Supporting innovation, facilitating engagement – VCSE fund launch

Dr Eve Forrest, ESRC IAA Officer and member of the VCSE Steering Group went along to the VCSE launch, here she tells us more about the event

Last week on a warm and sunny afternoon I popped along to the Courtyard restaurant on Newcastle campus. The room was full of new and existing external partners as well as some staff members who were there to hear more about the new University Innovation and Support programme, listen to presentations about previous and ongoing projects and to gather ideas as to how they could take part in the pilot scheme. The University wishes to strengthen links with local community groups and voluntary sector organisations and have teamed up with the folks at VONNE and Youth Focus North East to run a pilot programme over the summer. The scheme will partner up Newcastle researchers with different organisations that have identified an issue or idea they would like to explore in more detail and are looking to fund a number of projects up to the value of £3000 each. As the title suggests we hope that this will stimulate innovative ideas between external partners and the University, hopefully leading to larger collaborations in the future.

Professor Richard Davies, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Engagement and Internationalization opened up proceedings by welcoming attendees and highlighting the commitment from the University to supporting the scheme as part of a wide range of engagement activities. There was then a number of short presentations outlining some of the varied collaborations we have already done with VCSE organisations from academic secondments into Wallsend Action for Youth, to working with IBM on delivering the small business mentoring project CAPTURED.

Once the project presentations finished, discussions began and the room began to fill up with animated conversations. Attendees didn’t need any further encouragement to network and with huge enthusiasm shared their ideas with staff and other local organisations.

To help capture some of the discussions there were postcards on all the tables where attendees could write down any initial ideas with a view to perhaps working them up into a larger projects. These were gathered at the end for follow-up when the scheme opens. It was really inspiring to hear about the work of various small, medium and large organisations in the North-East and as a member of the VCSE Steering Group, I am looking forward to hearing about how some of these conversations will grow into concrete ideas and longer term partnerships.

The fund was launched on the 20th July 2017 and will be open until 20th September 2017. For more information on the scheme and our previous partnerships please visit the VCSE pages here.

Planning your engagement and evaluation strategies

What are some key things to remember when planning your engagement and evaluation strategies and how can your research partners help? Adam Goldwater from TWAM and Eve Forrest from Newcastle University tell us about a recent event in conjunction with TWAM  and supported by NUHRI and NICAP that considered different issues that arise from planning your engagement and evaluation alongside some of the methods for information gathering that were available to researchers.

The event on the 30th March in conjunction at TWAM at Newcastle University was named ‘From Afterthought to Forethought: Planning Your Engagement and Evaluation strategies’. What we really wanted to highlight with this title and throughout the day was that researchers, in collaboration with their partners, should think about the ways the project could be evaluated and how they plan to engage audiences at the beginning, rather than as a last dash attempt at the end of the project.

The event was broken into two sections. The first was a set of presentations to set the scene for later discussion. Caroline MacDonald, Museum Manager at the Great North Museum (GNM) Hancock gave a brief overview of the history of the Hancock its collections and relationship with the University. Angie Scott, Impact Officer for HaSS  then told us how public engagement can lead to impact and an update on what is known about REF 2021.  There was then presentations from a range of subject areas that discussed past, present and future collaborative case studies between the University and TWAM

Evaluation and Engagement strategy event

The rest of the day was structured around discussion-led workshops led by Adam Goldwater and Angie Scott which asked attendees to contemplate about how they might plan their evaluation strategies (either with current projects or future ones) and the possible methods that can be used for evidence gathering.  What came through in each of these workshops is that this seemingly simple task is often far more complex than many might realise when they are embarking on the planned exhibition or activity. For example, if a research project states that it wishes to change attitudes towards a certain subject, how might this be explored and then evidenced? To show a change in attitude, there must be a capturing of what was thought before and then after. This might be through interviews, feedback cards or focus groups all of which is time-consuming information to collect.

TWAM staff are there to support researchers in gathering evidence as they have a wide range of tools at their disposal. GNM staff also have large experience with audiences given the amount of visitors to the museum each year: 500, 000 visitors come through the doors annually alongside 24,500 school children. They can suggest specific engagement activities that can help enhance the wider impact of your ideas.

However one key thing to stress is that this process is far easier if partners are involved in an active dialogue from the very beginning of the project. Building this relationship also helps tackle other legacy issues that often arise after project completion. Who will be in charge of the resources during and after the event or activity? What are the expectations of the partner organisation? Continued conversations in the planning stages help establish these boundaries.

mind maps for evaluation

Methods for evaluation can be numerous and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach as each project has its own aims and objectives. Again ask partner organisations for their input as they might have innovative ideas that they would like to use that you may not have considered. Maybe the best approach for engagement and evaluation is to work backwards from 2 simple questions and ask how collaborators can feed in this process:

What do I want to know about my project or activity?
What ways can I find this out?

One key thing to remember is that evaluation is much more than simple information gathering. It is an explorative process which should ask fundamental questions about the information that is gathered, what it means, how it can be interpreted, and exactly who has contributed to the information you have. Starting at this end evaluation point from the beginning of the project can give a sense of how you might achieve your aims and objectives and gather the information you need to assess the impact you want to have in the longer term.

Upward and Outward: Considering the impact of creative and artist ‘hubs’

Tomorrow, the 4th March, the artist-led studios of the NewBridge project in Newcastle city centre will be emptied out in preparation for the demolition of the building later in the month. Over the past seven years the project has offered an inexpensive studio space to hundreds of artists both locally, nationally and internationally from diverse areas of practice, giving them the opportunity to create and develop their work, then exhibiting in the gallery on the ground floor and around other cultural venues in the city. From October 2016 until February 2017 researchers from Newcastle University documented the different conversations, practices, spaces and exhibitions within the studio building, Norham House, a project that soon became a piece of ‘rescue archaeology’ as the current tenants were given notice of their eviction from the building.

The completion of this project and indeed, the destruction of the building was marked by a research event on 1st March where Dr Martyn Hudson presented a short summary of the findings of his recent work (which can be found at the bottom of this post). He spoke of the constant ‘contest of ideas’ within the building, a project with a deeply ‘bottom-up’ structure that helped form a unique space of creative practice, which will hopefully be extended into the new home for the project when it moves to Carliol House.


An assortment of chairs, like the contest of ideas found in the NewBridge project event

The presentation was followed by a thought-provoking panel discussion chaired by Newcastle University researcher Ed Wainwright (School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape) who has been working alongside David Butler (School of Arts and Cultures), Paul Richter (Business School) and Martyn Hudson to document the current organisation of NewBridge and the creative culture found within the building. The panel began by asking its members (Sarah Munro, Director, Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art; John Tomaney, Professor at University College London (UCL) Hans Moller, Director of Innovation at North East LEP; Julia Heslop, NewBridge Artist):

What is the impact of creative hubs and organisations like NewBridge on places, individuals, and the arts sector and on regeneration?”

The answers from the panel were varied and provoked a range of responses from different perspectives surrounding impact of cultural industries. Julia Heslop discussed the importance and impact of thinking creatively on wider communities beyond NewBridge alongside the availability of truly affordable space for artists in city centre locations undergoing processes of urban ‘regeneration’. John Tomaney noted that often impact in other industries is mapped in larger-scale economic terms, however the cultural sector operates very differently. He suggested a move away from a purely financial measurement model, instead thinking about civic impact and cultural gain at a micro or community level – focusing on the small changes that can make real differences to local life and the vitality of our cities.

Hans Moller brought an international perspective and saw the potential for creative hubs such as NewBridge to become centres for ‘innovation’, an approach used in his previous role as CEO of Ideon Science Park in Lund but currently less prevalent in the North East. He noted that the varied creative ideas which spilled out of NewBridge were incubated in this space which has a huge social impact on those outside the building, a process that universities must also be a part of.  Sarah Munro added that the clashes of ideas that happen in creative hubs are vital for new work to be both generated and tested in an ad-hoc way that larger organisations such as The Baltic rely upon. Sarah also emphasised how ideas of civic impact shapes their programming and exhibitions alongside their internal processes and organisational practices.


The walls support practice in the soon-to-be-vanishing NewBridge studio space (Practice Makes Practice is a Newcastle Institute for Creative Arts Practice funded initiative, in collaboration with the NewBridge Project, to support graduate artists with skills and training for professionalising their art careers)

The issues brought up by these different voices speak to the wider questions of how The Arts are valued more generally in society and how they can impact on a wide array of local communities. However difficulties still remain in trying to trace and evidence the way The Arts shape, change and support thinking outside these particular spaces. How can thoughts or feelings and the impact of ideas on individuals really be measured? The attendance at this particular event (the room was packed) speaks to how significant NewBridge is to the cultural landscape of Newcastle and beyond, and how these discussions around understanding value in the arts needs to be communicated to broader publics.

It seems appropriate that ‘Moving on Up, Moving on Out’ is the name of the final exhibit at NewBridge before it closes its doors, as this title neatly summarises the direction of travel when it comes to the ideas that are housed within the NewBridge walls. Where concepts come from the ‘bottom-up’ – from practising artists, they can grow outward into the local communities and could begin to feed into local governmental structures and on into other places and spaces around the region. NewBridge 2.0 will be housed around the corner in Carliol House, here’s hoping that it continues to challenge, disrupt and make an impact.