Q & A: Vanessa Toulmin: City engagement director, Sheffield University
Sheffield University has stepped up its role within the city since austerity cuts hit. ‘Professor Vanessa’ – academic and circus director – has been appointed to head up the university’s engagement with the city, and talks to New Start about maker culture, creativity and running a city like a circus
Q. What is your role at Sheffield University?
A. My job is director of city and cultural engagement. I have a team and resources to help and support the city in various ways, with a particular focus on cultural and city centre vibrancy. The university is not there to replace one large autocratic organisation with another but to enable better partnerships between individuals and groups in the city and offer support. My background is as a circus director and producer, and I see my role as helping the bottom up to join with the top down. In a circus no one is top of the bill. Previously the city used to be more of a top-down pyramid where there was a lead act. I want everyone to have a turn in the ring.
Q. What kind of things has the university helped support in the city?
A. It has been involved in Renew Sheffield, looking at Meanwhile use for empty buildings in the city. The two universities funded a post an officer to give knowledge to people and we are also supporting small businesses to get started in these Meanwhile use buildings. We were involved in setting up the Business improvement district to make sure that culture and creative vibrancy was part of central offer and we have set up the Sheffield Culture Consortium to bring together cultural organisations in the city. We have given grants out for creative partnerships, we have run the Festival of the Mind, and are helping develop the creative economy of Sheffield.
The university is helping the city to understand the devolution of power and providing resources. The large cities no longer have the power and money to support cultural vibrancy. Rather than arguing about who gets a bigger slice of the pie that is diminishing I’m saying “let’s come together and build a bigger pie”. It’s about building a coalition of the willing, getting people on board because you want to work together not because you want the money. The vision is to make Sheffield the city we know it can be.
‘The city used to be more of a top-down pyramid where there was a lead act.
I want everyone to have a turn in the ring’.
Q. Are you doing something the council can no longer do?
A. The council accepts it’s not able to do some aspects that it used to do but they also did it in an autocratic, patriarchal manner. We’ve brought in a more reflective and creative and bottom-up style. We are able to see short cuts that are not about reduction of funding but a more direct way of doing things. For a long time local authorities have been hindered by process.
We work in partnership with the council, They came to us and told us what areas to work on. Some things we can help with and others we can’t. It’s a two-way process. I’m part of a bigger partnership at the university looking at economic renewal and advanced manufacturing. The university was part of the devolution deal and helped bring it to the table. We are seen as a good referee. It’s not done as big brother but as a caring considerate sister who wants to help.
The university has probably always done a lot of this but now we’ve brought it all together and our involvement is central and strategic. We are accepting that universities are civic and need to be involved in integrated way.
Q. Your key focus is the creative economy in Sheffield.
A. Yes. I look at it as an academic and say, “If our arts scene is so great where is the evidence?” It’s amazing that work hasn’t been done, so we’re doing it now. Other cities say that they are music cities, but Sheffield has 63 recording studios and a great music legacy so why aren’t we shouting about it? It’s about taking all the city’s unique selling points and cutting across barriers and sectors within the city as well as externally.
Next year we are putting on a combined production between the universities, the cultural consortium and the businesses called the Year of Making. We are bringing all the strengths of Sheffield together as a city of makers. We make art, we make people, we do manufacturing. We’ve put money in to do joint commissions and demonstrate the strengths of the city’s making culture.
We also want to ask questions about what’s good about the cultural offer and what’s going to happen to it in the next five years. Where will the next Arctic Monkeys coming from? Maybe there isn’t a building for them to practice in. We need to ask the questions.
I’m a historian and I like the idea that waves of history are currents and tides. You don’t get the crest of the wave unless you’ve got the tide. We have to embed that current and we might not see where it goes. It’s a long-term issue.
Q. You see your role as networking the city?
A. A lot of networks are actually there but the city was siloed. It’s just bringing the networks together. For years people were working in isolation or people were coming together through personal networks. It’s about putting a more professional structure on.
Q. Some say that Sheffield has low aspirations. Would you agree?
A. Sheffield is a reticent city and that comes from being a city that makes things. It never sold things as people always sold things for it. I was brought up in Manchester and was taught to buy and sell and to go out and ask. Sheffield is about making and we need to give it the opportunity to tell that story.
I think of cities as like that Artic Monkey song, ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor’. Some cities will go out and hog the dance floor and don’t care if they can actually dance. Other cities are like the prettiest girl who is asked to dance and then shows off her skill. Then there are cities that are like three girls dancing around their handbags and going for it. Sheffield is the pretty girl sitting by the wall with no one asking her to dance. She doesn’t realise how beautiful she is and might just be the best dancer in the room.
Q. Can the city return to the economic strength and influence it once had?
A. The Little Mesters tradition is there in the DNA of the city and its architectural footprint – the little sheds and workshops. Two hundred years ago the Master Cutler and the Company of Cutlers’ Association came together and pulled that tradition into a cohesive economic strand and what we have to do now is look at how the Creative Guild and the Cultural Consortium can take that Mesters tradition to the next step. That’s my challenge.