My colleagues gave me a good luck card when I left The National Archives for six months to complete a Clore fellowship in cultural leadership. On the front is a picture of a man jumping out of an aeroplane, in the unnerving moments before his parachute has opened. He’s suspended in space, with nothing but clouds visible beneath him.
While I’ve never done a parachute jump myself, I think this image of free fall is a pretty good metaphor for what it’s like to be a Clore fellow. You usually leave your job; you may also leave your home, family and friends. Plunged into new surroundings, you quickly lose your bearings and see your work and life from entirely different perspectives. Strange things become familiar, and familiar things strange. Rationally you know you’ll probably be OK – after all, you have a trusty parachute in the form of the Clore team and your super-supportive cohort of fellows – but jumping into the unknown still feels like a risk.
A week away from the end of the fellowship, I’m taking stock of what I’ve learned. It’s clear to me that although I’m on the verge of returning to my old role at The National Archives, in many other respects I’m in a different place. Summing up my learning in a single blog entry feels like a challenge, but I’ll do my best.
Firstly, my self-knowledge has deepened. I’ve discovered that I’m stronger than I thought I was, I’ve gained in confidence, and I’ve been told I’m speaking more loudly than before. I’m less hard on myself, and more in touch with my fun side. Finding my voice has been a big theme for me: I’m better able to articulate what I want, I’m more willing to say what I think, and I’ve found out all over again how much I love to write.
One of the ways I’ve learned about myself is by becoming much better connected across the arts and cultural sector. This isn’t simply a case of having met lots of influential people, or knowing who to contact if I have a question. More importantly, it’s about having a powerful support network and understanding that what I have to offer professionally stems from my personal qualities and values.
Secondly, my knowledge of sector-wide issues is incomparably greater than before I started Clore. I’ve had the chance to work in two performing arts organisations, Battersea Arts Centre and Sage Gateshead. During these placements and on various training courses I’ve developed many of the leadership skills I’ll need in the future, from influencing and making an impact to coaching and facilitation.
Thirdly, it’s been a delight to learn as much as I have about the archives sector and experience first-hand how archives can support and enrich the arts. I’ve had the opportunity of looking at this internationally: I’ve recently returned from a study trip to New York, where I visited Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the New York Philharmonic. I found out how these organisations are developing new kinds of relationships between archives, audiences and the performing arts, particularly through digitisation projects.
Closer to home, I’ve played my own small part in bringing archives out of the shadows by articulating how the archive at Sage Gateshead can be of strategic value to the organisation, and providing practical guidance on how to achieve that. More generally, I think archives have huge potential to help all kinds of cultural organisations and practitioners to demonstrate the impact of what they do, and to influence the practice itself.
Speaking of impact, it’s becoming apparent that the Clore programme has made a big impact on all the fellows, not just me. We were asked to share what we’d learned a month ago when we went back to Bore Place in Kent (where we gathered last September) for another residential course, and many people spoke of being profoundly affected.
Bore Place 2 was very different from Bore Place 1. Despite being deeply ensconced in the countryside, we were preparing to re-enter the outside world. We asked each other the $64,000 question: ‘What’s next after Clore?’. Our conversations covered politics and religion for the first time, and the international fellows from Hong Kong, India and Jordan gave eye-opening presentations about their work in their respective countries.
Indeed, much of the course content over the two weeks was produced by the fellows, as we were divided into groups and asked to deliver workshops in response to research questions that four organisations had posed us. My group was given a question by the British Council about how art can save the world, with reference to conflict situations – not a small subject, you might think, but our fellow fellows sportingly participated in the workshop and generated some constructive ideas which will hopefully be of some use to the British Council.
For me, Bore Place was a time of contradictory feelings. I had a jarring and temporary sense of not belonging to the group, but then it struck me that the programme is not about belonging – it’s about fellowship, and we’re all very different people. I found it hard to relax when I arrived, probably because I’d been so busy in the preceding weeks, but by the last day I was heartbroken at the thought of leaving.
However difficult it may be to step outside the magic circle of Clore, I know I’ll need to do that in order to put my learning into practice. I’m not quite sure what my post-fellowship life is going to look like, but I feel motivated to make positive changes soon, and I’ve begun to identify what those are.
And although I sometimes worry that everything I’ve learned will dissolve into thin air, I realise that I do have the ability to keep hold of it, because this is a beginning as well as an ending. The formal part of the programme is nearly complete, but I’ll be processing and responding to it for a very long time. The fellowship network will continue to exist, and I’m sure I’ll keep learning from the fellows themselves, who have a remarkable amount of expertise between them.
Having been given what feels like far too many gifts in a short space of time, I’m intending to unwrap them slowly one by one after the end of July. The fellowship experience isn’t something I could forget, even if I wanted to. To put it another way (and with apologies for the dreadful pun), Clore has got its claws into me.
So I’d like to thank the Clore Foundation, the Clore Leadership Programme and the Clore team; the national archive institutions that co-funded my fellowship, especially The National Archives, which supported me to take up my place on the programme; and above all, the fellows, who have made the fellowship what it is. Thank you for being who you are, and accepting me for who I am. You have made me believe that after leaping into the unknown, I will float safely to the ground.