Interview with Dick Penny, managing director, Watershed
18 February 2014
Dick Penny: 'I think the key factors have been seeing ourselves as enablers and not being too worried about who gets the credit.' Photograph: Sean Malyon
Hi Dick, what can you tell me about Watershed? Does it have an overall mission or aim?
We are constantly refining our role to stay relevant and useful. Currently,Watershed's mission is to place cultural engagement, imagination and ingenuity at the heart of our lives, believing that the route to better futures is open, disruptive and co-produced.
Many praise the way Bristol has embraced tech, its willingness to experiment and so on – what is it about the city that has allowed it be so open and disruptive?
I think you have it in your question – collectively we have seized the opportunity presented by digital disruption and created a movement of genuine fusion. There is real respect here for difference and invention; a culture where people want to help, even if they don't get what it is that you're trying to do; a sharing of ambition and engagement between artist and audience.
A report by Yellow Railroad in 2010 summed it up well: "The single strongest, overriding characteristic that unites and influences all aspects of Bristol's personality is the spirit of innovation, creativity and unorthodoxy"
What role does Watershed play in connecting the organisations and creatives of Bristol?
We were lucky to be in the right place at the right time at the end of the 20th century. It was a combination of working with computer science at Bristol University on experimental next generation fibre connectivity in 1999, and the city rediscovering the asset that was slumbering in its historic but formerly derelict floating harbour, which was re-invented as a cultural asset for the millennium. Suddenly Watershed was at the heart of both the emerging new digital world and the physical city as the waterside was opened up for public use.
We grabbed the moment and invited everyone in, not to be part of a network but to be active, connected, authentic, productive, sharing and relevant to our city. We configure the resource to push the experiment and keep renewing the talent pool to drive diversity of engagement and interest.
I think the key factors have been seeing ourselves as enablers and not being too worried about who gets the credit; the focus is on doing stuff, doing it quickly and being honest about what has and hasn't worked. Permission to step out of your comfort zone is key, and hopefully we do our fair share of that with a large dose of encouragement and support. Our latest invitation is Playable City
Where is Bristol lacking when it comes to its arts, culture and creativity?
While there is no doubt that we've been ahead of the pack in seizing the digital opportunity, I think we have been fairly slow in energizing the asset of diversity. For much of the latter part of the 20th century, Bristol felt more like a collection of independent villages than a city. This created the conditions for some fantastic collisions and fusion of cultures – theexplosion of the Bristol Sound being a major example – but it has also held us back in creating open pathways for everyone to explore their potential. Too many of our neighbourhoods are not connected to the energy and can-do unorthodoxy that is propelling the city of Bristol into the 21st century.
How much impact does the mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, play in the city's creative development?
The whole concept of elected mayor is very new in Bristol, so it's much too early to be objective. There is no doubt in my mind that part of London's success on the world stage is down to creating an elected mayor.
Love them or hate them, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have given London personality and I think George is of the same mould. It's about the city and its ambition, getting some key stuff pushed through even if there is opposition, and at the same time raising the international profile so that we are open for business, both cultural and commercial. Championing Bristol as European Green Capital 2015 is one example that has huge local and global potential.
What the Pervasive Media Studio are doing I think is really impressive, bringing together academics, the arts and tech – could the sector be doing more like this?
I can't understand why we are so unique; its not particularly difficult. Just be curious, work collaboratively, don't let rules slow you down, back the talent and – oh – take a bunch of risks knowing the minute you think that you know what you're doing it's time to move on. It's not always the best way to build relationships with your funders, but hey, it's not boring!
Part of our success has been working with our city and the particular mix of assets that are present, from Aardman Animations to HP Labs via the BBC and strong cultural, creative and digital clusters – it's the right mix for the 21st century and Bristol has an edge on others with its lifestyle and activism.
Watershed are working on the upcoming No Boundaries event – what's the thinking behind this year's focus, doing not funding?
I also notice the name is similar to Watershed's mission: that you "place no boundaries on our desire to connect with artists and audiences in the wider world" – coincidence or deliberate?
Not deliberate as the title came out of several discussions with a changing group and increasing agony, however it can't be coincidence and just says to me that we mean what we say. However, this gives a clue to our approach; if you start with how much money is available for a project then you have already limited yourself. I'm more interested in exploring the ambition: what are we trying to do? For whom? Who with?
Start with the doing, then configure the resources you need to deliver. That's what I hope No Boundaries is going to be about. The world seems to be all over the place at the moment – the arts need to be the haven in the storm, helping people find new ways to explore and understand the pressures and complexities of life; to build community and shared confidence in a better world. The money is so small anyway (less than one-thousandth of government spend) it bears no relationship to the value of the arts for all of us.
No Boundaries takes place on 25 and 26 February in Bristol and York