The academic behind a pioneering student festival that has attracted some of the biggest names in the arts over the past 21 years is retiring from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).
Tony Graves, head of DMU’s arts and festival management course, came up with the idea of calling the event Cultural eXchanges and launched it in 2001.
Tony in his Clephan Building office
It is an integral part of the cultural fabric of Leicester, celebrating diversity in the arts, and is unique in the way Arts and Festival Management students run events, with grades going towards their graduation.
The festival has attracted hundreds of guests over the years, including journalist and activist Paris Lees, Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry, poet and activist Benjamin Zephaniah, artist David Shrigley and the late music entrepreneur and ambassador of Jamal Edwards youth.
Tony says the celebration of the arts, combined with students experiencing “real learning,” stems from the opening of the Clephan Building at the turn of the century.
“We were moving into Clephan and the dean of the faculty, Judy Simons, wanted a week of events to celebrate the opening,” he explains.
“It was called Clephan Events Week and then the staff were asked if anyone else wanted to take it over the following year. I volunteered, I changed my name and Cultural eXchanges was born in 2001.
The first Cultural eXchanges brochure from 2001
“It was a modest festival showcasing scholars and their subjects with a few guest speakers and artists. That’s when we had the idea to make it part of a student module and offer this idea of real learning.
“It was a pioneering module and the only one in the country at the time – and it still is I think – in which the students organize everything within a festival as part of their course.
“The diversity of the festival is something I’m proud of. People step out of their comfort zone and open their minds to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Our guests are not some sort of sideshow. Cultural eXchanges is about finding out who people are and what they do and the public accepts that.
“The arts are seen as very liberal and all-encompassing, but there are still areas that need to be opened up. This political element of cultural exchanges, with a small “p”, is important. It reflects Leicester as a city and hopefully embraces what Leicester can be and is.
Tony’s life at DMU actually began as a student of the Arts Management course at the old Scraptoft campus, under the tutelage of Chris Maughan who Tony says was instrumental in developing his career.
Another person Tony knew during his studies was Geoff Rowe, founder of the internationally renowned Leicester Comedy Festival.
“Geoff was in the same year as me. For our final year projects, Geoff was working alongside the Leicester Comedy Festival and I was working on an art training repertoire for the East Midlands.
Artist David Shrigley and his distinctive deadpan work at CeX
Tony laughs as he says, “Our group was all virtuous and the other group was having a blast. All you could hear from the next door was giggles and giggles and we were there saying “this will never work”.
“Look how it went!”
Geoff and Tony remained close and the students of the arts and festival management course regularly organized events for the comedy festival, taking care of everything from managing the venue to ticketing and mentoring artists. .
Fittingly, Geoff Rowe hosted the Leicester Comedy Festival Awards in February and Tony was honored with a lifetime achievement award.
“It was amazing,” says Tony. “I’m using a cliche here, but I was dumbfounded. They brought me there under false pretenses to make sure I was going to collect my prize.
“Towards the end of the event a speech written by Geoff was read out stating that the Lifetime Achievement award was going to the person he has known the longest in Leicester. It was then that I put two and two together.
“I may have received the award, but it truly recognizes the students and staff who have provided so much support over the years.”
Campaigner and journalist Paris Lees at CeX
Tony graduated from DMU in 1994 and was working freelance at Nottingham Playhouse, organizing shows and overseeing various other projects, when Mr Maughan called and said there was a position available on the course.
Since then, hundreds of students have participated in the annual Cultural Exchange Festival and found employment with arts organizations around the world.
Tony said: “I will miss DMU because the people are fantastic. It’s at all levels. Not just students and scholars. Postal and porterage, security, etc. The one thing they all have in common is that they are part of a community and I will miss that.
“My first love is interacting with the community and presenting the arts to help change people’s lives. This is something our course always tries to do. I want to keep doing this.
“I’m looking at a project with actor David Harewood, following his visit to DMU for the latest cultural exchanges, to use the arts to help people who may have fallen through the cracks, so to speak. I’m not just going to tinker in the garden.
Tony’s Seven Best Guests
Benjamin Sophonie – He’s an incredible artist and someone I’ve admired for a long time. He was so relaxed and accommodating and very generous with his time for the students. He became a person associated with DMU. Students meeting someone like that was great. It had a transformative effect.
Janet Street Porter – I remember her because it was the first time that there was a feeling of ‘we can involve very well-known public figures’. Janet had just come out of the jungle on I’m A Celebrity, so she was high profile and of course could talk about her life as an editor. It really raised the bar for our ambitions and really captured the imagination.
Grayson Perry– Grayson was a Turner Prize winner and just as charismatic as he was on television, and the buzz around campus was overwhelming when we announced he was coming to give a talk. Chatting with him in the green room before his event was so memorable
Meera Syall- The story of her is ‘if at first you don’t succeed…..’ because for about six years I was trying to invite her to the festival without success. I decided to try one more time and she said yes, which was a bit like winning the lottery.
Melvin Bragg- He wanted to meet the students afterwards at the pub so I asked one of our students to take charge and make sure he didn’t miss his train. I was at home and received a phone call from the student telling me that the taxi hadn’t arrived. I jumped in the car and went as fast as I could to pick up Melvyn Bragg and take her to the station. As I pulled up to the pub I rushed out of the car – which then started to back up – and ran over to Melvyn and the shock on his face… he said he thought he was going get attacked. So everything is quite chaotic… but he took his train
Jamal Edwards – Jamal has visited Cultural Exchange twice and I have seen the incredible effect he has had on the students around him. He really understood what we were trying to do and brought a whole new crowd to the festival. People felt like they weren’t just stepping into a college setting, but witnessing an event that would capture their imaginations.
Ken Loach – His speech was extraordinary. Sitting down and talking to this great director after the event was one of those really surreal moments.
Posted on Tuesday, May 24, 2022