The race is on for the first London Borough of Culture.

London will have its own “Capital of Culture” in 2019 and 2020.  Mayor Sadiq Khan has launched the “London Borough of Culture” competition. Inspired by the European Capital of Culture and the UK City of Culture the title is open to the 32 boroughs in London.  The boroughs are medium-sized cities with most having over 200,000 residents and several over 300,000. Many are larger than recent European Capitals of Culture or national Culture Capitals in the UK and Italy. I was a panellist at the launch (as a former chair of the European Capitals of Culture selection panel).

This is the second time a Capital of Culture programme has focussed on a single city. The short-lived Métropole Culturelle en Communauté Wallonie-Bruxelles ran a similar competition in Brussels for 2014. Molenbeek was successful after 9 of the 19 boroughs put in bids. Let’s hope the London title lasts longer. Two editions, particularly with only one bidding window, are not really long enough for a competition to build momentum and gain experience.

The aims are ambitious, as they should be.  A “Capitals” programme is not an opportunity for a slightly bigger “business as usual” or a new grant funding source. A key lesson from successful Capitals of Culture is that they plan for the medium and longer term and not just the title year. “It is a process not an event” is the soundbite. It is easy, if hard work, to spend a lot of money on a bumper season of festivals, events and even garden parties to attract lots of visitors. It brings high numbers to the evaluation headlines. But the year after?  Raised expectations are dashed as everything falls back to pre-title activity levels. Who now remembers the Cultural Olympiad of 2012?

There is a very short time to prepare bids. The online applications have to be in by December. The time scale means councils have to engage with their residents very quickly, and not with the usual “tick-box but change nothing” attitude of planning consultations. A bid needs to be rooted in the views of local residents rather than a top-down effort prepared by council staff, consultants and the local cultural sector.

I hope bidding boroughs make their bids public as a trust building step. It will show they are serious in working with and not just for their residents. One strong approach in bids will be to include structured open calls for small neighbourhood projects. With the limited funding available perhaps the greater sustainable impact will be through smaller targeted activity of participatory and community arts rather than one off “blockbusters”.

It will be interesting to see how the national cultural institutions in London take part (if at all) under the leadership of a borough. All need to work with local London residents as well as for tourists and the international cultural scene. Can they work with an outer London borough as well as their local borough?

One of the selection criteria is to engage with people who otherwise may miss out on culture. Surveys show from 92% to 70% of Londoners fall into this category. That sets a worthy challenge to the cultural sector and bid directors.

There is a special resonance for 2019 and 2020.  London voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. Sadiq Khan has been very strong in his support for EU27 nationals in London. Bids and programmes for the London Borough of Culture provide a massive opportunity both to reassure EU27 residents of their future in London (notwithstanding the May government’s derisory current offer) and demonstrate the long-term benefit they bring to London. The EUNIC cluster in London is an obvious port of call for international partnerships.

The London Borough of Culture competition is a great opportunity for all boroughs to rethink their approach to culture across all their portfolios. Austerity cuts and planning decisions (for example closing down music venues) have hit culture in many boroughs. The London arts scene can raise vast sums for its world-class institutions (the Tate and V&A spring to mind and possibly the new concert hall). Just a fraction of those sums needs to be used to ensure a vibrant grassroots culture for all Londoners.

The challenge has been set, let’s see how the boroughs respond with a cultural transformation for their residents.

 

 

 

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