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The City is the Project: Bristol Ideas 1992-2023

Andrew Kelly

Written by Andrew Kelly

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Andrew Kelly introduces the first results of an 18-month research project that looks at the work and impact of Bristol Ideas. The project – run in partnership with Bennett Institute, University of Cambridge – involved detailed research into the ideas of cultural planning, the work of Bristol Ideas, an assessment of its impact, and an examination of how others have seen and worked with the organisation. The research included 60 in-depth interviews. The research was completed, and the report written, before the decision was made by the Bristol Ideas’ board to close the company in May 2024.

For 30 years Bristol Ideas – formerly Bristol Cultural Development Partnership (Bristol City Council, Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative and South West Arts) – has been central to the cultural life of the city. It has led many projects and festivals and supported and commissioned hundreds of organisations, writers, artists, poets, engineers, and scientists to develop and deliver new work. The original three partners were later joined by Bristol’s universities.

Bristol Ideas founded We the Curious and Encounters Film Festival; it led and directed major citywide projects including Brunel 200 (2006), BAC 100 – on the 100th anniversary of the Bristol Aeroplane Company (2010), Bristol 2014 on the city and the First World War, Homes for Heroes 100 on the history and future of council housing (2019) and celebrations of Bristol as a city of film and of poetry; ran nine Great Reading Adventures – reaching tens of thousands of people in the city and, in some years, across the UK; and helped many cultural organisations with advice, funding and support.

Bristol Ideas’ festivals are known locally, nationally, and internationally for promoting and leading debate about ideas, economics, and cities.

Bristol Ideas has also been involved in many other initiatives, including Bristol Legible City, European Green Capital 2015, and work on governance in the city. Two major projects – The Harbourside Centre and the Bristol 2008 European Capital of Culture bid – were not successful but inspired the creation of M Shed and the renewal of Bristol Beacon. The 2008 bid saw culture placed high on the city agenda and many of the projects promised were delivered in the years that followed. A campaign like this is needed now.

Eighteen months ago, Bristol Ideas started work with Bennett Institute Cambridge on research looking at Bristol Ideas. This aimed to bring together a history of the organisation and an assessment of its impact. ‘The City is the Project – The work and impact of Bristol Ideas 1992–2023’ – the first results of this research – is available here.

This first stage of research looked at impact – an attempt to measure the difference we have made. Funders demand evidence of impact and yet it is hard to assess. This is something that all involved in cultural projects have grappled with over many decades. And we have been through it all: economic, social, and cultural; our contribution to social capital and social infrastructure; building an intercultural society. We have produced detailed evaluation reports which bring together data gathered and attempts to assess qualitative and quantitative impact, but question sometimes the use made of these.

We have also been asked by some funders to assess what they called our ‘soft power’, the help given to organisations and individuals. There are hundreds of examples of this but, beyond listing these, that was hard too. What is the extent of our impact of opening a door for someone to a potential funder or sponsor; giving some advice on getting a better board; offering marketing support?   

I asked each interviewee about this. I felt the best answer, the one that came closest to what I have learned over 30 years, was from Nick Pearce at Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath: ‘I think we should have the confidence to do cultural programming, arts, civic activity, without reference to instrumental metrics’ he said. ‘Which is not to say that you don’t generate any evidence, or you don’t think about what you’re achieving…but you don’t reduce the activity to a cost benefit analysis or to a metric of something.’

And I liked this from Kami Lamakan, who attends our events: ‘Festival of Ideas has been a significant part of my nearly 30 years in Bristol. I remember conversations with friends going on long into the night after listening to a speaker. The work that you have done over the years will have left a lot of people wiser than they would have been without the experience and hopefully this has made us make better decisions (or at least less bad decisions) individually and collectively. Not many people get to nudge cities/organisations/populations on better paths than they would have gone left to their own devices. That is quite a legacy.’

This helped us conclude that Bristol Ideas has helped build social capital – the bridging and bonding needed for society to function; created social infrastructure – the facilities and projects needed for people to meet to discuss, navigate differences and try to come up with shared ways forward; and promoted better civic governance through learning about the past to help inform current and future decision-making.

What it has not been possible to assess is the results of hopes we had for Brunel 200 in 2006 (to get more girls into engineering) and in 2019 (to encourage more council house building), for example. The time to assess these is 10/15 years on, but no-one will fund the longitudinal studies needed. In any case, we can only make a small contribution. It needs others to contribute too. I have always felt we needed a programme for the arts like the University of Bristol’s Children of the Nineties project – which won one of our Bristol Genius awards for the best Bristol Idea – but no-one will fund this.

What we do have is this in-depth assessment of our work with 60 interviews, all transcribed, with a wealth of material about Bristol Ideas and about culture in the city. Since these were completed, additional interviews have been held with others involved in the early days of the project, as well as officers and mayors in other places to assess the current state of cultural planning.

What will happen next with the research? There are more interviews planned. We will publish case studies of our work (which have been requested by many as a better indication of impact than hard numbers); the publication, when agreed, of as many interviews as possible; an oral history of Bristol Ideas; and a book on Bristol Ideas to be published in late April 2024 to coincide with the closure of the company.

The final point is about the importance of partnerships. A key principle through 30 years of work has been to work with and through others. By doing this, and not building a large central office and employing large numbers of staff, we have been able to put almost all the funding raised for projects into the hands of artists, writers, poets, engineers, and organisations. That has been successful, and I like to think this has strengthened their work.

It is that principle that may see some of the work of Bristol Ideas saved. By working with others again, there is an opportunity to see them take this work on. At the same time, finalising the research will enable other learning to take place. There’s much more to come on this.  

To read the full report, please click here.

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