20 years of rich and reflective practice-based research: The Clore Leadership/AHRC Online Research Library

It’s really exciting to be able to announce the launch of our new Online Research Library, showcasing the outputs of two decades of collaborative working between Clore Leadership and The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). I’ve led the cataloguing and curation of the project on behalf of both organisations. This post will share a little of the context in which the Online Research Library (henceforth ‘the library’ or ‘the research library’) has come about, and introduce some of the key methods and themes it covers. The post here reproduces a presentation I gave at the January 2024 launch webinar for the research library, which you can watch online here. As with all good resources the best way to really understand it is to have a browse, so I’d urge readers to take a quick scan of this or the video, and then dive right in!

First a bit about me. By training I’m an archaeologist and a historian, with a fairly quirky set of specialisms. Firstly the material culture and archaeology of London pubs, and secondly public engagement around heritage and archaeological sites. And I suppose I did take both of those into the research Library as a project. Mine is a research background – holding together big piles of references and data, but it's also about thinking about useability and how people navigate and engage with different forms of knowledge. I’ve worked on a few different database and digital projects and I have to say this was really one of the richest and liveliest!

I also undertook the Clore Fellowship in 2022-23, and was just in the process of finishing when the contract was advertised, so bid for it on a freelance basis as an opportunity to extend the leadership thinking and was really delighted to be appointed. I also hold one of the current round of Research Grants that Clore Leadership awards to alumni of the Fellowship, which I’m using to look at Heritage Action Zone investment and how it intersects with local voluntary sector orgs in three places around England. This paper will be uploaded to the library in the next few months so watch this space. 

Research and Clore Leadership

Research, supervised by University Academics, has been part of the Clore Leadership’s work from the outset. It was conceived originally in 2004 by founding director Chris Smith (now Lord Smith of Finsbury), as an opportunity for fellows to undertake “research, reflection, and writing on a subject of practical relevance to the field in which they are working”.  

The partnership with AHRC has centred on the provision of an award to enable Clore Leadership Fellows to undertake a focused research project which is supervised by an academic at a UK university. This was a mandatory requirement of participation in the Fellowship programme for the first five years, then transitioned to an elective process whereby fellows who have taken part in the fellowship in the previous three years can apply.  

The Research Library completes a feedback loop around this process by making the research produced by the partnership available online and open access. Currently, the library comprises almost 100 research papers from 2005 to the present day, across 17 different AHRC subject areas (as defined in AHRC’s Research Funding Guide)

The word cloud here depicts words by frequency from all of the titles of the papers uploaded to the research library. The diversity of terms and topics reflects the range of different cultural practices and backgrounds that Fellows have brought to their research. Encountering this huge range of cultural practice is one of the joys of the fellowship – our Fellowship cohort had me as an archaeologist in a room with practitioners engaged in street puppetry in New Delhi, queer theatre in Brighton, and classical music in Hong Kong. Because the Fellowship process emphasises exchange and collaboration between cultural disciplines we also often see research that explores links and potential cross-fertilisations between them. 

Questions focus on different aspects of leadership including moral and philosophical dimensions – for example Jigisha Patel’s Doing the right thing: An ethical analysis of Cultural Leadership – which looks at how leaders in 12 national UK cultural institutions make their decisions and puts this in a context of recent ethical debates in academia. 

More practical issues such as fundraising or community ownership are also covered, and it is interesting to note how these crop up at different points in time and in response to particular events. For example after 2008, in a context of rapidly contracting public funding for the arts in the UK and elsewhere, we see more examples of research into different funding models, especially corporate or private sector funds, examples of which include Tom Harvey in 2008 and Ariane Koek in 2009. 

Climate and sustainability are themes across the papers, but we do see a lot more focussed questions about them since the beginning of the 2020s, as shown by the work of Sarah Bird, Sarah Stannage, and Stephen Bennett, who also draws a direct link to policy in his research. 

Whilst topics are very diverse, we do see quite a bit of commonality in approaches. There is a predominance of social research techniques e.g. Interviews and case study investigations. I think this reflects the platform that the fellowship offers – it’s a really good excuse to ask a huge range of people what they’re working on and how it's going. My own project is definitely following this format, with three case study places in which I’m interviewing a range of people involved in the projects I’m looking at. 

We also often see surveys across particular areas of cultural practice or practice in a particular place. This is really part of the process of stepping off the hamster wheel and having the opportunity to step back and look at what is going on in your field more widely. Examples look at all kinds of different aspects of cultural work, for example Subnum Hariff’s case study approach examining branding strategies of UK Public Libraries, or Amy Golding’s: Bubbling Under: A report on the future of fringe in Newcastle/Gateshead from 2014. 

Underpinning all of these approaches and topics are rigorous links between practice and academic literatures. It’s hard, when you’re in delivery – even in my experience of working in a UKRI accredited Independent Research Organisation (so even when it’s part of your job to devise research) to stay across the full gamut of academic debate. Supervision from university academics is key to supporting this part of the research process.

Generous Leadership and Long-term Impact 

There are some really fantastic examples of generous leadership in the research library, where fellows have produced not just a research paper but a set of tools or approaches that can support growth and development in the sector. Examples include: 

We can also see how established cultural leaders who have come through the fellowship programme pursue research interests well into their careers. Examples here include Moira Sinclair, whose research into Arts and Health as part of the first Clore Fellowship cohort has carried through in her leadership of both the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Mayor of London’s Cultural Leadership Board - in the latter case particularly through the London Creative Health City initiative.  

Exploration and Growth!

I hope this has given a flavour of how the Clore Leadership/AHRC Research Library works and has come together, and inspired you to go and explore! You can read more about the process and how the library is organised in the full introductory essay here

Perhaps one of the most exciting things about the research library is that it is a permanent online home for all of the outputs of the Clore Leadership/AHRC partnership around research. This includes many brilliant ones that may be in draft and others that have yet to be conceived or written, addressing future opportunities and challenges for the cultural sector. I’m excited to watch this body of research grow and strengthen, and I hope you are too!