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In Your Network: Emma Underhill

Emma Underhill FRSA is Director of UP Projects, an organisation challenging perceptions of what public art is, and termed as a 'gallery without walls'. The latest project Emma and UP are involved with is a floating cinema which uses the canal networks of East London. She talks here of what inspires her: 

1) Please give a brief explanation of what it is you do and why?
I am Founding Director of UP Projects, a not for profit public art organisation that aims to take high quality arts and culture out of the white cube gallery or black box performance space and into the public realm making it accessible to the broadest possible audience. I’m interested in the spaces in between the buildings that make up our public realm; parks, greenspaces, canals, waterways, public spaces which, to me, make London unique, and a fantastic place to live and work. The projects that I run aim to raise awareness of both the cultural and ecological value of these spaces as well as encouraging people who may not ordinarily visit galleries or theatres to enjoy and participate in the events and installations that we present.

Our current project, The Floating Cinema is due to launch next summer, and we are in the process of raising the last chunk of funding to enable us to commission a permanent cinema-boat for London’s waterways. This Floating Cinema “Extra-Ordinary” will be presenting newly commissioned work as well as films that wouldn’t ordinarily be screened in mainstream cinemas. Our pilot project last summer was a great success which has encouraged us to develop a longer term project. We’re trying out crowd sourcing for the first time and would be hugely grateful for any support other Fellows might be able to pledge. 

2) What did you join the Fellowship for?
To be part of an inspiring network of people and have access to the many inspiring talks, lectures and forums for debate that the Fellowship offers. I think being an RSA Fellow has a certain level of kudos attached and I was honoured to be invited.

3) In what capacity do you think you could contribute to society/the Fellowship?
Having worked as an independent consultant and curator and then founder of a small, independent arts organisation, I have had to take an entrepreneurial approach to initiating projects, achieving funding and developing partnerships. I firmly believe in making things happen, and finding an alternative route in the face of adversity! I hope that this entrepreneurial approach might be a useful contribution to the Fellowship. I also hope that the projects that I develop have a positive impact on the people that come across them, engage and participate. And that they might leave with a slightly altered perspective. 

4) What would you change in society given the chance?
I’d like to change our government’s attitude towards the arts and culture, particularly within schools. I think their recent policy to exclude cultural subjects (art, music, drama etc) from the new English Baccalaureate scheme is incredibly concerning . The arts and culture make a massive contribution towards defining our country’s ‘brand’ – the success of the London Olympics Opening Ceremony is testament to that – and for the British arts to continue to innovate, flourish and be centre of the World stage, as well as continue to have significant socio-economic impact, it is vital that children and young people are given easy access to arts education. Giving young people the message that cultural subjects are not important is, in my opinion, deeply wrong on every level. 

5) What recent bit of news have you heard which inspires you? 
President Obama being re-elected in the US elections came as a huge relief. His acceptance speech and his commitment to creating an inclusive society was incredibly inspiring.

6) What did you learn last week? 
My most recent area of learning has been focussed on crowd sourcing in order to diversify our fundraising strategy. This is a relatively new concept in the UK, although it is widespread in the USA. In the current financial climate, and with public sector funding cuts, we are increasingly pushed towards embracing US fundraising models. I think as a culture, we Brits are far less comfortable with asking directly for money, or even talking about the subject, and so launching a crowd sourcing campaign has pushed me way out of my comfort zone and last week I learned that there is no point in ‘beating about the bush’, a direct appeal is far more effective! So, putting this into practice, may I take this opportunity to appeal to RSA Fellows and ask that you take a look at our crowd funding campaign and make a pledge to support our new Floating Cinema project by visiting 

7) Tell us about another interesting Fellow you have spoken to.
I have recently met Lewis Biggs, who is an RSA Fellow and also the Curator of the forthcoming Folkestone Triennial and former Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Liverpool Biennial. We have started to talk about a possible collaboration, and it was only when Lewis suggested our next meeting should be at the RSA HQ, that I realised that we were both Fellows also. He is an incredibly inspiring person, I have been a great admirer of the Liverpool Biennial for many years, and how it has dramatically changed the face of the cultural offer of the North East, not only presenting a world class event every two years but also committed to consistently contributing to the regeneration of the city, and developing projects that genuinely engage and change the lives of the people who live and work there. I am excited to see what impact his influence will now have on Folkestone.

8) What would you like to connect with Fellows about? Please tell us if there is anything you would like from other Fellows
Experience of entrepreneurial working, and fundraising would be very useful given our current fundraising challenge.  I’m also keen to expand my network within the private sector and explore potential partnerships there. To be honest, I think meeting likeminded people and having the opportunity to share experiences and advice is extremely valuable, particularly when you work relatively independently – that’s what being part of a network is all about isn’t it?

Emma Underhill

Emma Underhill



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