Time for DCMS to start the competition for European Capital of Culture in 2023

The UK hosts a European Capital of Culture (ECOC) in 2023. Under the rules DCMS needs to start the competition before December 2016. This gives the competing cities time to finalize their bids for shortlisting in autumn 2017.  The final selection will be in 2018.  It is now mid September, time is running out.

As the current chair of the selection panel for ECOCs I know that cities need time, over four years, to develop their programme. They also need clarity in preparing their bids.

Several UK cities are preparing bids: Dundee, Leeds, Milton Keynes (and possibly Bristol). They are investing time, money and more importantly, building up momentum in their cities and networks with their citizens, businesses and cultural sectors.

No recent ECOC has been able to prepare a successful bid in less than two years.  In my five years on the panel I’ve seen over 100 bid-books and city presentations and it is easy to spot those which are underprepared; they do not get shortlisted let alone selected.

So what’s the problem? DCMS is not indicating when it will start the formal competition on behalf of the European Commission.  It will have all the paperwork and the rules (they are the same for each country).  Why not?  Simple, I guess,  DCMS look like a rabbit stuck in the Brexit car headlights.

There is no reason for DCMS not to start the competition. The UK, as the Prime Minister frequently says, is a full member of the European Union until it leaves. During that time it will perform as a full member with all the rights and responsibilities that membership entails.  It is both legally and morally the correct stance.

The selection of the ECOC in the UK for 2023 will take place in 2017 and 2018: when the UK will be still be a member of the EU. The ECOC “Decision”, the legal document which governs the ECOC programme, was approved by the UK along with 27 other culture ministries and the European Parliament and it requires the competition to start.

What are the risks to DCMS to starting the competition?

Financial? Not really, the EU only contributes €1.5m to an ECOC and that is conditional.  An ECOC’s programme budget is likely to be over £50-£60m over 6 years found from city, regional, lottery and business sources. This is twice the amount that Hull have successfully raised for their UK City of Culture programme in 2017. The UK government could easily replace the €1.5m in 2023.

The main impact of a delay will be to the candidates. They need to ensure funding lines and commitments and discuss project plans with cultural partners across Europe (and indeed globally).

Reputation?   An ECOC is required to demonstrate a “European Dimension”.  This is cultural not political. ECOCs show and share the diversity of cultures in Europe to their own citizens and to visitors.  Most recent ECOCs have over 70% of their events with international partners and these are not limited to EU countries.  Even the ardent brexiters said that “Europe” is a cultural area of which the UK is a part and it is distinct from the political entity of the European Union.

Split process?   Perhaps. Unlike the UK City of Culture programme an ECOC is subject to a quality control process by a monitoring panel (in effect the selection panel).  This process may be interrupted but can easily be adapted.

Brexit may mean Brexit but no-one knows what that will entail. The referendum indicated a departure but not a destination.  Under the current Decision it is possible for non EU members to host an ECOC: but only closely defined categories:  candidates and potential candidates and, soon, EEA members.  There are calls for the UK to continue to be part of the Erasmus scheme, of the EU research programmes and of the cultural programmes. If the UK stays in the EU cultural programme it could be eligible to host the ECOC in 2023. A very small element in the whole Art50 process.  Staying in the culture and education programmes does not affect the hallowed sovereignty of the brexiters as these areas are not under EU competency. The UK has always had control

And if not, if it is an exceedingly hard Brexit? Well then DCMS could simply introduce a new “UK Capital of International Culture” in 2023 and rebrand the ECOC title to fit between the UK Cities of Culture planned for 2021 and 2025. The successful ECOC city selected in 2018 continues with its implementation, same programme, same objectives with only a minor change to its logo.

So two scenarios: the post Art50 EU-UK deal enables the European Capital of Culture process to continue as normal (clearly the overwhelmingly preferred option) or the UK simply rebrands the title.  Neither prevents DCMS from starting the competition.

A win-win. But DCMS need to give a firm green light now.

Steve Green

Chair, European Capitals of Culture Selection Panel



Mantua and Pistoia are Italian Capitals of Culture 2016 and 2017 from shortlist of ten cities

An update!   Mantua is the Italian Capital of Culture in 2016 and Pistoia for 2017.


Ten Italian cities have made it to the short list for the title of Italian Capital of Culture in 2016 and 2017. They were selected from 24 candidates by an independent jury.  The short list is:

Aquileia, Como, Ercolano, Mantova, Parma, Pisa, Pistoia, Spoleto, Taranto and Terni.

The programme “Italian Capital of Culture” is a spin-off from the competition to select the European Capital of Culture.

Italy co-hosts, with Bulgaria, the European Capital of Culture title in 2019.  The competition in 2013/14 was intense with 21 candidates; six cities made the short-list.  Eventually the international panel of experts selected Matera who were formally designated by the European Union in May. Plovdiv is the co-title holder.

The Italian Ministry of Culture recognised the efforts of the other five shortlisted candidates by appointing them “Italian Capitals of Culture” in 2015.  Ravenna, Lecce, Cagliari, Siena and Perugia are all running programmes this year.

Italy is following the precedent set by the UK, after Liverpool was the European Capital of Culture in 2008.  The UK now runs a four-yearly competition for the UK” City of Culture” title.  Derry/Londonderry was the first holder in 2013 and Hull will hold the title in 2017.

The final selection of the Italian Capitals of Culture 2016 and 2017 will be made later in the year.


Labour won’t win in 2020 by re-running 2015

Labour lost the general election in 2015.  A leadership election is underway.  Candidates are writing their manifestos. Is it too early?  Will the candidates be too tempted to re-run 2015 rather than look ahead to 2020.  The political landscape will change. Here are a few thoughts.

Five more years of a Tory government, unhindered by any Liberal Democrat brake, and in hock to the more right-wing members of the Tory party, will mean a harsher landscape.  Not just fox-hunting but abortion restrictions (and I suspect a few Tories will be looking longingly at Orban’s attempt to restore capital punishment in Hungary).  More banks, more in poverty, greater “security” surveillance.  We will be spending billions on the four Tridents. We will have an even more authoritarian society, officially sanctioned.

The Tory leader in 2020 is likely to be from George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Theresa May.  Will they skip a generation after Cameron goes, probably in 2018?  Doubt it. Well-known senior figures appealing to the Tory heartlands.

Public finances will still be in a mess. Osborne’s forecasts on both debt and deficit have been proved wrong; there is no reason to expect any change. There will still be “no money”.  More years of stringent cuts.  It’s difficult to see how significantly more full wage jobs can be created so the tax take won’t increase to mitigate cuts.

The public sector ethos will be further weakened. Not just through out-sourcing, privatisation and ” public sector social entrepreneurialism”.  Top managers in the public sector will be required to operate as private sector equivalents. The internal culture of the delivery arms of the public sector will drastically change. TTIP and ISDS will prevent the re-nationalisation of public sector contracts.

The Scottish Parliament, from 2016, will be firmly in the nationalist camp. It is hard to foresee Jim Murphy (let alone the old school of Scottish Labour) turning the electoral prospects around in a short time.  As Spain has seen with Cataluña a nationalist mind-set always wants more.

Osborne’s “northern powerhouses”, led by Manchester, will be in full swing. Devolution in England will be underway mostly led by Labour councils and they will want, and deserve, more. Power may be devolved but in reality in many cases it simply means power to implement more cuts to local government. Bye bye not just libraries but many areas of local services. No way that the Tories will restore any form of sensible London government.

And looming over all of these changes will be the defining political topic of the next five years: the in/out EU referendum.  Polls may indicate a “stay in” majority but as we have seen polls are not at their most brilliant.  The lesson from the Scottish Independence referendum is that even a seemingly clear 55/45 division does not end the debate.   A “stay in” vote may not end the question; UKIP and the right-wing Tories will continue for a second chance in the 2020s. Will we see Theresa May leading a UKIP/Tory grouping in 2020 pledging to reverse the “stay in” vote?  Or an Osborne  (perhaps even the bend in the wind Johnson) leading a “happy to be in” a reformed EU?

A “leave” vote in 2017 leads to two years of negotiation of the terms of the exit (the Treaty sets a time limit).  Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales will be up in arms if they have been outvoted by the English.  Constitutional turmoil.  How does that stack up in 2020?

In my view Labour leadership candidates will find it easy to outline their social and local policy positions; obviously with different priorities. This is their comfort zone.  But the overwhelmingly strategic political decision they have to take is on how active in the next two years they will be for a pro-EU vote.  No more fence-sitting.

Yes, this means tackling the concerns over migration in areas not used to it and not pandering in UKIP-lite style. It means jettisoning the “Controls on immigration” mug. It means leadership from the front not from the backroom focus group. We all want to reform the EU. If it was being invented now we would not build the current version. But it is the one we have. The 2020 election depends on the EU referendum. Time to step up and be counted: the UK’s future lies unequivocally as a member of the EU. That’s what a potential prime minister in 2020 needs to project.


Cultural, Social, Citizens’ Europe? Its time to join up. Dombrovskis is here

It is not often that you feel a politician has listened to you. When it does happen a wry smile appears, cynicism slightly reduced and a hope that there is more to come.

In December 2013 I wrote an essay for the Cultural Coalition for a Citizens’ Europe, (a rather unwieldy title)  and spoke at their March conference in Berlin. Other speakers at the conference included Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz and Guy Verhofstadt, then all “spitzenkandidats” for the post of European Commission President.   As we know Juncker got the job and Schulz remains as President of the European Parliament.

I wrote

……that the new President of the
European Commission will create a senior “vice-president for citizens”
responsible across the board for everything the EU does which engages with
citizens with transversal authority to delve into every proposed policy from
every directorate, a role well beyond mere “citizenship”. 

Well that may have become true. (OK, I don’t think any politician actually read my piece, dream on!).  I’ll not comment on the selection and appointment of the commissioners, that’s for another day. They start work on 1 November.  Juncker has tweaked the structure, giving the vice-presidents a wider role.  One of the vice-presidents is Valdis Dombrovskis who is responsible for the Euro and, wait for it,  “Social Dialogue”.  Juncker set out one of the aims of the post in his commissioning letter to Dombrovskis:  “promoting social dialogue and engaging with social partners at EU level on all aspects of interest for the delivery of our priorities”.

Not quite as strong or all-encompassing as I hoped but a start.  The Commissioners for Education,Youth and Culture, for Gender Equality, and for Social Affairs are in the grouping of Commissioners “steered” by Dombrovskis.  Many of the aims and aspirations of the cultural sector for a new Europe are similar to those from the social sector (once you set aside the straightforward lobbying for more money). Is the start of a joined-up approach?

Is there a real difference between calls for a “Social Europe”,  a “Citizens’ Europe” or a “Cultural Europe”?  All recognise that the EU of today is out of touch with citizens, that many are “falling behind”, that a greater sense of community is needed  to balance the overwhelming attention to economics and to austerity.

Bringing the campaigns together may make them understandable to more people and not fall into the cul-de-sac of the “New Narratives for Europe” initiative of the Barroso era.  With a worrying rise of not just euro-scepticism  but of euro-opposition across the EU the ideas and approaches like the “New Narratives” fail to engage with those more tempted by the populist parties.  Its declarations sound like a self-congratulatory rhetorical device to convince the converted.

Paul Mason identifies the underlying problem of the EU, and of politics, in this piece in the Guardian.   It is UK focused  but its main thesis applies across the EU.  Read it, apply it to your country.  Change in the EU, to make it more in line with today’s citizen’s needs means not starting from your own cosmopolitan perspective.  Start looking from the perspective of what Obama calls “main street” and those who Mason identifies: people in towns and cities most affected by globalisation, by the move to the digital world, living in places where the main employers have disappeared: where the long term city business model (often based on semi or unskilled male work) has gone and not been replaced. Such places probably also have a lower level of formal education attainment and the participation rate in culture is also probably lower than average.

And then see how your “cultural, citizens’, social Europe” aspirations meet this challenge. We need to see a wider coalition for change bringing together the currently disparate and overlapping movements.  A stronger EU needs to address this decade’s priorities, not those of 50 or even 10 years ago.

Mr Dombrovskis, this is where your social dialogue starts.



Who will be the UK’s European Capital of Culture in 2023?

Updated June 2016 with news on bidding cities and the selection in Croatia for ECOC2020.

Updated August 2015 to highlight the report from the panel on the pre-selection (shortlisting) for the ECOC in 2020 in Croatia.


A UK city will be the European Capital of Culture in 2023. It will share the title, and work with, a city in Hungary. 2023 may seem a long way off but cities thinking of bidding should be starting their preparations now. The bids will need to be completed in mid-2017 for shortlisting. The final selection, based on revised bids, will be in 2018.

So far Leeds and Milton Keynes appear to have set up bidding teams; will more join the competition?  Dundee will decide to bid in September.  Cardiff may put a bid together.   These are leaving it very, very, late to put a bid together.  Many recent ECOCs have spent 3-5 years before the submission of the bid.  Why the long time?  Because it is no longer a top down application which can be prepared by a city administration and a few cultural operators.  The criteria require extensive consultation and  participation in the development of the bid.  Not just marketing or convincing people but actively seeking views and acting on them.  This poses a challenge to city administrations and as importantly to the cultural sector in a city.  In essence a bid says “we are not satisfied with our cultural offer and we seek to transform our city through culture (and other sectors).  Putting a programme together also involves considerable visits to other ECOCs and in finding partners for projects across Europe (and beyond). 

An ECOC is not a big celebration of the present but a transformational programme for the future.

They, and other cities considering bids may find the report on the pre-selection of the ECOC in 2020 in Croatia useful.  It is the first report based on the new criteria for ECOCs from 2020.   Four cities, out of 8, were shortlisted.

The Panel selected Rijeka at the final selection. The report is here.   The panel will select the Irish city as the co-ECOC in 2020 in July. there are three candidates (Galway, Limerick and the Three Sisters (Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny)

There is a new guide for cities considering or preparing to bid . This is essential reading!!    http://ec.europa.eu/culture/tools/actions/documents/ecoc-candidates-guide_en.pdf

As the current chair of the Selection Panel of the European Capitals of Culture (ECOC) I see bids from candidate cities in many countries and all start their bid preparations well in advance. Many spend five or six years preparing their bid, well in advance of the official announcement.

A key point to notice is, of course, this is the EUROPEAN Capital of Culture.. not the UK City of Culture title successfully held by Derry-Londonderry in 2013 and awarded to Hull for 2017. That competition was part of the legacy of Liverpool becoming the last UK city to be awarded the ECOC title, in 2008.

The criteria at European level are different to the UK version; they are also different from the ones used to select Liverpool (let alone Glasgow’s ground breaking programme in 1990).  The selection process also differs to the UK City of Culture.

The Culture Ministers of the 28 EU member states have recently agreed the new programme and the European Parliament have also completed their formalities. The formal “Decision” will be published shortly. There is a preview later in this post.

So what does a candidate city have to focus on?  Well each city will be different; it will have its own objectives and purpose. There is no single magic template which guarantees a successful bid or programme. The title is not awarded simply because a city is in the UK (and still in the EU of course).  A city’s size is not relevant.  Nor is its cultural heritage a major factor.

An ECOC is based on a future programme and not a celebration of the past. Successful cities integrate the standard selection criteria with their own local objectives. The “legacy” is important: what are the longer term outcomes?  In recent years the budgets for the ECOC programme have varied from €20m in the smaller and newer EU member states to between €50 and €80m in western European countries. The money is spread over the five or six years of the overall programme.  This is on top of the usual cultural budget of a city and excludes any infrastructure or new buildings. Several recent ECOCs have successfully bid for EU regional funds for culturally related projects (mostly linked to cultural tourism).  Most ECOCs build up to a management team of 40-50, plus hundreds of volunteers.

There are six criteria. These are set out in detail, together with the background to the programme, in the new formal “Decision” which covers the competition from 2020 to 2033. Cities thinking of bidding should read the document closely (that old adage from school “remember to read the question first!”). The final version is here:

Final Decision 2020-2033

The first criteria is that a city must have an existing cultural strategy even before it can bid. The ECOC is not a one year “super-festival” but needs to be part of the overall cultural development of a city which in turn is part of a city’s strategy. This is one of the reasons potential bidding cities may need to start soon, developing their city’s cultural strategy takes time.

Four criteria will be familiar to cultural managers:  outreach (including the involvement of citizens in the development of the bid), management, the capacity to deliver and a high artistic and creative content. “Culture” in the context of an ECOC has a wide interpretation: all artforms from djs to opera, new media, community and participatory arts, arts in schools, hospitals,  languages, creative industries etc.   The focus is on the programme which normally progressively builds up to the events of the year.  The programme needs to be additional to the existing cultural offer in the city (as is the programme budget).

A common and crucial feature is that it is a highly international programme. Some ECOCs have an international aspect to virtually every project or event or base their programme around European themes.

The remaining criteria is the one which marks the ECOC out from national cities of culture: the “European Dimension“.  The programme must highlight the cultural diversity of Europe (to the cities own citizens and not using the title solely as a tourist/city branding exercise), highlight European themes and the common aspects of European cultures, heritage and history. This is a challenging criteria and one which is of major importance.  Recent ECOCs have developed a wide range of imaginative projects to meet this European Dimension requirement.

What should cities thinking of bidding do now?  My advice is to go and visit the two current  ECOCs, (and those already selected for 2015 to 2018) to learn. There is a wealth of good practice, and lessons to learn and share.  Riga and Umea hold this year’s title and are in full swing.  In 2015 the title goes to Mons and Plzen; in 2016 to Donostia San Sebastian and Wroclaw; in 2017 to Aarhus and Pafos. In 2018 Valletta and Leeuwarden share the title.  Several of these ECOCs have their bid-books (in English) online. All are working hard to develop their programmes.

Later this year the Selection Panel will recommend the cities in Italy and Bulgaria for the 2019 title.  There were 21 candidates in Italy and 8 in Bulgaria.  There are now 6 on the shortlist in Italy and 4 in Bulgaria.  Read the Panel’s reports on the pre-selection shortlisting.

There are clear short-term and long-term benefits for a city holding the ECOC title. These are outlined in the recent report commissioned by the European Parliament from Beatriz Garcia of Liverpool University.  Recent holders of the title (eg Marseilles-Provence,) are in no doubt about the success of their programmes. Many cities which were not successful in the competition find they have made significant gains: the bidding process in itself was more than worthwhile.

Who will bid for the title when it comes to the UK? I’ve no idea but now (June 2016) is the time to be deeply into preparing the bid.  Good luck to all the candidates!




At last: where the £100,000 is going at the William Morris Gallery

The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow won the Museum of the Year award in 2013.   The prize was twofold: a significant amount of free PR and marketing which has led to a massive rise in visitors and £100,000.  The prize came after a total refurbishment.

So what happened to the money?  I blogged in June last year and quoted the Leader of the Waltham Forest Council (the owners):

” We’re now deciding what we’ll spend the money on, and I guarantee that it will make a real,tangible difference to the Gallery itself and to the experience of visitors, whether they live in the borough, come as part of school visit or have travelled from another country to explore Morris’ extraordinary vision”

So what happened?   Nothing:  no news on the website, no news in the Council’s free PR paper. Silence.  For six months.  Time enough for a decision perhaps?

So in January I asked both the gallery and the Councillor, Ahsan Khan, who chairs the “Health and Well-being” committee which apparently includes culture.  He replied:

We are planning the spend of the Art Fund prize carefully, to ensure it makes a real difference to the Gallery.  We’ve analysed visitor feedback and are using some of the funds to enhance the visitor experience. This includes replacing some of the glazing
on paintings with museum-grade non-reflective glass. We are aware that the
current glazing prevents effective viewing of the paintings in the Gallery, especially the larger Brangwyn paintings. The worst affected painting, Brangwyn’s Dogana, has already had its glazing replaced and we are seeking quotes for other works. Other suggestions that we are investigating  include – replacing the benches with chairs in the tea room so that families and older people find access easier, more equipment to control the temperature in summer months and a buggy park. 

However we plan to use the majority of the Museum of the Year prize money as match-funding to apply for other grants. This means we can potentially double (or more) the value of the award. The focus for our fundraising activities is the Gallery’s exhibition and
activity programme. This includes our schools, families and young peoples’
programmes, as well as new opportunities for older residents to engage with the
arts (due to launch in 2014).

This programme is crucial to making sure we keep the offer fresh and continue to
encourage local residents to keep coming back for more. We currently
receive Heritage Lottery funding to support this programme, until November 2014.
The Gallery’s core costs (staffing, building upkeep etc) are all funded by the
London Borough of Waltham Forest but if we can attract additional external
funding  we can continue to develop and exceed such a high quality

So there we have it.   The Gallery has now been nominated for the European Museum of the Year award. (a Council of Europe project, not the EU this time!) It is in illustrious company.  Good luck!

And please go along to the current exhibition of Jeremy Deller last shown at the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale last summer.


Local democracy in Walthamstow or will the gambling giants win again?

William Hill Organisation, one of the largest betting and gambling companies in the UK  (excluding the banks of course) want to open a new betting shop in the area.  The local residents signed a petition to oppose. The local council’s planning committee agreed with them and turned down the application.  Predictably William Hill have appealed.

A few months ago Newham Council did the same; they lost on appeal.    The new style betting shops are proliferating across the UK, along with payday lenders.  Gambling Watch UK warns of a generation of younger gambling addicts.  Another report questions their link with problem gamblers.

Will the same happen in Walthamstow?   Here are the points I’ve made arguing against William Hill and supporting the Council.

  1. All of the major political parties are making policy statements to increase the degree of local decision taking in respect to their neighbourhoods.  Whether called decentralisation, community engagement, participatory democracy or the Big Society, the direction of travel is obvious: a greater degree of local direction.  It is quite clear that residents in the area, as well as their elected representatives, do
    not want to lose a retail space nor gain another betting shop in the area.
  2.  Betting shops are no longer the betting shops of old: the shop for the flutter on horse and greyhound racing.  Their main income and rationale is now gambling, more suited to casinos and the controls which apply to casinos.  Fixed Odds Betting Terminals  will be installed by the William Hill Organisation should their appeal be successful. They are aptly described as the “crack cocaine” of gambling. These have no place in our neighbourhood which already has an over-supply of gambling/betting outlets.
  3. There are already seven William Hill shops within a little over a mile of this location, including one already in the same road, according to a search on the Organisation’s own website. They cannot argue that they need another to “serve the area”.  There are, of course, even more betting shops in the
    same area managed by their competitors: the residents of the area
    already have enough outlets.  Of course the penetration of betting shops
    in a relatively poorer area of London is a sign, along with the payday lenders and pawn brokers,of the ability of the financial services industry to prey on the weakest.
  4. The location is along the route taken by many young people attending the Waltham Forest College who catch public transport at the Hoe Street/Forest Road crossroads. Putting a betting shop in their path conveys the wrong signal to them.
  5.  Walthamstow, like so many urban centres, is struggling to maintain vibrant and productive high streets and areas. The loss of a retail unit in the cluster of shops around  Hoe Street/Forest Road is an unwelcome step.   The proximity of the William Morris Gallery, now recognised as Museum of the Year 2013, the renovation of Lloyd Park and of the Bell public house into a family-centred pub, are steps in the positive direction for the regeneration of this area.  A betting/gambling shop is not.

Will Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Local Government support local residents, or will he side with big business?

Send your objections, quoting APP/U5930/A/2199214 to teamp1@pins.gsi.gov.uk saying you oppose the appeal by the William Hill Organisation (address of proposed new betting shop is 520/522 Forest Road, Walthamstow).  By midnight 5 August!!!!

The deadline has now passed but still send your objections in (they may be accepted or at least the Planning Inspectorate might record them as too late!)

I am sure that this will not the last time a gambling company will seek to open a new outlet in Waltham Forest so keep your eyes open and be ready to organise!




What would you do with £100,000?

Yes, there is a catch.  Not a windfall of £100,000 for yourself. I mean the £100,000 prize money awarded to the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow: the 2013 ArtFund Museum of the Year.

The Gallery is owned by the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The Leader of the Council, Chris Robbins, says, in the local Council free newspaper:

” We’re now deciding what we’ll spend the money on, and I guarantee that it will make a real,tangible difference to the Gallery itself and to the experience of visitors, whether they live in the borough, come as part of school visit or have travelled from another country to explore Morris’ extraordinary vision”

Fine words and indeed credit does go to the Council for reversing their original decision on the future of the Gallery and embarking on its marvellous renovation.

I have a major concern with Councillor Robbins’ statement. It’s that term “we’re”.  Who are the “we”?  Experience across Europe has shown that decisions about the detail of cultural projects are not best handled by politicians. This Gallery owes its current status to the energy of those who campaigned to keep it open.  Surely residents of Walthamstow, and “Morrisians” further afield, should be invited to contribute to and be part of the discussions?

Readers of Private Eye over the last few years have seen examples of less than transparent decisions and accountability by the Council.  We must not let any suspicion of this apply to the £100,000 prize fund.

I suggest that Councillor Robbins arranges a public meeting in the Assembly Hall (with its Morris inscription over the entrance) and calls for open contributions on the use of the money.  I am sure he would attract a large audience and a range of practical and imaginative suggestions.  We know we can fill the Assembly Hall, as local citizens did to help save the EMD Granada cinema.  I am sure ArtFund judges such as historian, and MP, Tristram Hunt would give us their views.  The Friends of the William Morris Gallery have a key role.  A public celebration of the prize and a forward looking debate.

A second stage would be to co-opt as non-voting observers several members of the local community to the appropriate Council committee which will be discussing the practical plans.

A third step would be a regular public updating on the William Morris Gallery website of progress, of options, of why certain proposals have been rejected, of how the money is going.  Openess being the watchword.

Yes I’m biased and declare an interest: a local resident, a member of the ArtFund (good value for money!) and I have many books by and about Morris on my bookshelves.

William Morris was an indefatigable public speaker, taking his views across the country and speaking directly to citizens.  A good model for the Council to adopt now.

Power to the people: from closure threat to Museum of the Year.

A campaign which started local and went global, has finally paid off.  Six years ago Waltham Forest Council planned to close the William Morris Gallery, in Walthamstow.

Now the gallery has won the Museum of the Year 2013, an award worth £100,000, and organised by the ArtFund.  Congratulations are flooding in. They are well deserved.  The renovations have transformed a fusty, dark and quite frankly unappealing building into an informative, bright and attractive survey of Morris and his myriad interests.  The obligatory cafe is a nice touch as well. Many photos on google.

Amongst the plaudits there is, however, a little re-writing of history.  One of the judges, the artist Bob and Roberta Smith is quoted in the ArtFund magazine:

” in the current climate it’s amazing to see a local authority realise the power of art in regenerating a borough”.

Other reports have made a similar point. Fair enough; Waltham Forest Council did provide £1,500,000 towards the work (around 30%) and will run the Gallery.  Good news for all who believe in the important role the arts can play in local well-being.

But it was not always this rosy. Six years ago the Council wished to close the Gallery, merge its priceless contents with a museum in South London and be shot of the whole affair. They wanted to save £65,000.  Unbelievably they had tried to do the same in 1987.

What changed their mind?  A very active campaign which gained world-wide support.  A petition signed by 11,630, demonstrations (it was cold!): citizens actions. An active Friends group was formed in 1987 lobbied.  The Council changed its mind.

Now the new Gallery has attracted over 100,000 visitors in less than a year from its re-opening. The Museum of the Year prize will bring in far more.   So it is congratulations to the local councillors.. for listening to their local citizens.

As well as the standing collection the Gallery has already hosted exhibitions by Grayson Perry, David Bailey, modern crafts and in 2014 becomes the first gallery in the UK to host Jeremy Dellers’ current exhibition at the British Pavilion in Venice. That features William Morris rising to hurl Abramovich’s monster yacht into the lagoon.

With the arts in financial trouble in most of Europe it is a little bit of good news on the power of campaigning.   William Morris, socialist, would have been pleased.



Culture, Citizens and the European Parliament

In a years’ time citizens in the European Union will be at fever pitch as they prepare to vote in the elections for the European Parliament. Well perhaps not at fever pitch! Turnout at these elections has been declining in most member states. In only 9 countries in 2009, the last election, did half the voters cast a ballot.  Apathy and indifference were stronger contenders.

2014 may well turn out to be markedly different.  The European Parliament now has real powers. Under the Lisbon treaty, it is no longer a wasted vote or a missed democratic opportunity. Members of the European Parliament have already shown they can alter proposals from the European Commission and from the inter-governmental Council. The 2014-2019 European Parliament will feature far more in our news than its predecessors.

But who will be in the Parliament?  At the moment it is dominated by four main political groupings: the Christian Democrat EPP, the Socialists and Democrats, ALDE. (liberals) and the Greens. All pro-EU and used to working in “the spirit of the EU”.  Of course they all have a few mavericks but generally they work comfortably together.  With well over 70% of the members they control the Parliament.

The rest form odd groupings: from the left to the right.  Noisy, splintered, fragmented and mostly ineffectual,

But will this be the same after next years’ elections?  The current political climate across the EU suggests otherwise.  A feature of recent elections and polls in member states has been the rise of parties not affiliated with the big 4 at European level.  Golden Dawn and Syrizia in Greece; UKIP in the UK, Grillo’s M25 in Italy.  A new party will contest the German elections in September (pro-EU, anti Euro). Opinion polls in Spain show a breakdown in support for the two main parties with the left and centre gaining. Concurrently there is increasing support for the 15-M movement.  Logic dictates that voters in Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus may not look too kindly on pro-EU candidates next year as the EU takes the blame for the austerity measures (and you can’t vote for the IMF). The far right-wing parties also seem to be gaining in popularity with their anti-EU, xenophobic, reactionary rhetoric. The True Finns, Swedish Democrats, Le Pen’s Front National.. the list, goes on. In the UK, sadly, it seems to be a given that UKIP will be the largest party in the May 2014 elections. If nothing else the noise from the far-right drags the centre of debate even further to the right.

Already alarm bells are ringing in Brussels.  A European Parliament with a substantial minority being anti-EU or at least anti current policies?  Indeed it is not too difficult to forecast a blocking minority (although the chances of all the “minority” parties agreeing on anything is remote).

The political parties are preparing.  Gossip abounds about who from the in-crowd will get the top jobs.  But outside of party politics there are several attempts to influence and mobilize opinion before the elections.

In June we see the “first-ever Citizens Summit” organised by the “EU Civil Society Contact Group“. The Group brings together eight large rights and value
based NGO sectors – culture, environment, education, development, human rights,
public health, social and women. The Summit aims:

to bring together for the first time professionals, practitioners and activists
from across the different sectors, culture, development, education,
environment, health, human rights, social affairs and women’s rights to
discuss the future of Europe. Our intention is to foster an open dialogue
amongst a diverse group from across Europe in order to start a genuine
participatory process on the future of the European Union, and what this means
for people living within its borders. We believe that by creating a shared
understanding and dialogue, we can help move forward common objectives for a
common future. 

The Cultural Coalition for a Citizen’s Europe holds its latest conference in Lyon in May.  After its meetings in Brussels and Amsterdam this coalition turns its attention to

At its borders, in a Mediterranean political and social transformation, Europe is experiencing a strong migratory pressure from its neighbours and more distant countries. Inside, the moral, social and economic crisis leads us to retreat, promoting the growth of xenophobia, nationalism or simply mistrust vis-à-vis foreigners (whether EU or non-EU ). How are we to consider the prospect of the European population’s decline in this major contemporary tension if we do not accept more than 55 million foreign workers in four decades? How should the cultural and civic dimension be taken into account in international relations, especially with countries of the Mediterranean basin?

Even the European Commission gets in on the act with the “New Narrative for Europe“. Launched by Commission president Barroso the project runs to three “états généraux” of participants, mainly representatives from the world of culture and intellectuals, in Warsaw, Paris and an as yet undetermined city in Germany. It will result in

the publication of a manifesto by the participants in the “états généraux” meetings and other interested parties, incorporating elements relating to the values, culture and history that represent the connecting link between Europeans, in order to develop a vision for Europe which can be adapted to the current challenges such as solidarity, strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the EU and the role of Europe in the age of globalisation and interdependence.

These initiatives are to be welcomed.  But are they enough and will they tackle the hard issues of today?  It is noticeable that none of the meetings in the three projects will take place in a country under a EU/ECB/IMF bail-out regime. Not perhaps a good message to send!

Trust in the six largest European Union member states as a basic concept is declining.  When economic times are tough solidarity with fellow Europeans declines.  Yet virtually all the solutions on offer, including those based on culture, seek greater Europeanness, More Europe.

Aart de Geus, head of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German think-tank, warns that the drive to surrender more key national powers to Brussels would backfire. “Public support for the EU has been falling since 2007. So it is risky to go for federalism as it can cause a backlash and unleash greater populism.”

Jurgen Habermas and  Zygmunt Bauman have weighed into the debate about the limits of solidarity, the rise of populism and the risks to the European project. The Trade Unions are calling for a Social Europe as a way of going beyond the economic focus.

Barroso himself warns  ” We cannot let populism, scepticism or pessimism undermine the foundations of Europe, not to speak about new forms of nationalism that I believe are a very serious risk for the European values that we cherish.”

The key test for the Cultural Coalition, the Citizen’s Summit and the New Narrative is to move beyond the cultural cosmopolitan, the “educated urbanists” in marketing jargon. I’m assuming that the participants will not use the projects to press for their own sectors’ financial case.  Lobbying has its place: this is not that place.

There have been many fine sounding declarations of the importance of culture in Europe, how culture is at the heart of being European and how culture can support the European Union. (This last assertion is the hardest to sustain).  I hope the initiatives do not come up with more of the same, however well-intentioned.  The economic austerity in many countries in the EU, the threats to free movement of people (but not it seems capital), the failure of many austerity programmes, rising un-employment (and under-employment) change the context.  Those previous declarations have appealed to the committed Europeans in times of plenty. Now is the time to send a positive message to those less than committed to a European Union.

It is probably too late for the projects to change their programmes but they surely must hold meetings away from the Brussels/France/Germany nexus.  It will soon be EU-28 but you wouldn’t notice it.

Robin Wilson puts one of the key challenges this way:

For a young generation for whom the war is sepia-tinted history and neoliberalism offers only insecurity—including in some countries a more than even chance of being unemployed—’Europe’ therefore now holds no meaning except Erasmus programmes for the educated elite.

This chimes with a major report on Youth Participation in Democratic Life,  which should be required reading in all three projects.  The research looked at youth (13-30 year olds to match the EU’s Youth in Action programme) in six countries (Austria, Finland, France, Poland, Spain and UK).  The report calls for major changes to remove poltiical and cultural barriers to increased youth participation.

Given the overwhelming levels of perceived betrayal, distrust, scepticism and/or anger expressed with regard to politicians by 95% of our focus group respondents from “reference”, “active” and “excluded” in all six countries and the survey results that point to a political offer that is often perceived as inadequate, this seems to us to be an immediate and significant challenge and action point.

A challenge indeed.  Let’s see how they respond.