Josh Neicho: Borough of Culture competition has been a joy, but angrier art is on its way

by Joshua Neicho

Josh Neicho is a communications professional and freelance journalist who is on the editorial team at Lambeth Life. This is his first, very welcome, piece for On London. Follow Josh on Twitter.

Sadiq Khan was in his pomp for the announcement of the Borough of
Culture competition winner in a packed Mayor’s Living Room yesterday. He cracked one joke about getting the wrong Oscars envelope and extricated himself when he mangled his lines at a critical moment with another. He played on the crowd’s nerves with a long, drawn-out declaration in which the competition maximum of six runner-up boroughs were given prizes for individual projects.

Often attacked for publicity seeking, the Mayor managed to make it appear to be about someone else: Deputy Mayor for Culture Justine Simons and the 22 competing boroughs. And a competition at risk of seeming a gimmick, for elevating local government fiefs to the status of Cities of Culture, ended up a substantial exercise.

Boroughs were forced to think hard about how they fulfilled the terms of the brief – to leverage their existing cultural assets and attract new opportunities, put communities at the heart of their programmes and to use culture to deliver skills, improve social cohesion and boost development, all backed up by a sustainable financial plan.

Ambitious event proposals, from laser-light extravaganzas via 200,000-person festivals, to a massive alternative circus led to something of an arms race, and boroughs were at pains to present themselves as champions of diversity and of uplifting disadvantaged groups. They became invested in the contest, so much so that, for some, it’s gone beyond the question of who won.

Former Arts Council chair and Bexley bid supporter Sir Peter Bazalgette says that “although [Bexley] didn’t win I’m confident they’ll find other ways of putting some of their exciting ideas into action.” Young Southwark filmmaker and magazine editor Jide Adetunji thinks the competition energised the council’s conversations with artists like nothing else, and hopes this “genuine” approach remains: “We need to be picking and learning the best things from each other.” Had they not been victorious, Brent would have announced an extra £330,000 investment in cultural projects this week. Writing a round up of the competition in January, I got personal calls from council leaders, officers interrogating me about who else I’d spoken to and anger from boroughs I left out.

Of the winning boroughs, Waltham Forest was the runaway favourite with more than 14,000 residents signing up to back the bid, a figure which council leader Clare Coghill says did not take a massive proactive
push to reach as “we sincerely know our cultural community very well”.
The choice of Brent for 2020 also seems obvious in hindsight, given
the Euro 2020 matches coming to Wembley and the opportunity for a London 2012-style cultural backdrop to the tournament. The winning bids share factors stressed by the Mayor in his introductory speech and
throughout the contest guidelines, including:

  • Engaging young people (in Waltham Forest’s case, helping them
    access arts careers, through a Cultural Leadership Programme and a Create Education Partnership yielding work placement and
    apprenticeship opportunities; for Brent, the spirit animating the
    whole bid, with specific initiatives including a place-based Brent
    curriculum and a not-for-profit youth media platform).
  • Mass participation (Waltham Forest’s Culture on Every Corner,
    with an ambition to get 85% of households involved, Brent through its community anthem in the stadium and other vast gatherings).
  • A bridge between Inner and Outer London (physically expressed
    in Brent through an A5 street festival, while Waltham Forest sees
    local activities as a gateway to encourage culture-shy residents to go to Central London museums and shows).
  • Savvy connections between development and culture (Waltham
    Forest keen to ensure the creation of sufficient makers’ spaces, and Clare Coghill emphasising her success at getting cultural venues retained in new developments; Brent forming close working relationships with Wembley Stadium and housebuilder Quintain).

Both bids put as much weight on their borough’s cultural heritage ­­­- respectively, reggae and Irish migration and William Morris, Alfred Hitchcock and Walthamstow School of Art – as contemporary artforms.

While the winning bids were among a few that stood out for the quality of their programme and serious financial planning, it is worth wondering how many other boroughs ticked all the desirable boxes.

Camden’s bid dazzled in the depth and attractiveness of its online resources, the level of its consultations and the ways it had considered how the opportunity could benefit each and every underserved demographic, down to primary school children. But would any Inner London borough be chosen when the competition’s remit included shifting the focus of culture away from the expected places?

Similarly, judges didn’t go out on a limb and choose a firmly community-rooted bid like Barking and Dagenham’s, proud of its culture-led transformation since the days it was a BNP power base, or Merton, which intentionally didn’t court celebrity support, although both received runners-up Mayor’s Cultural Impact prizes.

Insiders think Lewisham and Croydon were in with a chance, but who else? Was Greenwich – which between its historic centre and regenerating Woolwich seems to have it all – scuppered by its previous administration’s cultural spending blunders? How would hipster Hackney have fared if it had entered? Or Wandsworth?

The competition has been met with a wave of general goodwill. Is there a strong case against it? Some residents of competing inner boroughs object to it as a waste of resources or think their council leaders have shown themselves to be cultural vandals, for instance over library closures. Veteran Conservative Assembly member Andrew Boff offers a sharply dissenting view. “I’d rather build houses, I’d rather employ police, but there’s only one lot of money,” he says. With boroughs like Waltham Forest already having an active cultural programme, he argues the Mayor’s only objective in cutting £3.5 million from other budgets to fund this scheme is his familiar role of limelight-stealer, treating cash-strapped boroughs like “performing dogs”.

Another thought occurs. The language of those involved in the competition is about cohesion and celebration – “a triumph of joy over cynicism, an invitation to smile” says one borough communications consultant. Yet London is living through extraordinarily turbulent times: the shadow of Grenfell, back in the comment pages thanks to Stormzy at the Brits; the rise in acid attacks and knife crime, such as the killing of two young Somalis in the same part of Camden last
week; the distressingly high incidence of rough sleeping in Central London and widening chasm between home owners and the rest.

London councils will have had their grant from central government slashed by over 60% in 10 years in some cases, leading to youth service cuts that have exacerbated festering social problems. Brexit divides many London boroughs from the rest of England, and makes long-settled residents feel foreigners in their own city. Much of the art that London will produce over the next two years is sure to be angry and deeply political – a far cry from the noble intentions of City Hall. Any London cultural celebration worth its salt should encompass this darkening mood too.

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