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Bristol Ideas
Illustration depicting a collection of BCDP projects

Written by Andrew Kelly

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Andrew Kelly, director of Bristol Cultural Development Partnership (BCDP) from its start, reflects on the history of the organisation, the BCDP approach, and the move in 2021 to Bristol Ideas.

For over two decades, BCDP has delivered: the creation of At-Bristol (now We The Curious) and the renewal of many cultural organisations; a Capital of Culture bid and a four-year follow-on programme; a citywide reading of The Day of the Triffids; a national celebration of the life and work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel; over 2000 events in 15 years of Festival of Ideas; nine Festivals of Economics and three Festivals of the Future City. And there’s been much more – and more to come.

I was appointed in December 1992 and took up the role of director in April 1993. I had been working in the School of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford (I graduated from the school in 1983 and joined the staff) and then spent 18 months developing a media centre in Huddersfield. Within a few years I had gone from researching the non-nuclear balance of forces between NATO and the Warsaw Pact and the impact of a nuclear attack on some of Britain’s cities to building cultural facilities and helping lead a programme of transformation of a city’s culture.

I’d always been interested in the arts – an interest which has grown over the decades. But I’m also interested in cities; in management; in making change happen; in politics; science; and in issues like the environment. Anyone running the kind of programme we do – a programme which changes radically every one-to-two years – needs to have wide interests. Extensive reading and the assiduous gathering of information is essential. I guess this is why books and writing play such an important part in our work – especially with the ongoing Festival of Ideas but in many other areas as well.

* * *

BCDP was established following Peter Boyden’s detailed research and report in 1992. Funded by the three original BCDP partners – Arts Council England South West, Business West and Bristol City Council – the research investigated art forms in the city and their impact. It concluded that a body, independent of the partners but bringing them all together to plan long-term cultural development in the city, should be established. BCDP started work in 1993.

Each partner had their reasons for joining. Arts Council England South West felt that Bristol, as the capital of the region, should have higher and greater aspirations for cultural development and activity. Business West knew that culture is important to a city’s prosperity and saw cultural development as part of a wider programme that included an initiative to house the homeless and plans to mark the 500th anniversary of John Cabot’s sailing to America in 1497. Bristol City Council knew it needed to be more ambitious in its approach to culture and also had to work effectively with others in the city.

We were fortunate to have outstanding leaders from partners who saw the value of culture in cities. Bristol visionary John Savage led from the front; Louis Sherwood invested organisational ability, passion, networks and funding; Martyn Heighton and Councillor Crispin Taylor helped drag a sometimes reluctant city council to work in new ways; and Maggie Guillebaud, Chris Bates and Chris Butchers led Arts Council England into the work and the partnership. Without these and many others BCDP would not have been created and a huge debt is owed to all for their leadership and ongoing investment.

In recent years, both of Bristol’s universities have joined the partnership, fulfilling a long-held ambition to bring higher education into the organisation.

* * *

We have a ‘BCDP approach’ to our work: we seek to bring together the arts and sciences; embrace the widest possible range of organisations and individuals; build on, celebrate and commemorate Bristol’s unique history while looking to the present; and help raise and widen debate about ideas and issues crucial to the future.

BCDP aims to implement a few projects directly; influence as many organisations and individuals as possible to develop joint projects through coordination of initiatives, fundraising and marketing; and inspire widely so that all can participate and take pride in what the city does and has achieved. In this way, significant projects are created, with maximum impact, for relatively modest support from public funds. BCDP does the early work that few others are able to do – bringing together the partnerships, establishing the case for the project, raising funds. This means that organisations and artists can get on with the work they are best placed to do. It also strengthens the cultural sector and artists as funds raised by BCDP go to organisations, projects and artists directly – something we agreed from the start.  At its height BCDP has only ever had five employees.

At the heart of BCDP are core principles: Bristol’s past contributes to Bristol’s future; great art should be available to and celebrated by all; culture is about arts and sciences and embraces subsidised and commercial activity; the arts and the creative economy contribute to economic growth; partnership is critical – the more people and organisations that are involved in a project the greater the opportunity for successful creative thinking and action; lead where needed but work through and with others where possible and appropriate; extensive research is the basis for all work; marketing and campaigning are part of all projects; renewal of vision, work programme and activity is ongoing and based on thorough evaluation of all projects; long-term relationships are nurtured – especially in ideas, fundraising and project development; Bristol’s future is also the future of the West of England; and diversity is central to all work.

At the centre of it all is culture and the importance this has for people; for the place where they live, study, work or visit; for jobs and prosperity; and – most of all – for quality of life.

* * *

BCDP started work in 1993 in four main areas – all running alongside each other: making the case for Bristol; building the case for the partnership and partnership working; establishing at least one core project; and leading on the cultural redevelopment of Harbourside.

Much of the work of partnership building and planning is never seen publicly: strategy development, networking, fundraising, planning and marketing. This is often the most underestimated though time-consuming and exhausting of all work, and remains so to this day – at least 60 per cent of time is spent raising funds, building and managing networks and partnerships, and developing strategies and business plans.

Alongside this, there was a need to build confidence in Bristol. In 1993 Bristol was not regarded favourably by national funding bodies and national government. We couldn’t do much about government – though all we did at least contributed to a sense that change was happening and the city, in cultural terms, was moving forward. We had more success with national funding bodies and especially the lottery, then still young but one that offered opportunities which Bristol grasped eagerly.

Making the case for Bristol meant being involved in debates taking place elsewhere and those generated by BCDP (we ran a series of conferences with linked publications – an early one was on managing partnerships; another looked at the impact of arts and culture; two looked at legibility and cities); it meant accepting invitations to speak and attend many events; and far-reaching research was needed to underpin all work.

Considerable time was devoted to the renewal of the Harbourside area, then a priority for the city. New cultural institutes were regarded as essential, but these were always seen as coming at the end of the process, not at the beginning (the new cultural facilities came first as it happened). Plans for a new concert hall – the Harbourside Centre – were already in the job description for my post; alongside this was our proposal for a new centre looking at wildlife – the Electronic Zoo – joined soon after by a science centre with the move of the Exploratory from Temple Meads. This eventually became At-Bristol, now We The Curious.

It was an exciting time to be working on these projects. Harbourside is much better with the new and renewed cultural centres – though people were right to protest about the architectural quality of the housing.

In addition to the capital redevelopment of Harbourside, we ran a bid for the 1998 Year of Photography and the Electronic Image and launched and managed the film festival Brief Encounters, established as part of the national celebrations of the centenary of cinema in 1995 but which was successful enough to become an annual event.

The development of Brief Encounters was another good example of how BCDP worked. The idea started to develop in 1993 when I met with Aardman Animations. I knew of their work and an early visit to the offices was a treat. I asked them what we could do to help them. They said there were two things: faster planning permission with portacabins (needed for production) and projects that celebrated the media industry in the city. We tried but got nowhere on the portacabins but decided to go ahead with a festival that focussed on short film and animation and which celebrated Bristol and film-making internationally. The partnership that resulted – bringing together BBC, Aardman, other companies, Watershed and the universities – led to a festival which is now in its 26th year.

These early projects showed the BCDP approach at its best, even if the Harbourside Centre for the Performing Arts eventually failed and the Year of Photography bid was lost. They were about arts and sciences; they built on aspects of what Bristol was good at, even excelled in (hands-on science, animation and short film, natural history media); and BCDP did the work no-one else was able to do before handing over to others to run. They established the partnership as a key part of Bristol’s cultural planning and future and laid the foundations for the work to come.

* * *

At the heart of BCDP has been the city of Bristol and the future of cities. We need to get cities right. As the world urbanises rapidly, cities offer the solutions to the looming environmental crisis. At the same time, cities are developing in the wrong way: superstar cities becoming a world apart from the rest; growing inequality; a housing crisis; and tension and dispute over immigration.

Much of our work over 25 years has been about creating new organisations and institutions and festivals and strengthening the cultural organisations and activity in the city. We also wanted to make the city work for all. Bristol Legible City was an important development for us and we worked on this for over five years. This was a system unique to Bristol and one that highlighted the need to look at the city as well as individual projects. We asked the question: what’s the point of building new cultural facilities if people can’t find them? (hence the need for new maps and signage). But Bristol Legible City also meant that we could look at how people used and understood cities and bring in different disciplines and thinking. It saw us run three conferences and publish two books as well as help manage the project. I learned more about cities from this project than any other we have done.

Building on this, in 2015 we launched the Festival of the Future City as part of the European Green Capital year. We received an Arts Council England Exceptional award for our Bristol2015 work. This meant that we could support large-scale arts projects such as the Arcadia Spider in Queen Square and the Theaster Gates Sanctum work with Situations. We’d already run many projects as part of the year but felt that we needed to look at cities and the future of cities. This was to be more than the issue of sustainable cities: we’d covered that a lot in 2015. We wanted to have something that looked at all the issues facing cities: the housing crisis; how to deal with concerns about immigration and promote integration; the future of work; social mobility and inequality; cities and wildlife; and making sure that smart cities were ones for all, not just a few.

Over 20,000 people participated in the first festival and the linked Bristol2015 events. When we ran the second Festival of the Future City in 2017 – a much smaller programme with little build up – over 13,000 people were involved, making Bristol a centre for public debate about cities.

* * *

Inevitably there have been some failures and disappointments. The loss of the Harbourside Centre was a blow to the city: as well as it significantly expanding opportunities for music production and performance in the city, it would have added much to the renewed Harbourside area and become an international symbol of the new Bristol. It also dealt a psychological blow and for some years the appetite for large-scale cultural projects seemed to disappear. The renewal of Bristol Beacon (despite its escalating costs) and the plans for a new arena have begun to recapture some of that confidence.

Losing the 2008 Capital of Culture bid was another blow – this one more personal as well as a loss to the city. In truth, the odds were always stacked against us with a decision likely to be based on political and social need. But we also lost it ourselves. I learned from this to make sure that political leadership was solidly behind a bid. We wouldn’t have won, but to go into the final judging panel interview with a council in which no party was in control due to an inconclusive election result, meant that we gave the appearance of chaos when up until then – inside the council and out – we had shown unity and professionalism. It’s partly why I supported the case for an elected mayor for Bristol.

Despite this, it’s essential to apply for most awards. Bidding shows confidence; provides a tangible reason to plan and raise debate. The only failing in the end is to fail to plan for loss and defeat. On Bristol2008 we were prepared for this and – in addition to the campaign seeing culture rise up the political agenda rapidly over those three years – we received much financial support in the quasi-compensation deal established by national government which meant we could deliver Brunel200 and four other years of projects. There will never be another British city as European Capital of Culture because of Brexit.

Finally, it’s worth reflecting on leading and managing partnerships. Four years into the job I did an Executive MBA. I wanted to do a general MBA not a specialist one. I was keen to learn from others in public and private sectors (I think the academic staff appreciated having someone different, too: it must have been more interesting to read about Watershed – my dissertation subject – than change in the tyre industry or how to make shopping trolleys work better). It was at this time that I came across the work of Malcolm Gladwell. His book The Tipping Point articulates best what change agents need, especially the ability to connect, gather knowledge and market extensively. He summed up what being a partnership leader needs most of all. Anyone wanting to make change happen should read this.

* * *

There’s much more that could be covered here: the establishment of the Digital Arts Development Agency; getting South West Arts Marketing started; printing and distributing 85,000 copies of a 200-page cartoon history of Bristol; the time we commissioned 23 poets to write in the spirit of Romanticism and had 21 read their poems on the same evening; our first – and probably only – play, Frankenstein, commissioned to mark the time when Mary Shelley lived in Bristol; our short-lived Bristol Genius Awards (surely due a comeback). Each one represented something unique for Bristol; many built on the remarkable history of the city but looked to the future; each one – in a small way – helped move the city forward.

In 2019, it was decided to move to a new approach. Ideas – debates, learning, implementation – have become much more important to our work with the development of Festival of Ideas. There was a need, too, to unite all our areas of work – past, present and futures – in one coherent programme. As a result, and after much work, Bristol Ideas was born and replaced BCDP from March 2021.

There’s no doubt that Bristol is in a far better position than it was 25 years ago. The range and quality of cultural activity is stunning; the city is now seen as a cultural leader and is the city that others aspire to becoming. There have been many temporary setbacks – austerity measures in recent years and the pandemic have had short term problems and will cause long-term difficulties – but Bristol will bounce back. We can’t claim all the credit for this; our partnership has been a partner and colleague with many others, but it has helped change Bristol for the better. I feel fortunate to have been part of this.

In this short video, Andrew Kelly and others discuss some of the highlights of Bristol cultural development’s work and look at culture in the city. It was produced in 2018 by TV Production Partnership.

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