A year at the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Book hall in library

Looking back at a year of outstanding research across the range of arts and humanities, delivering the skills and creativity our economy and society need to flourish.

Extraordinarily a year has passed since I began as Executive Chair at the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The transition from a wonderful period of research funded by the Leverhulme Trust to my ‘first day at the office’ was mildly anticlimactic. I sat in the same chair and looked at the same computer as I had the day before, like so many others at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) who have started a new job in the pandemic.

I have still met just a handful of colleagues face to face, but I have had the extraordinary opportunity to travel virtually to see some of the amazing arts and humanities work across the UK and beyond.

I was so thrilled to have been asked to take up this position. Andrew Thompson had done a fantastic job of moving AHRC forwards, clearly exemplified by the report he co-authored with Lord Neil Mendoza on the impact of the pandemic on the cultural sector, Boundless Creativity. I was excited to take forward the critical aspects of what AHRC stands for:

  • outstanding research across our whole range of arts and humanities, integrated in the framework of opportunity afforded by UKRI
  • delivering the skills and creativity our economy and society need to flourish.

A challenging climate

Of course, times could have been more propitious. I started in a pandemic. The creative sector, which is so important to what we do, was in crisis as a result of lockdown, although as we were also able to track it responded in extraordinary ways.

In addition, we were – and still are – in a challenging landscape where budgets are under immense pressure. We continue to feel the effect of the reduction in official development assistance, which has resulted in a loss of over £20 million expected annual grant funding from AHRC’s portfolio alone. It is within this landscape that it has become even more critical to demonstrate how essential the arts and humanities are for:

  • individuals
  • communities
  • societies across the globe.

An optimistic outlook

So why do I remain optimistic? Why is this still the best job I could imagine doing right now, even though it has also been the hardest I have ever undertaken?

First, we have an extraordinary team in AHRC and across UKRI. I have seen teams put enormous intellectual and emotional commitment into their work. For example:

  • mobilising to support COVID-19 rapid response work
  • trying to direct additional funding to postgraduates in desperate need of support through the pandemic
  • standing up schemes to start to rebuild our international work
  • supporting each other, the effort has been tremendous.

AHRC has one of the most ambitious employee engagement plans I have seen, and I am determined to work to improve both job satisfaction and recognition externally of the work that colleagues are doing.

Shaping a vision for the arts and humanities

Credit: Helen Weedon

Second, we have rapidly moved to identify clearly and sharply what we are, what we stand for. We have a vision, which was developed in collaboration with staff, and has been widely disseminated, and welcomed in the universities I have been able to visit virtually.

The next step is to make it happen, and we have begun to think about a theory of change model that will take us through the next years, to help us prioritise, and make us focus on making a difference. Arts and humanities are profoundly and inextricably linked to facing contemporary challenges and imagining our future anew. That is where we must stand and where we must lead.

Third, I came into an organisation shaken by the events of the Black Lives Matter protests. It was a moment of reflective honesty and since then we have seen how our ethnicity diversity and inclusion (EDI) data (that represents our communities and their experiences) leaves us with a huge amount of work to do.

UKRI is addressing this collectively through the development of its EDI strategy. At a council level, AHRC has published an EDI vision statement and action plan with key performance indicators. We are working hard with UKRI, the wider research and innovation sector and our communities to deliver on this. We cannot let the events of last July become a memory, of all research councils, we cannot let history be inactive.

Being the funder our sector deserves

We are beginning to frame a cumulative programme of research that addresses with clarity and focus some of these challenges, from inequity to injustice to instability, but focuses on solutions, from culture to creativity to resilience.

And if we succeed in linking our vision and our brilliant researchers through a theory of change that emphasises how we foreground equitable partnership, inclusive definitions of excellence and interdisciplinary exchange as a norm, we will be the funder that our sector deserves and needs.

There are challenges of course. A recent article in ‘the Higher’ cheerfully claimed that our funding hasn’t declined as a percentage, but the percentage is low (and the analysis excludes the ODA cut). I don’t see arts and humanities in decline so much as in transformation, as arts and humanities become ever more intricately bound into a virtuous circle of collaboration:

are all flourishing.

Credit: Helen Weedon

And increasingly even in our subjects, as other sciences have already done, large problems are being tackled by teams not individuals, integrating different voices and viewpoints. But this is more expensive to do and to do well and equitably, and we must break the cycle of low funding leading to low return and ever lower expectations.

Quality-related research is crucial for the basic health of arts and humanities, but we have to learn from our colleagues how targeted funding is critical to winning arguments for our flourishing.

Sketching the path to a better future

The first project I saw as incoming Executive Chair at AHRC was the partnership with the V&A museum to work on the Glastonbury Festival archive. Building on long standing links, this was a perfect way to work with an independent research organisation to secure the long-term future and research potential of a unique 50-year record of:

  • social history
  • changing fashion and ideas
  • the influence of music.

Credit: Helen Weedon

Earlier this summer, in my first visit to a museum after re-opening, I saw the archives showcased brilliantly throughout the V&A standing collection:

  • the documents of an open-air festival in counterpoise to Constable’s paintings of fields
  • portraits of faces from the last fifty years in a gallery of portraits from two hundred years ago.

I saw it with curators and a group of wonderful, enthused and fired up students from London Southbank University who had worked on the material. And I remembered then, as I remind myself every day, that this job isn’t just about arts and humanities as disciplines. It is about us as humans:

  • cherishing those who have gone before
  • finding a way through the challenges we face now
  • sketching the paths to a better future for us all.

Top image:  Credit: Thi Soares / Getty Images

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