Developers should be brave and opt for less well-known names rather than the usual suspects when it comes to selecting artists and other creatives in cultural placemaking projects. But public sector bodies should also take more of a lead and a London-wide view in a sector where there is still too much concentration on capital expenditure and buildings – rather than money and thought – devoted to cultural programmes that have a lasting legacy.
Those were just some of the thoughts to emerge from a Think Tank held last week kicked off by the City’s Culture Mile Manager Tim Jones and his explanation of the Square Mile’s approach to culture as part of its future.
Jones spoke about how to go out to the developer community in a bid to impress upon them the importance of a culturally led approach in a direct way, and the City is aiming to be clear about ‘what good looks like’ in this area at the pre-application process. But it was also important, he said, to look at culture in a broader-than usual sense, quite beyond cinemas, galleries and theatres to include workspaces too, for instance. ‘We should be thinking about some of the big moves that we can make on behalf of London’, he said.
Roger Black of Ballymore said that in his experience, developers were simple beings who go where the money is, rather like dogs being presented with a food bowl. But there was in his opinion far too much concentration on ’physical building outcomes’ – ‘CAPEX’ over ‘OPEX’ – and on large-scale buildings rather than material to go in and around them or an endowment that could contribute to legacy. ‘I think the problem is a crisis of content’, he said. ‘It is actually the activities to fill in and occupy the spaces… The onus or burden rests with the public bodies which are there beyond the economic cycles or generations. They are the long-term guardians of social and cultural legacy. The shift should move away from buildings now and actually focus entirely on content’.
Black referred to his own project at City Island, which includes the English National Opera as an anchor part of its mix of uses alongside housing. Its inclusion, though, Black admitted, was something of an ‘accident’, and far more important were the small, incremental ‘micro’ interventions that have led to the creation of community in the area. Big projects like ENB – actually something of a ‘fortress’ are thus something of a ‘mirage’, he added.
Joanna Parker at the City agreed that one of the measures of outcomes should be around the diversity of people using facilities and beyond its immediate boundary rather than the cultural ‘thing’ itself with other data to measure social value success including footfall or social media coverage.
Sound Diplomacy’s Jett Glozier said it was important to concentrate on content, but also on designing spaces that artists will want to use first, since customers will then follow. But sometimes, said Augarde Consulting’s Paul Augarde, conversations get stuck on assets because ‘we’re trying to build sustainability’ because it’s the only way the sector thinks it can keep going ‘when the hard hats have gone’.
For Kate Anderson we need the ‘epic and intimate’ – the big, extraordinary draws – but also the ‘glue’ of people and small things to humanize projects, along with a sense of authenticity and big ideas. Lorna Lee of Waltham Forest pointed to the opening of the refurbished town hall in her borough as an example of one such ‘incredible draw’ that is creating content as part of the asset in itself in an area which has had the advantage of being London Borough of Culture. It is now launching community grants to help people progress their ideas.
But the GLA’s Rachael Roe said one of her concerns is that ‘the usual suspects’ appear to get to the door first when it comes to cultural commissioning of operators, Glozier adding that the same operators ‘with glossy brochures’ and same artists appear to have something of a monopoly, especially on music. Perhaps the bigger operators could form local partnerships with local collectives, he suggested, and ‘swallow that risk’.
Rosa Rogina of the LFA, meanwhile, said one the event’s strengths but also weaknesses is that it is a temporary affair. ‘There is a big question of potential waste and the circular economy’, she said. Building in flexibility in venues would also help the sustainable approach, added Parker.
There is a clear need to offer different, more dynamic events and projects, said think tank chair Ben O’Connor, perhaps overseen by a third party like the GLA or NLA.
What we do not explain very well, said Augarde, is that over the last two years creative workspace has proved to be one of the more resilient sectors.
But how exactly do developers find their artists, wondered artist Adam Nathaniel Furman. ‘In the past year it seems that two artists have been doing pretty much everything across all of London’, he said. A broader range could do with being ‘nourished’, with a ‘clique’ developed by the arts consultants industry dismantled.
Parker agreed that the same architects tend to be fronting applications coming into the City of London. ‘It just becomes a bit monoculture’, she said. ‘Somehow we have got to get that message out to developers to experiment a bit more and take a risk on younger practices who are less experienced or have new and fresh ideas’.
Another issue is the ephemeral nature of work, a lot of it to do with creating temporary content when much of the craft culture is about making and supporting traditional skills creating permanent installations – an area which has become ‘etiolated’ over the past 20 years. A tradition of work in ceramics and metal should be nurtured, especially given Brexit, Furman argued, with developers and local authorities perhaps thinking more holistically and at scale, as happened with Frank Pick’s work for the London Underground in the 1920s and 1930s.
Finally, the group looked at some of the metrics that might be applied to evaluate cultural placemaking, and the clear commercial value that can come to restaurants and bars from events such as those at Canary Wharf with its winter lights scheme – now being considered also by the City of London. Others include footfall in the short term and land values over long periods of time.