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Univ in the Arts – the story so far

Amanda Brookfield

The College website records that “Univ in the Arts burst into life on Thursday 22 March (2018) with a wonderful opening event featuring a fascinating conversation between distinguished Historian Old Members Simon Winder (1981, History) and Alex von Tunzelmann (1996, History).” That event, “Writing the Past”, was the product of many months of discussion and plotting, based on an ambitious plan to raise the profile of the humanities, both within the College and across the swathes of Old Members involved in and passionate about the Arts.

The seed of Univ in the Arts had its genesis back in 2017, when Caroline Marriage (1991, English) voiced a hope to Sir Ivor Crewe that there might be a way of bringing together alumni who shared an interest in writing. After brain-storming the idea with the Development Office, a bigger project of tapping the rich talents among OMs to give the Humanities a wider platform came into being. The Master conceived the notion of appointing an annual Visitor in the Creative Arts at the same time, offering the post for 2018 to Amanda Brookfield (1979, English) to which she readily agreed.

Sophie Solomon at Killik & Co. 2019

Gradually, a structure was hammered out: “Univ in the Arts” was settled on as the umbrella name for three events a year: two following a traditional, conversational format with guest speakers and an audience Q&A, while the third was christened a “Salon” – a smaller gathering, designed to workshop and discuss different aspects of the creative process. Crucially, all events shared the goals of enabling important, illuminating exchanges to take place, while also giving Univ-ites a wonderful time through reconnecting with old friends and making new ones.

With structure and objectives agreed, Amanda Brookfield set about establishing the first Univ in the Arts Committee and accepted the role of Chair. “I had a novel to write, a new puppy to train and a deep abhorrence of committees,” she confesses, “but the cause was too exciting and worthwhile to resist. I was also given complete freedom. There were no rules, other than mining the rich seam of Old Members to find people and ways of making it work.”

Univ in the Arts Committee: Amanda Brookfield, Chris Birkett, Philly Malicka, Jonathan Hourigan and Jonathan Earl

On Wednesday 6 December 2017, the Univ in the Arts committee met for the first time, to the accompaniment of many rounds of sandwiches (and a quantity of chocolate) kindly provided by the Development Office. Those in attendance were Chris Birkett (1979, PPE), Jon Earl (1977, English), Jonathan Hourigan (1979, PPE) and Philly Malicka (2007, English), a group chosen for their spread of experience and skill-sets in the worlds of publishing, media, journalism, film and creative writing. The atmosphere was relaxed and the ideas plentiful, the main challenge being the broadness of the brief. “I mean, the Humanities!’” Amanda laughs, remembering that first gathering.

“I had to check how many subjects that encompassed and make a list. It was daunting, but also reassuring that this was a project that never could – and never should – run out of steam.”

The subsequent four years have demonstrated instead, a movement gathering momentum. Events have covered a panoply of subjects, including history, music, Putin’s Russia, medical writing, journalism, fiction, and the battlefields of “truth”. The extraordinary talents of numerous Old Members have been harnessed, from virtuoso klezmer violinist, Sophie Solomon (1995, History and Modern Languages), to brain surgeon and bestselling author, Professor Henry Marsh CBE FRCS (1969, PPE), BBC world news presenter, Philippa Thomas (1984, PPE), foreign correspondent and Russia expert, Luke Harding (1987, English), and screenwriter, film director and comedian, Armando Iannucci (1982, English).Two salons, both held in the convivial atmosphere of the Groucho Club, explored “Inspiration and the Blank Page” and the equally thorny issue of “Who Owns the News?”

The pandemic temporarily halted the salons, but not Univ in the Arts. Embracing technology, events were live-streamed to a virtual audience, with hundreds tuning in to Luke Harding on Russia and Armando Iannucci “Talking Dickens”. Wine and canapés may have been less in evidence but the appetite for intelligent conversation and good companionship was undimmed.

On the back of these successes, Univ in the Arts hopes to continue to organise a mixture of virtual and hybrid events, to broaden the audience still further. The first of these took place on 18 November, when Amanda Brookfield conversed with Rebecca Mead, (1985, English), acclaimed journalist and memoirist, about her career, sources of inspiration and the alchemy of creating art out of “fact”. A live audience sat alongside a virtual one, from the sumptuous Music Room at Killik & Co, a ground-breaking “hybrid” occasion.

Four years after helping to launch Univ in the Arts, Amanda Brookfield recently decided to step down as Chair. “It’s a perfect example of what brilliant teamwork can achieve. I have loved every moment and am proud of every single event. All I want now is for Univ in the Arts to continue to grow, in diversity, subject-matter and in uniting the very special Univ community.”

If you are interested in being a part of the Univ in the Arts team, either with ideas, or as a presenter or potential committee member, the Development Office would love to hear from you. Please email development@univ.ox.ac.uk

This feature was adapted from one first published in Issue 14 of The Martlet; read the full magazine here or explore our back catalogue of Martlets below:

Published: 10 June 2022

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