Culture club opens up

Friday 30 January 2015

London’s world-leading cultural institutions are branching out into new territories in the capital, recognizing that they need to better harness commercial opportunities in an age of perpetual budget cuts, and focusing on improving their physical environments before the onset of Crossrail. But they must also continue to integrate better with their localities and open up access to their treasures to more ordinary Londoners.

Those were some of the key points to emerge at a conference at NLA yesterday morning, organized to debate London’s future culture offer with some stellar representatives of the arts scene.

GLA deputy mayor for education and culture Munira Mirza kicked off by declaring that it was good to see culture recognized as part of infrastructure in Boris Johnson’s recent 2050 plan, and that it was a key plank of tourism and the economy. It is also a major draw for businesses, she said. ‘It’s a magnet for talent.’ The capital could expect to see around 30 per cent of its music venues close over the coming years because of rising prices, but Section 106 agreements could help to stop communities ‘having the heart ripped out of them’ and arts institutions need to think more creatively about financing. ‘Standing still is not an option’, she said. ‘Cultural organisations have to be prepared to move with the times.’

Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas DBE, Board Member, Imperial War Museum said that it was a certainty that state funding for the arts would continue its ‘perpetual decline’. But despite various reports still pointing to a disparity between London funding and that in the regions, it was important to keep striving as the Imperial War Museum has done, moving into its second phase of redevelopment immediately because the success of its WW1 show now made the rest look ‘clunky.’ ‘I don’t care that the rest of the country hates us – it has always been like that’. The cuts in a sense have been liberating, in IWM’s case leading its trustees to mastermind more in the way of income generation through its shop, catering and a joint venture to mount a touring exhibition. ‘Every now and then you need change – otherwise you fossilize and lose your audience. I actually think now is when London’s cultural organisations are at the top of their game.’

Barbican Centre managing director Sir Nicholas Kenyon agreed that London had to go on providing world-class facilities for the benefit of the rest of the country. But the City itself was at a crossroads. ‘We are in the middle of an interesting shift on the whole idea of what the City does’, he said, with a less monocentric future ahead of the Square Mile in terms of its concentration on financial services. Culture must play its part here as strongly as elsewhere, and the Barbican and environs will continue to improve wayfinding, ‘welcomes’ to buildings and accessibility, ready for the new flows of people that Crossrail will bring.

Tate Galleries’ Donald Hyslop, who works on regeneration and partnerships, said that Tate Modern had made an extraordinary contribution to London, 20 years on from its launch. And the public sector was still leading on innovation. But more of the long-term thinking Tate had applied, and which will see a Herzog and de Meuron extension open later this year, needed to be applied by those in the commercial development field. The new extension aims to build connections south into the borough both physically and philosophically, Hyslop urging that more cultural institutions embed themselves more in their localities and extend the narrative or art into the wider city and placemaking.

Southbank Centre artistic director Jude Kelly agreed, athough she expressed concern about what she called the potential ‘ring road’ of high-rise on the south bank not offering much in the way of culture to the city. Furthermore, with some 30 million visitors to the Southbank every year, it was still problematic that the Hayward end of the site offered so little of the ‘welcome’ to visitors that was necessary. ‘It suggests that despite the fact that it is in the centre of London that we don’t really care about that site’.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

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London’s future cultural offer


This NLA briefing gave an update on the plans of London’s key cultural institutions that are helping to shape the capital’s cultural scene.