If you follow me on social media (@jon_pratty on Twitter, and jonnypratty on Instagram) you’ll know I’ve been busy taking an MA at Sussex University and I’m now heading towards a PhD project at Sussex, too. Behind the scenes, though, there’s much more to the story.
I’ve been involved in culture and the creative industries since 1985, and studied fine art at college for five years before that, so this is pretty much a life’s work. My career has mostly centred on writing, journalism and digital publishing, with recent activity heading towards programming and delivering creative media events for young people.
I’ve continued to work on side projects and commissions related to museums and galleries, and I’m currently enjoying helping a small north Kent venue, Minster Abbey Gatehouse museum, deliver an HLF-funded digitisation project. I’m also just starting to write regularly for Museums Journal, and a new piece about ethics, museums and Facebook will appear soon.
So why do a PhD? I’m not doing this because I want to have those letters after my name. I suspect some people carry out research because they want to stay in the university environment, but I haven’t personally met anyone who has admitted that. No – pretty much everyone I’ve met at Sussex (and other academic places where I have contacts) is passionate about exploring new ideas and having an impact on the knowledge base they’ve chosen to research.
I’m no different. After working at Arts Council England for five years, and enjoying the opportunity to influence strategy and impact on local arts audiences, I’m interested in how we can begin to help culture in local places sustain and develop in a difficult funding environment.
In my home town, Hastings, it’s difficult to make the case for new kinds of cultural and creative development. It’s a challenging place to be an artist or creative; there are few jobs, there’s a very flat town economy, and in the referendum Hastings voted to leave the EU. All these factors mean that to raise funds to begin new and positive projects, we need to be able to access evidence and case studies that show how to do it, from people who have successfully built and delivered the kind of work I’m interested in.
So one track in my PhD research is about how cultures grow in certain places, and not in others. I want to understand why Bristol is ‘The Playable City,’ and Leeds has Data Mill North because I need to make the case to local civic leaders, funders and stakeholders that investment in socially-centred digital culture projects like Hastings Creative Spring will eventually bring new jobs of the right kind to regional and rural Britain, as well as the Smart Cities of the future. We’re looking to uncover the social and economic justification for investment in creative industries and culture that civic leaders can understand, with evidence to back that up, in terms easily parsed in council discussions.
So that’s the seam of culture, society and place development that I’m keen to explore with my PhD proposal. I’m not sure where it will go, or what the end product will be, other than having a clear focus on the local needs I know I want to answer through the work.
My advantage as a researcher is that I have worked in the creative industries for 30 years, have a multitude of contacts, and know many of the place where hubs, clusters, creative communities and artist network have grown, matured, sustained and in some cases, closed down. I’m expecting to set a methodology that works through oral history interviews with a number of key people across the creative sectors in one major city, Brighton, and then I’ll carry out comparable interviews in other creative clusters to contrast with the Brighton work.
Initially, I intended to express the histories discovered in a graphic family tree and a searchable database, to allow analysis of the development and movement of individuals, creative agencies and companies in the places I’m exploring. This might change as I get further into the project.
In terms of my academic contacts and sector and research awareness, I’ve already been working and meeting with the key researchers and writers in creative industry development for the last ten years. In 2011 I initiated Brighton Digital Festival, which lead to subsequent discussions with NESTA, Wired Sussex, University of Brighton and the University of Sussex.
I was on the Advisory Board of the influential Brighton FUSE report, where I became friends with Professor Gillian Youngs, now Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Canterbury Christchurch University. Gillian wrote one of the most important papers in my literature review, The Internet of Place (2016). Gillian’s paper influenced my recent RSA blog about connectivity and community development and my 2018 paper for Museums and the Web in Vancouver, about developing a museum on the streets of Hastings.
As my PhD proposal nears completion, I’m sure other themes for exploration will emerge, and I’ll write about these on this blog.