Since 2016, The University of Bedfordshire has been delivering and extending their testbeds project, an exciting arts incubator skills development and knowledge exchange project for artists and creative practitioners. Through testbeds, the University of Bedfordshire has developed a responsive model that meets the demands of current sector gaps, with an innovative arts impact accelerator programme that has significantly developed arts & culture leadership in Luton. 

The University was awarded £375,000 by Arts Council England to support artists and cultural organisations develop the skills to thrive economically, creatively and socially within Luton. It is part of £1.5m investment by Arts Council England to enhance the arts and cultural infrastructure of Luton. You can read about the Luton Investment Programme here

testbeds has been informed by current thinking and practices in the commercial start-up and entrepreneurship contexts.It will immerse theatre-makers, dancers, game designers, public artists, fashion designers, milliners, visual artists, designers, film-makers, circus artists and writers in a collaborative hothouse for ideas incubation and career development. It will enhance local artists' capacity to live, work and thrive locally as well as spearhead innovative, cross-disciplinary research into the employment of arts & culture as catalysts for change.

By enhancing entrepreneurial skills, collaborative partnership working and fundraising ability, the project focuses on developing artists from diverse backgrounds as placemakers - enhancing their capacity to make a lasting difference to Luton.

“testbeds has been developed with funding through Arts Council England’s Luton Investment Programme. We wanted to find a way to support artists and arts organisations develop the skills to create a thriving business. The Artist Accelerator will do this by providing local artists with access to resources, space, knowledge and skills development to establish a lasting legacy of art and culture in Luton, whilst the Catalyst Co-lab will place artists within the University as visiting artists, leading to exciting cross-disciplinary research projects.”

Professor Helen Bailey, Executive Dean of Academic partnerships, University of Bedfordshire

testbeds model

testbeds is a model that puts higher education providers at the centre of a comprehensive and innovative model for artists and creative practitioner’s leadership and professional development. Informed by current thinking and practices in commercial start-up and entrepreneurship contexts, testbeds is establishing a whole system approach to support the development of the national arts and cultural sectors.

 The creative sectors are becoming ever more important to the UK’s economy, and are instrumental in achieving regeneration and economic growth in towns and cities. This makes ‘place-based’ projects such as testbeds ever more important as they underpin the growth and resilience of the creative sectors in large urban areas.

testbeds is demonstrating how a university can work in partnership with local, regional and national organisations and statutory bodies to establish a holistic system of support for the creative sectors in their area. Universities have the spaces, resources, partnerships and access to cross-sector knowledge and research to support and develop their local creative ecology. This has direct benefits for local arts and creative organisations and businesses, but it also brings direct and lasting benefits to the University.

testbeds impact

testbeds was initially funded through the Arts Council Luton Investment Programme. During this time, the range of work and impact of the activity within the project strands has been considerable. For example, testbeds has:

  • Supported local artists to apply for funding grants worth a total of £777,500.

  • Engaged 13 industry sectors , including: business, finance, manufacturing, health, law enforcement, technology, science, and construction.

  • Built 101 new partnerships, including with 52 local authorities and 14 higher education institutions.

  • Worked with over 7000 people through 100+ public workshops. This has included partnership with 20 local schools and 3000 young people.

  • Established 20+ national and international artist commissions and 80+ exhibitions/performances.

  • Grown 35+ new artist/academic partnerships.

  • Delivered 85+ teaching hours in undergraduate and postgraduate units.

  • Worked with 23+ grassroots organisations to develop place-based projects strands, which are responsive and meet local need.

Feedback from the artists involved reflects the positive benefits and impact of the programme:

“testbeds has had a significant impact on my artistic practice, enabling me to develop a strategic vision of my role as artist in the Luton community, artists and statutory partners. Over the last year, I have secured £11,000 in funding for projects, engaged with over 180 people and developed partnerships with several organisations including the Bedfordshire Police”.

Moriam Grillo, Artist Accelerator

“testbeds enabled a comprehensive understanding of the educational and creative landscapes of Luton and facilitated significant new partnerships. As a result of this process I and Sinfonia Verdi worked in 4 new Luton schools, working intensively with over 500 children we otherwise would not have been able to reach. testbeds also helped me to access over £25,000 in new funding for creative projects and brokered an extremely fruitful ongoing relationship between Sinfonia Verdi and UoB Business School. As a result of testbeds, the Business School and I are currently devising a pioneering series of musical interventions for the Business world.”

David Murphy, Artist Accelerator

“testbeds has helped me to apply for grants worth £91,684 - which represents 100% funding success for all the bids I have applied for. More than that, testbeds has offered me time and space to focus and reflect on what I do, in partnership with academics, and to look at how I can develop as an artist. Creating links with academics in the University who are researching similar themes to those that Mandala Theatre Company is exploring is a rare and exciting opportunity with vast and mutual potential. I have worked in partnership with both the School of Media and Performance, as well as the Centre for Learning Excellence (CLE). Access and Outreach have also supported me with advocacy to embed myself in local schools. It is incredibly encouraging to have testbeds’ support.”

Yasmin Sidhwa, Catalyst Co-Lab

About The Luton Investment Programme

The Luton Investment Programme was developed to raise ambition, provide development opportunities and foster partnership working in Luton. Its aim was to ensure that the town has a cultural offer with something for everyone. The Programme complements the Arts Council’s existing investment of £686,531 in Luton through its Creative People and Places programme. The Luton Investment Programme funded the development of the TestBeds model for 3 years. In addition to testbeds, there are three other strands of activity supported through the programme: 

a new cultural celebration

Drawing on its experience of creating the successful Imagine Watford, Watford Palace Theatre ran Imagine Luton. This was a celebratory, high-impact cultural festival in Luton showcasing the best outdoor and site-specific work. The festival was an open and inclusive outdoor festival and brought together international and regional artists, including commissions for regional artists to make new work.

a public realm arts plan

Luton Culture delivered As you Change So Do I an experimental programme of public art, including a new large-scale work for the Hat Factory Arts Centre by locally-born artist and Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner; engaging thousands of passers-by every day and acting as a beacon for Luton.  The programme, which includes of artist residencies, projections and billboard-art to animate streets and empty buildings, initially focused on Luton’s cultural quarter and grew over three years to impact more widely. 

a 10 year vision, strategic arts and cultural plan for Luton

Luton Borough Council has developed and delivered a 10 year strategic vision for arts and culture. The plan supports a joined up approach to creating an inspiring, inclusive arts and cultural offer in Luton, helping to create models of best practice and developing lasting relationships. It draws on the strategic priorities of both the Luton Investment Programme and Luton Borough Council, responding to the super diverse population of Luton.