Fifteen to One | Professor Ben Walmsley

“Culture is what makes life worth living: it takes us to transcendent places and lifts us up in difficult times, as we saw during the recent pandemic”.

Professor Ben Walmsley

The University plays an important part in the cultural life of the region and has supported the city of Leeds in plans to celebrate culture through a year of artistic activity in 2023.

Recently appointed Dean of Cultural Engagement and Director of the Centre for Cultural Value, Ben Walmsley reveals exciting plans on how he’s looking to develop new cultural engagement strategies and showcase the impact of arts and culture on higher education and communities.

Discover what upcoming projects you can expect from Ben at the University and how it transforms student education through stimulating pioneering and engaged research.

Can you describe your role in 100 words?

My role involves collaborating with colleagues across the University and with cultural organisations across the city region to stimulate and co-produce cultural activity and engagement for a diverse range of audiences, including students, staff and the general public. I also chair the Cultural Institute’s Steering Group and work closely with its brilliant leader, Wieke Eringa, to set the strategic direction of the Institute. 
My first task as Dean is to develop an ambitious new cultural engagement strategy for the University, which will outline the vital role that culture can play in higher education, especially in relation to civic engagement. 

How has your time at the University been so far?

I joined the University in 2012 after four very happy years at Leeds Metropolitan/Beckett University, so I am very interested in how we can collaborate with our sister universities across Leeds to support cultural activity and engagement. I have really enjoyed my first 11 years at the University of Leeds. I love the eclectic range of buildings across the buzzing campus and thrive on the extraordinary range of disciplines and talent on offer across the institution. I find the campus – and the wonderful range of people on it – really energising. 

What’s impressed you most about Leeds? 

I don’t know of any other university that has a Dean of Cultural Engagement. It says a lot about our University that culture is supported and showcased at this level. It sends a powerful signal and a meaningful acknowledgment that culture is an essential part of a rounded life and education, and vital to addressing our global challenges, as well as offering escapism, wonder and joy. 

I’m also constantly impressed by the commitment and dedication of the staff here at Leeds and by the open, friendly nature of day-to-day interactions. As a proud Yorkshireman, I know this reflects the values of the wider population, and one of my ambitions in this role is to open that up to a more diverse range of cultural audiences and partners. 

What are you looking forward to working on? 

I’m really looking forward to working with a broad range of partners to establish a compelling vision for culture on campus and in the city, and to shouting more loudly about the brilliant cultural spaces and activities that we have on campus and support beyond our campus.  

What do you think is the biggest difference culture makes in HE? 

It’s hard to know where to start here! I often say that culture is what makes life worth living: it takes us to transcendent places and lifts us up in difficult times, as we saw during the recent pandemic. I think this holds true for HE too; but of course, it also plays a more functional role, bringing our campus to life, bringing us closer to our city, stimulating pioneering, engaged research, and transforming student education.  

What’s the most common question you’ve been asked in your role? 

What is cultural engagement?! 

What’s your biggest achievement or something you’re most proud of? 

I’m most proud of establishing and then leading the Centre for Cultural Value – a national £2.5m research centre that is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Arts Council England and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to build a shared understanding of the differences that arts, culture, heritage and screen make to people’s lives and to society. I led the development of the bid for the Centre in 2018 and since then it has undertaken the largest study of the impact of Covid-19 on the cultural industries anywhere in the world and informed local, regional, national and international policymaking in aspects of culture health and wellbeing, everyday creativity and place-shaping.  

We are currently collaborating with the Cultural Institute, the Horizons Institute and The Audience Agency to research and evaluate the impacts of LEEDS 2023 on the citizens of Leeds and working with Bradford 2025 as the UK’s next City of Culture to shape their research programme.  

Is there something, or someone, that has inspired you in your career? 

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly inspiring people in the course of my career, including visionary artistic leaders like Vicky Featherstone; cultural sector leaders like Michelle Wright from Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy programme and Anne Torreggiani, CEO of The Audience Agency; and academic leaders, both in my own field of audience research and here at Leeds. Professor Alison Fell, who led the Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute, was instrumental in supporting the bid to get the Centre for Cultural Value and inspired me by her generous, authentic leadership and clarity of vision.  

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career that you know now? 

That hard work usually trumps privilege and can alleviate the imposter syndrome, and that leaders come in many shapes and sizes. 

What was your dream job when you were a child? 

Hmm, I wanted to be a professional tennis player but when I realised winning Wimbledon was unlikely, I settled on theatre directing, which I ended up doing as an amateur.  

Have you found a favourite spot on campus? 

I have a few favourites actually. I love the picnic tables outside my office with a view of Barbara Hepworth’s bronze sculpture Dual Form and the stage@leeds building. I also like the Brotherton Reading Room (of course) and the Baine’s café courtyard (as another oasis of calm) and the inspiring Grass Studio in the School of Design.  

What’s still on your ‘to do’ list to visit? 

I hear there’s a great new rooftop café in the Worsley Building that might be worth a visit! 

What do you do to relax away from work? 

I spend a lot of time walking, swimming, eating and wine-tasting in the south of France whenever I can get away.  

What’s been your favourite travel destination and why? 

Vietnam for the people and incredible food, and Argentina for the diversity of cities and landscapes and for the Iguazu Falls, which are the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen.  

What’s your random claim to fame? 

When I worked as a Producer at the National Theatre of Scotland, I was lucky enough to meet a few renowned actors, including Ewan McGregor and Alan Cumming – who actually popped into my leaving do after rehearsing for The Bacchae! 

Posted in: