London Borough of What?

Photo: Gemma Thorpe

One of the more intriguing parts of Sadiq Khan’s manifesto was his proposal to create a new ‘Borough of Culture’ designation for London. The idea is an evolution — or devolution — of the European Capital of Culture programme established by the European Union in 1985 and the UK City of Culture designation which is now awarded every four years to a UK city.

A year of cultural and artistic events is an easy idea to get behind. Mayors and tourist boards like the photo opportunities. Local government officials are attracted to the galvanising power of an immovable deadline. Theatres, galleries and artists enjoy the attention that the rest of the media (who usually work elsewhere) are willing to give it. And, of course, anyone with a house to sell — or rent — is quids in.

The enthusiasm for the UK City of Culture is so great, in fact, that DCMS offers no funding for its programming. Like the Olympics, applicant cities simply compete for the title and the recognition that comes with it.
 
 And like the Olympics, it might not be such a good deal.

What began as an initiative to celebrate local ‘distinctivenesss’ has become a bit of a formula: likeable public art, one-off concert, outside broadcasts, flashy things at night that look good on instagram — then end with fireworks. Google ‘capital of culture logo’ and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is some kind of touring festival.

It would be disappointing if the Borough of Culture were a watered down version of a European or UK city-wide festival. And in a city where on any given weekend you’re only a tube ride from something spectacular, would we really need it?

London is a different, original and innovative place. It should be able to find a new way of breathing life into a localised, year-long cultural programme. A creative starting point would be to consider why a borough is different to a city.

Whatever form it might take, the Borough of Culture award will require organisers to look at culture outside of arts institutions — for the simple fact that outer London doesn’t have that many of them. This could mean ‘getting elemental’ about culture and planning events closer to where people are — programming in social clubs, allotments, cafes, pubs and looking for ideas in historical societies, bedrooms and community centres. Talking to people about the mundane details that actually shape their lives, rather than starting with an idea of culture then trying to seek it out. Mark Steel and his touring celebration of day-to-day life in Britain’s overlooked towns, villages and islands might be a useful reference point here. Waltham Forest, an outer London borough that sets aside small amounts of cash for at least 200 self-organised street parties per year might be another. Applicant borough’s should be required to sign up supporters from sporting, community and faith organisations (not just museums and galleries) to ensure that a programme is properly rooted. It’s Borough of Culture, not culture for borough after all.

Photo: Gemma Thorpe

Another purpose

Seven years of austerity have sapped local authority culture budgets, so a bid for Borough of Culture might need to come from more than just a council’s culture and leisure department. This could be liberating, bringing together people from different teams. Social care, education — even housing could play a role. Some of the most innovative arts practice in London: Magic Me and Ducky’s work in social clubs, Punchdrunk Enrichment’s literacy work in primary schools, or Create’s commissions that explore how artists can contribute to city life — fits well with what other departments in local authorities want to achieve.

Applicant boroughs should put forward a clear, measureable purpose that goes beyond talk of ‘great celebrations’ and ‘excellent art’ — which, let’s face it, should be a given. How about creating a new common visual language, youth entrepreneurship or sustainable enterprises for making and doing?

Photo: Gemma Thorpe

Not a place

Most intriguingly, a Borough of Culture bid would be drawing attention to places that don’t exist. People who live in London might identify with their neighbourhood, but London boroughs cover wider ground and their residents share less identity. Chingford doesn’t consider Leyton its neighbour — and does anyone actually know where the borders of Hillingdon lie?

This need not be an obstacle. Quirky administrative boundaries could be just the kind of creative provocation that curators, designers, artists and promoters thrive on. Another lens through which to view life in the city. Focal Point Gallery’s recent Radical Essex weekend provided an interesting example of programming across a county. Not least because it was a way to encourage visitors to appreciate the country for what it was, not because something have been ‘put there’. If the Borough of Culture designation only becomes a way to bring in attractions, it may unwittingly create the impression that the Borough itself is actually unattractive.

Another red-herring would be using the designation to service a place branding exercise — Glasgow’s year as European Capital of Culture in 1990 played out under the wonderful ‘Glasgow Smiles Better’. But in a city shaped by networks that overlap municipal boundaries — would a brand for Havering, Haringay or Lambeth work or make sense. Bids should be assessed on their capacity to explore and give life to the stories, lives and architecture inside a Borough rather than because they promote a fixed identity.

The volunteers for the 2012 Olympic Games; the huge crowds at last winter’s Luminaire and the demob happy spirit that swept London for the Grand Depart, suggest that at the very least there will be an openness to the idea of the Borough of Culture. This is increasingly a city of people in over-crowded flats who need little excuse to get out of them. The challenge will be to use this in a way that truly serves the needs, desires and tells the stories of people in London’s boroughs. Engaging with the idiosyncrasies of this peculiar designation — and not pretending that this is a mini-city of culture — should be a good way to start.