A Light Grilling: Nicola Buckley

Nicola Buckley is Head of Public Engagement at the University of Cambridge, managing the team delivering the annual Cambridge Science Festival and Cambridge Festival of Ideas, as well as supporting members of the University in their engagement projects including working with partner organisations. She is a member of the Cambridge Arts & Cultural Leaders Group. Prior to her role at the University, she worked in the UK voluntary sector as a fundraising and communications manager. She has been a Board member of Cambridge Junction and Chair since May 2014.

What did you want to be ‘when you grew up’?
I thought I’d like to be a music journalist, I loved the NME and Melody Maker in those days.

Give us a quick overview of your climb up the career ladder
After a History degree at Cambridge, I started out by volunteering then worked for three charities in London as a fundraising manager. I returned to Cambridge in 2003 and did a Masters in Anthropology before getting a part-time job as the Cambridge Science Festival coordinator in 2004. From there, I grew that festival and set up the Cambridge Festival of Ideas after persuading a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University to allocate funding for it in 2008.


What is a typical day as Head of Public Engagement at the University of Cambridge like?
It’s very varied. I often do some work focused on our funding in the morning: there are over 30 separate funders from Research Councils to private sponsors who support the festivals and public engagement at the University so my colleagues and I aim to ensure we’re meeting the requirements and aims of those funders. I spend time with the staff in the team delivering various projects: we have about 10 staff in a mix of permanent and fixed-term roles now and so I will talk with them about what they are working on. Because the Science Festival and Festival of Ideas are 6 months apart in the year and we also organise the annual Open Cambridge weekend, there is usually a large programme being put together – each festival has over 250 events – so I might look at some stage of the programme production process or brainstorm with a colleague who we might ask to take part in the festival in some way. I also regularly have meetings out and about in Cambridge for which I enjoy getting out on my bike.

What do you most and least enjoy about your job?
The most interesting aspects are finding out about the research at Cambridge University and finding people who are passionate about bringing what they are working on to public audiences. I also really like connecting up members of the University to working with external collaborators and organisations. One thing I don’t like too much in a job is repetition so once tasks become more routine if it’s not essential for me to do them I have been fortunate in my role to be able to grow the team and delegate things.

How did you become Chair of the Board at Cambridge Junction?
I had worked with one of the other Board members, Helen Taylor, on a poetry and museums project curated by Carol Ann Duffy, Thresholds, a few years ago, as well as with Helen and the Director, Daniel Brine on a few other projects. Helen suggested I might like to join the Board which I did in 2014 and then when the existing Chair, Christine Doddington, wanted to step down from the role I was asked to take on the role last year.

What are the main responsibilities and challenges of the role?
The Board members are charity Trustees for the Junction so we aim to look after its financial sustainability over the years. We spend quite a proportion of each Board meeting reviewing budgets and financial performance, and Board colleagues include an experienced accountant and others with management and business experience so it is always useful to get their input. As Chair, my role is to pull together the different areas of expertise of Board members to harness that for the best oversight and help to the Cambridge Junction Director and staff about developing the organisation. Cambridge Junction is in a good place but it always needs to be looking forward and looking at its future direction, so there are lots of interesting challenges ahead in applying for funding for potential developments.

What are your all-time top 3 favourite works of art?
My personal loves often remind me of being a teenager.
For instance, the Suede album Dog Man Star and the accompanying videos shown as part of the live show made by Derek Jarman’s studio.
I loved the point at which I started going to galleries and museums and two exhibitions stick in my mind that came to Edinburgh: the 2000+ year old Terracotta Army from Xian in China and Antony Gormley’s tinier terracotta figures, Field for the British Isles.
A piece of art I didn’t see take place but only saw the videos, documentation and artefacts afterwards was Jeremy Deller’s Procession, which was created for the Manchester International Festival. I really love the concept and realisation of that - the exhibition and book gave a really good insight into how he developed a unique procession of modern ‘tribes’: participants included Goths, ramblers, Scouts and Guides, modified car enthusiasts and Big Issue sellers, with new musical accompaniment, processing under banners that updated the traditions of trade union and other banners.

Have you had an encounter with a ‘turning point’ piece of work or artist that changed the way you saw what art could be?
I was lucky to grow up in Edinburgh where the Festival Fringe each year is an amazing opportunity to discover so much. It was probably comedy that I first loved at the Fringe because I loved the way the best performers could take material that audience members might have thought about but not articulated, or something much more off the wall than that, and make it into humour. I think of comedians like Stewart Lee , Simon Munnery and Josie Long as among my favourites, as well as a friend who won the Perrier prize a few years ago, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Cambridge Junction’s blogger in residence, Joy Martin, wrote a good piece this year for Exeunt magazine on whether comedy can be an art form, and I think it can.

It has also been fantastic more recently encountering the live artists that Cambridge Junction have been bringing into the programme: I think of artists like Hunt & Darton and their pop up café, Figs in Wigs and all the new shows I saw as part of the 24 hour NightWatch and then Watch Out festivals.

If money were no object, what would you like to see happen at the Cambridge Junction?
I really liked the Nightwatch format which I know was expensive and draining on staff to create a 24 hour performance festival! I think it would be great to see more experiments with technology and digital art presented too.

What is the most startling or interesting fact or idea you have come across while in charge of the Science Festival and the Festival of Ideas?
What’s great is that I find out new things all the time. For instance, I think it’s pretty startling that the University now has a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which looks at risks to the existence of the human race.  The creation of that centre says a lot to me about where we now are with regard to some of the technologies that humans have created. They do research on artificial intelligence, ethics and regulation for instance.

How do you balance your day job with your role as Chair of Cambridge Junction?
Cambridge Junction has a programme and a place I love so it doesn’t feel hard to put time into it, particularly since the Director and staff do such a great job and the other Board members are very helpful. It helps that my job also has varied hours of work including some evenings and weekends so there is flexibility when I need to attend a Cambridge Junction meeting during the day although most Board business takes place in the evenings. My job has also connected me with other stakeholders who are important to Cambridge Junction like the City Council and Arts Council so it has been complementary to my job to take on this other role at Cambridge Junction as well.

If you weren’t doing this job, what would have liked to do instead?
After 11 years in public engagement at the University, I will actually be taking on a new role for a one year secondment initially in February – as associate director at the University’s Centre for Science and Policy. So I will find out! My role there will match up Policy Fellows who come from government organisations and some NGOs and companies with researchers at the University, clustered around the questions they have that would benefit from research input. The festivals are in good hands with my colleagues and it will be great for me to continue my involvement in Cambridge’s cultural life through my role at the Junction.