Andrew Patrick Kelly

Master of Arts

7 November 2008 – Orator: Barry Taylor

Madam Chancellor Andrew Kelly

Edith Piaf famously declared that she had no regrets, but even she might have entertained one or two if she had been a Bristolian now, watching Liverpool blossom as European Capital of Culture. Unfortunately there could only be one winner of the competition that took place six years ago to decide which city would wear the culture crown in 2008. At least Bristol made the shortlist, and the case it put forward was widely admired. The fact that the city came within striking distance of the prize was thanks in particular to the prodigious efforts of one of the city’s most dynamic and imaginative people – Andrew Kelly, Director of Bristol Cultural Development Partnership.

Bristol’s Capital of Culture submission opened with the words: ‘We are charged on these pages with the impossible.’ Four years later, when Andrew edited with his wife, Melanie, the biggest-ever book on Isambard Kingdom Brunel, they chose to call it Brunel: in love with the impossible. Clear evidence, I suggest, that Andrew himself has at least a crush on the impossible. He is drawn to tough projects – ones that inevitably carry a high risk of failure – because those are the ones from which we learn the most, that unite people behind a common flag and that stimulate the city’s adrenalin. And so it is that while Bristol did not win the Capital of Culture bid, it gained much in the attempt. Many of the projects that were proposed for 2008 have gone ahead anyway, proving that the distinction between success and failure is sometimes less than absolute.

I should quickly make clear, however, that during his 15 years at the helm of Bristol Cultural Development Partnership – a body established and funded by Arts Council England, Bristol City Council and Business West – Andrew has notched up far more successful successes than successful failures, if you see what I mean.

Born in 1960, Andrew is the fourth of seven children. He grew up near Wolverhampton, attended Ounsdale Comprehensive School and went on to gain two degrees from the University of Bradford, both of them in Peace Studies – a fact that has apparently been known to cause a momentary lull in the conversation. I can’t think why.

Andrew came to Bristol to take up his present position in 1993, and he has achieved far more than anyone had a right to expect. He was instrumental in establishing At-Bristol, one of the UK’s leading hands-on science centres. He set up the internationally admired Brief Encounters and Animated Encounters film festivals. His Brunel 200 celebrations in 2006 were a triumph, involving about a million people across the South West in arts projects, exhibitions, festivals and education events. He was one of the driving forces behind the international award-winning Legible City project, which has resulted in the distinctive signs, maps, artworks and digital information sources that have done much to reinforce Bristol’s sense of place. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that he is such a voracious reader, he devised and has run for five years the Bristol Great Reading Adventure, through which tens of thousands of people, from schoolchildren to pensioners’ groups, have shared an experience and discovered or indulged a love of books. And he invented, and continues to direct, the annual Bristol Festival of Ideas, which brings to the city a dazzling array of speakers and helps to account for what a recent UK travel guide described as Bristol’s ‘clued-up urban culture’. 

For 2009, Andrew is co-ordinating Darwin 200 – celebrations marking the birth of one of science’s towering figures – and working with the University on some of our centenary projects. In 2010, he will oversee commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bristol’s hugely important aerospace industry. He is already mustering support for a bid by Bristol to be UNESCO World Book Capital in 2012, and he is even contemplating how the 650th anniversary of Bristol’s elevation to ‘city and county’ status might be celebrated in 2023. He will then be 63 but still, one hopes, firing on all cylinders, perhaps devising novel ways of marking the centenary of the end of the Second World War in 2045.

Those of us who have had virtually daily contact with Andrew over the past 15 years are sometimes taken aback by his energy and commitment. As well as producing ideas nineteen-to-the-dozen and carrying them through, he never fails to evaluate his projects rigorously – a legacy, perhaps, of his MBA studies at the University of Bath. He is also a communicator par excellence, engaging with enthusiasm and good humour with a wide network of people who share his interest in cultural affairs and the ongoing success of the city.

Madam Chancellor, it is sobering to think that in 1991, The Independent, reflecting on the plight of UK cities in the face of recession, said that ‘For former boom towns like Bristol, the picture looks especially bleak’. But in fact, Bristol has done well, emerging as the most competitive of England’s eight Core Cities in the 2008 UK Competitiveness Index. Just two months ago, The Sunday Times said of Bristol that ‘It is hard to think of a city that so neatly crystallises the aspirations of the UK in the coming decade’. Bristol has been transformed in a number of key respects, partly because its cultural life is so lively and diverse. The credit for this should go to many people, but to none more than Andrew Kelly.

At the risk of making some of us feel inadequate, I should add that Andrew is the author of nine books. The first was published 11 years ago and concerned the cinema of the First World War. Another is about All Quiet on the Western Front, a film that has obsessed him since childhood. He is currently working on a biography of the film’s director, Lewis Milestone. And he hopes the first volume of his study of all the arts in relation to the 20th century’s world wars will be published in 2014 – the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second.

Andrew has also edited two books with his wife. I am glad to say that Melanie is here with us now, and to report that Andrew describes his marriage to her as his greatest joy. Their life partnership has become a work one as well, for she often acts as a researcher and manager on projects he leads.

Speaking of partnerships, Andrew is something of an expert on collaboration between individuals and between institutions. He has written widely on the subject and assiduously practises what he preaches. The organisation he directs is itself a partnership body, and he pays warm tribute to the ongoing support he has received from Bristol City Council, Arts Council England and Business West. I am delighted that John Savage and Louis Sherwood, who represent the last of these, are here today, together with Louis’ wife, Nicole. The personal devotion to cultural development that they have shown over many years is something of which Andrew speaks with awe and deep gratitude.  

Andrew has always viewed the University as a partner, too – not only the obviously ‘cultural’ bits of the institution but also the parts concerned with engineering, the sciences and sport. He sees the traditional boundaries between disciplines as largely unhelpful and takes a radically broad view of what constitutes ‘culture’.

He is a campaigner as well, particularly on behalf of animals. He believes that one of the great paradoxes of our time is that while we understand more and more about the lives of animals, we are allowing more and more species to disappear. If you see a man crouching down as he walks through the park, it may well be Andrew rescuing worms after it has rained. When he knew he had been nominated for an honorary degree, he called to make sure there would be no animal fur on the academic gown he would have to wear for the ceremony.

All in all, Andrew Kelly is a man of strong convictions, boundless energy, creative ideas, diverse talents and exceptional commitment. His impact on the city-region has been immense and Bristol would not be as successful and admired, or as much fun to live in, if it were not for him.

Madam Chancellor, I present to you Andrew Patrick Kelly as eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Arts, honoris causa.

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