Sara Pepper is the Director of Creative Economy at Cardiff University and one of the founding members of Creative Cardiff ‒ an online network of practicing creatives in the Cardiff area, and Clwstwr ‒ a research and development programme for media production in South Wales. In her work, Sara passionately facilitates the growth of new talent and the dissemination of new ideas, while championing hub models as effective centres for innovation across different creative sectors. We caught up with Sara on a stormy Friday afternoon and went for a wander around Bute Park, chatting about her love affair with the city of Cardiff, her passion for developing dynamic creative networks, her professional goals and current projects.
Sara, thank you for agreeing to meet with us for this interview. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
You’re so welcome – I am always delighted to talk about the creative community in Cardiff and the work that we do.
I was born in North Yorkshire but moved away from there when I was still very young. I have French, German, Italian and English family through my grandparents and have lived a significant part of my life outside of the UK. I came to Wales for University and have had an ongoing relationship with Cardiff ever since (either living in or frequently visiting). I am proud to now call Cardiff my home and live here with my husband and two children, Daisy and Elliot, who were both born in the city.
I adore living in Cardiff – it’s such a fantastic city with so much to offer. The proximity of Cardiff to mountains, hills, beautiful countryside and coast really appeals to our family who all love the outdoors. Equally there’s so much to do in the city and a great cultural and creative offering. Small cities really appeal to me as you get all of the benefits of city living, but with a community atmosphere and, when you get to know it, sometimes village-like feel.
How did you end up working in the cultural and creative sectors? What are the milestones of your journey?
I’ve always had an interest in cultural and creative activity – both doing it and trying to understand it and how it connects with people. From a young age, I got involved with participating in anything and everything creative including music, theatre, art, dance, etc. I studied theatre and English literature at university and was particularly interested in live performance and events and the impact they had on audiences and places.
When I was at university (20 years ago) the creative industries weren’t as clearly defined and understood as they are now. I don’t recall ever saying to my parents that I was going to work in the creative industries, but I guess now that is something graduates might have more clarity and information to consider in terms of a potential career direction and wider opportunities.
I’ve had a wide variety of jobs from producer to project manager for organisations such as the Southbank Centre, the BBC, Hull University and the Sydney Olympic Games 2000. I’ve worked on events and projects of all sizes and scales and my employers have been in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors in small and large organisations. I’ve also been fortunate to work locally, nationally and internationally.
I moved back to Wales nearly 15 years ago to work in two new venues in South Wales – The Riverfront Theatre in Newport and then the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. That is when my love affair with Cardiff really developed.
Who has been your greatest influencer in your career?
It is a real challenge to think of just one person to award that accolade to. There are several people who have had a significant influence on my career and to whom I am very grateful for their advice, guidance, support, encouragement and inspiration over the years and as I have taken various career steps and life moves. These include Mark Pepper (my Dad), Richard Burgess (my husband), Professor Steve Blandford, Professor Noel Witts, Fiona Allan, Judith Isherwood, Professor Justin Lewis and Professor Ian Hargreaves – all not only brilliant and talented individuals themselves, but also all extremely generous with their ideas and encouragement of others. I am sincerely grateful to have had a touchpoint with them in my work life and would like to say a huge thank you to them all for being a source of inspiration. I wouldn’t have achieved any of the things I have without them.
I have also learned so much and been influenced by a number of colleagues that I have worked with over the years. Kayleigh McLeod, has been my co-conspirator in all things work related for the past three years and I have learned so much from working with her and had immense fun along the way. I am very fortunate to have her as a team member and colleague and hold her in very high regard.
Tell us a bit about your role as Director of Creative Economy. What attracted you initially to work at Cardiff University and how would you describe your professional goals?
My role is to provide leadership and strategic direction for the Creative Economy Unit at Cardiff University, which is the home of projects Creative Cardiff and Clwstwr. I am responsible for the daily operation and execution of both projects’ ambitions and plans. I work with a wide variety of stakeholders including academic, industry and government partners.
I was always attracted to working in a university as I love learning and to be surrounded by so many people who have dedicated themselves to education is really inspiring. My professional goal is to work with others to grow, develop and engage the creative cluster in Cardiff/South Wales so that it is known and recognised internationally and so that all creatives in the region can achieve greater success and opportunity as a result.
In your work you champion hub models as effective centres for innovation within the Cardiff creative economy. Why is the hub model beneficial to the development of creative networks and productivity within the city?
Creative hubs and coworking spaces provide a supportive environment for people working in the creative economy to collaborate and innovate. Responding to changing work needs over the last few years, Cardiff has seen an increase in the number of workspaces developed with and for the creative community. These each have a different offer, but all support the growth of this sector.
Hubs are not just defined by the physical space they occupy, but by the services they provide and their contribution to the wider creative community. These defining features are often down to the values, experiences and expertise of the person or people behind the space – all of whom we’ve got to know better since forming the Coworking Collective, a group to share coworking best practice and knowledge.
You are also one of the founding members of Creative Cardiff. How did this initiative come about and what are its core values?
I am the Director of Creative Cardiff, which is a network to help grow and connect the creative economy. The concept was dreamed up by two brilliant professors at Cardiff University in 2014 – Professor Ian Hargreaves and Professor Justin Lewis – and I came into post soon after to turn their vision into a reality.
I’m pleased to say that Creative Cardiff has grown rapidly, and now has 2,500 members spanning the many creative sectors across the city – from architecture to animation, from pottery to post-production in film and TV. The aim of the network is to amplify job opportunities, help make connections between creatives through a series of events and really encourage innovation – especially across different creative sectors.
We’ve hosted more than 50 events from Show & Tell to culture hustings. It is important for us to respond to the needs of our members, they are at the core of everything we do. Our purpose is to make the city the most creative place it can be. We exist to better understand, engage and join up the creative community in the city and its region. We firmly believe that Cardiff has all the makings of a capital of creativity – a widely-held, but sometimes unspoken, conviction – and the focus of our work over the past three and a half years has been to shine a light on this potential.
How has the city’s creative network transformed since Creative Cardiff went live in October 2015?
Since Creative Cardiff went live in 2015, South Wales has been part of the UK wide (and indeed global) growth in the creative sector. The creative industries are now the fastest growing part of the UK economy, worth more than £100bn in GVA, with one in every 11 jobs a creative role. I believe that Creative Cardiff has worked hard to increase the connectivity of creative practitioners in the city and we’re seeing a lot more cross-sector collaboration (on and offline) as a result, which is exciting and almost certainly where ideas spark. And there is certainly a great deal more activity now across the board than in 2015 – we’ve seen the emergence of new networks, events and businesses which are all helping to put Cardiff’s creative industries on the map.
What are some of the pressing matters creative practitioners and communities are faced with today?
Some of the key pressing matters include connectivity, space, innovation, development and growth, talent, skills and health and wellbeing. A long list! These are all key concerns for Creative Cardiff and indeed many other organisations working with creatives and in the creative industries.
What are some of your favourite creative places in the city?
So many! There is such a range of great creative places and interesting spaces in the city. Key for me are places where people can come together to take part in, make or do creative things and talk and develop ideas. I would include in that list some built spaces e.g. Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Central Library, Sherman Theatre, Tramshed Tech, Rabble Studio, Sustainable Studio, Printhaus, Chapter, the National Museum and also some more open spaces like Bute Park and Llandaff Fields. Wales Millennium Centre also has a special place in my heart as it is where I met my husband who was also working there at the time. It is an incredible building and has been a work home for so many talented creatives and creative practitioners over the years.
What would your advice be for someone wishing to pursue a creative career?
Do good things with good people. Get out and see other people’s work – in your discipline and in others. Be inquisitive and curious. Be open to new ideas and doing things differently. Be interested in technology. Connect with people and build your network. Join a network. Join Creative Cardiff!
Why do you do what you do and what makes it all worthwhile to you?
I am passionate about championing and developing new talent and ideas and brokering partnerships that enable individuals and organisations to realise their full creative and commercial potential. The job I have at Cardiff University allows me to do all of these on a daily basis. I am also passionate about Cardiff. So, the combination of doing my job in the city I love makes it particularly meaningful to me. I also work with a top team. That makes the work worthwhile in a whole different way. Working with talented people to realise a shared ambition makes the average work day really great.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
Will creative jobs ever be automated?
Why is it so hard to get a toddler dressed in the morning?
Why do round pizzas come in square boxes?
What projects are you currently working on?
At Cardiff University innovation is an integral part of the purpose of the organisation’s activity and way of thinking. In 2018 our unit led, and won, a successful bid for Industrial Strategy funding through the highly competitive Creative Industries Cluster Programme. The new initiative – Clwstwr – is a partnership with University of South Wales and Cardiff Metropolitan University and involves over 50 partnerships. It is an ambitious programme for industry to make innovative new screen-related products, services and experiences. Clwstwr now exists alongside Creative Cardiff working with, and for, the creative economy in South Wales.
I’m also currently a member of the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales Advisory Group and the National Trust Wales Advisory Board and these both present an opportunity to engage nationally and promote cross-sector collaboration.
And finally, when you think about the future of arts and culture in Cardiff, what are you most excited about and why?
Young people have to be key to how we think about the future of arts and culture in the city. Changes to the curriculum in Wales and policy initiatives such as the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act plus programmes such as Creative Learning Through the Arts delivered by Arts Council Wales mean that we are in a good position to deliver on this in Wales. But… and there is a big but… these initiatives require support and commitment in terms of belief, resource, funding and support from stakeholders and government. Overall, I think we have lots to be optimistic about.