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Averting a cultural catastrophe

by Aarron Toal, Postdoctoral Research Associate – April 2021

The creative sector has been hit hard. Those working within creative industries have found themselves exposed to the full force of pandemic restrictions. The situation within the North East of England is particularly alarming, described as a ‘cultural catastrophe’ with projected losses of £400 million to the regional economy and thousands of jobs lost, making it one of the most impacted areas in the country.

The consequences on regional businesses such as theatres, galleries and museums are felt by all, not just those who work within them. In an ironic turn, when many have sought solace during lockdowns with music, film and television online, industries like these have to face a multitude of challenges. Creative practices are the lifeblood of our own regional and cultural identity. Losing them would have far-reaching consequences for years to come, and researchers at Durham University Business School are committed to doing something about that.

The power of five

Creative Fuse North East (CFNE) is an exciting collaboration between the North East’s five universities. A multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder action research project, we work alongside industry, cultural organisations, charities and the public sector to explore how small businesses within the Creative, Digital and IT sector can have a sustainable future, whilst promoting the social and economic value they bring to the region.

To meet these goals, the dedicated team at Durham University is seeking to empower local creative businesses, sole traders, freelancers and practitioners through various development initiatives, networking opportunities and research collaborations. One such initiative includes their recently launched programme of support – called Your Journey – targeted at Durham-based creative practitioners who are now, more than ever, in need of a helping hand.


Durham impact

Durham University’s Creative Fuse team, predominantly based within the Business School, is led by Principal Investigator Dr Mariann Hardey, working with myself and Dr Ladan Cockshut, Senior Researcher and supported by Coordinator, Ann Howard, and Business Development Manager within Advanced Research Computing, Ed Ruck-Keene. Adopting a regional focus, the team is committed to developing connections with creative and digital businesses within the county, exploring ways to bring growth and innovation opportunities whilst fostering a diverse community of learning through its programme of support.

Through action research, the team directly engages with creative businesses to understand the current challenges being faced, allowing for a continuous portfolio of bespoke content to be designed around identified development and support needs. The team brings together an extensive mixture of ideas and skills from creative, design and technology disciplines through our own professional or research expertise and from contacts within the wider University or business community, allowing for the delivery of impactful events and workshops.

Over the past six months, direct business support has enabled dozens of local small businesses to take part in a bespoke programme of events and workshops offered by the team.

These events have included themes of innovation and pivoting in response to new ways of working and selling, embracing digital tools to develop an online presence and reach new audiences. They have also looked at techniques to recognise what the future of small businesses looks like within the creative sector, whilst identifying ways to successfully adapt to changing work environments.


Networking opportunities

Not only do these workshops deliver engaging support material, but also serve as a catalyst for new business ventures and networking opportunities. Owen Weightman, owner of 3D Virtual Spaces, a Durham-based small business that specialises in creating interactive virtual tours, engaged with the project. He explains: “Over the last few months, my involvement in the Creative Fuse programme has definitely helped my company to develop.

“The training and discussion groups have allowed me to learn a lot about myself and focus on how I can use creativity to improve my strategies and services. Being involved with such a varied mixture of businesses not only allows everyone to help and support each other, but also acts as a powerful networking tool.”

Engaging with such a diverse range of businesses is only possible through the interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues across the Business School and wider University. Also, by working with those stemming from a wide range of disciplines across all five North East universities involved in Creative Fuse, the project continues to demonstrate the benefits of such collaborative efforts, and how they foster new opportunities for building impactful connections within the region.

The project also provides the chance for innovative research collaborations, with one example seeing the team engage with The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, offering guidance and support on research design for a participatory methods project, where people will play an active and influential part to hopefully promote further business development.

As Jess White, of The Bowes Museum, reflects: “I really welcomed the opportunity to network with other creatives in the North East, particularly because I am not originally from here, I am from Essex and I started a new role back in March 2020, two days before The Bowes Museum, (where I currently work as the Project Coordinator for Engaging Audiences) had to close due to the first national lockdown. Meeting new people has not really been possible, the way you would normally, so I welcomed this opportunity to connect with other creatives I had not met before living and working in the North East.”