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.



E17: capital of culture

Imagine:    350 exhibitions and events in 180 venues; 47 music acts in 29 gigs; add an international film festival and the second month of a major refurbished top class museum.  Where’s this cultural extravaganza taking place?  A Capital of Culture somewhere in Europe?  A major city’s  annual programme?

Walthamstow. In September.  All of it.  Yes that’s right. The butt of so many jokes, a closed dog-racing stadium, E17. Walthamstow.

Well September sees an explosion of culture that consigns those jokes to history and puts Walthamstow on the map (well it’s there already: end of the Victoria Line).

The E17 Art Trail opens on 1 September is an independent artist-led project started in 2004. This year’s programmes covers all artforms (with 350 events of course it covers everything!), takes place in private houses, pubs, estate agents ( part of a poetry trail), shops,  cafes, in the streets and parks: in fact just about everywhere including churches (but not yet a mosque).  Check out the programme and  just experience the vitality of the area. (Even better of course come along: there will be something for you).

The E17 Film Festival recalls the 1920s heyday of British films when Walthamstow predated Hollywood.     “Walthamstow had four major film studios which produced over 400 films before the outbreak of the second world war. One of the most famous was The Battle of The Somme (1916). The film sold over 20 million tickets in its first six weeks – a record that could only be smashed 60 years later by the first Star Wars movie”

This years’ 10 day festival showcases short films. The international competition has short listed films from Germany, Japan, Russia, France, Spain, Czech Republic and UK here and a few tasters here.

Music takes over at the end of the month with the Stow Festival.  From Baroque ,Collegium Musicum 90, to soul  to Naz Anine’s Moroccan songs to, well the list is endless (inlcuding indie for those who,, well).  An advance playlist is on Spotify full line-up and gig info.

And whilst all of this is going on the newly refurbished William Morris Gallery gives a permanent venue for the borough’s culture.  Socialist, craftsman, poet, entrepreneur, designer, re-discoverer of Iznik pottery, founder of the heritage and conservation movement, Morris’ life and work is celebrated in the house he lived in as a teenager and student.  Hurry, as Grayson Perry’s “Walthamstow Tapestry” is on show until 23 September.

As a member of the selection panel for the European Capitals of Culture I often see cities putting forward cultural programmes which seek to engage the whole community, to bring culture and citizens closer together.  The commercial benefits of a vibrant cultural scene are critical to today’s prosperity. It’s just good to live in a borough which is a capital of culture, every year.