed within his line of sight, sort them out, even when we ourselves didn’t know that we needed them, and he turned them into something remarkable: this organisation, a force that has helped to shape Bristol for over 30 years. As our founder director, he’s worked tirelessly and been the key person in the success of everything that we celebrate today. He’s never been afraid to dream, and he’s inspired us all, with a result that we’ve been caught up in his infectious energy and imaginings. So, our debt to you, Andrew, is truly enormous. I think I said in the essay that I wrote, the only person I’ve ever seen get a standing ovation as they came into the building at the beginning of an event, as at the end, was Harry Belafonte, one of these wonderful moments over the years. Before Andrew says a few words, it would be great if we could show our appreciation as he comes up to speak, to Andrew and to his team for everything that’s been done.

Andrew Kelly

Andrew Kelly with Suzanne Rolt (@JonCraig_Photos)

Thank you, Suzanne, Simon and David. Yesterday we ran our final official Bristol Ideas event with the poet Jackie Kay. Our work ended as it started 31 years ago with an ambitious programme delivered by a small team. In the past three months we have arranged to close the company, started our archive, built legacy projects, supported many organisations, writers, poets and artists and individuals with funding. In the last three weeks we have run 11 events, two conferences, published two books and put two more into production. 

We wanted to end well with impact. 

I have long believed that one of our roles is to be a good ancestor. In decades to come, if we are remembered at all, I hope it is because we did things that lasted and that did some good. 

Today we publish our final book. Why Our Project Was the City? Our project was not just about culture it was about making cities work. It was about making cities better. Culture was at the heart of this. But the city – perhaps the greatest invention for creativity – was the project throughout. 

Copies of Our Project Was the City (@JonCraig_Photos)

Joe Burt, designer of Our Project Was the City (@JonCraig_Photos)

The book is full of inspiration of people who have contributed ideas and projects. I look for inspiration widely: George Orwell and James Baldwin; Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson. Writers like David Olusoga. All seekers of the truth. 

I get inspiration from cities too, especially this city. And on cities a great inspiration has been Walt Whitman. He wrote: 

‘I DREAM’D in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;

‘I dream’d that was the new City of Friends…’.

I hope we have helped create a new city of friends. 

We’ve worked together for 30 years. Auden said let all your last thinks be thanks. My thanks to you and to all members of my small teams. I still think it remarkable that we achieved so much as the book we launch today shows. Thanks to my board for guidance and advice over 30 years and especially during the past few months. Particular thanks in this time to Danni Cockerill and Jo Cave for guiding our finances; to Melanie Kelly for coming back in to help; to Kate Sim Read for not just helping with marketing but for providing general support and for being a good friend; to Jane Duffus for help with research and for writing the report on Bristol Broadsides – a project I have wanted to do for many years – read her report on our website: it’s terrific; to Simon Cook, Matt Griffith, Suzanne Rolt, Judith Squires and Lynn Barlow for help in our final weeks. 

In the last three weeks I’ve been asked many times why are you closing? It’s a question I have asked myself every hour of every day since I came back into the role as director. There’s little point in regrets though. We need to move forward. It’s not just what we have done that counts. It’s what happens next. So, what happens next? We have saved Festival of Economics, Festival of the Future City and our City Poet work. I’m delighted to announce that Kate Sim Read will become the new project manager for our legacy festivals. Danni –my financial support – remains now as the only member of staff. If you are looking for an accountant, hire her. You won’t be disappointed. 

I’ve agreed new film seasons and have more books to write. I remain determined to deliver the big Bristol Ideas projects I planned to 2030: on Englishness; on John Berger; on Pandaemonium and the new Industrial Revolution; on disruption in the film industry from the coming of the talkies to AI; and on building the cities of the future. 

This is a time for reflection and for thanks. It is also a time for renewed commitment. Here – as on everything we have done – I look to my greatest inspiration: Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Directing Brunel 200 in 2006 was a great honour. Brunel united arts and sciences. He wanted to build castles in the air. He lived his life, as Kenneth Clark said, in love with the impossible. His friend Daniel Gooch wrote on his death: ‘By his death the greatest of England’s engineers was lost, the man with the greatest originality of thought and power of execution, bold in his plans but right. The commercial world thought him extravagant; but although he was so, great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act.’

‘Great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act.’ This should be at the front of every evaluation report we do.

Brunel’s motto was ‘En Avant: forward!’ I hope in what I do next, I will continue to unite arts and sciences. To be a good ancestor. To build castles in the air. To live life in love with the impossible. To help deliver that dream of a resilient city of friends and to continually move forward. I hope you will work with all those now taking on our projects and with me. Thank you all.

Joanna Cave, board member (@JonCraig_Photos)
Edson Burton (contributor to Our Project Was the City), Andrew Kelly, Miles Chambers (first Bristol City Poet) and Simon Cooper (long-time project partner) at close of the event (@JonCraig_Photos)

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update