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Opinion

Would Bowie And Rickman Have Stood A Chance In Today's London?

By Londonist Last edited 13 months ago
Would Bowie And Rickman Have Stood A Chance In Today's London?

As part of Centre for London's London Essays, Justine Simons, Head of Culture for the Mayor of London, explains how London's culture is under threat, and how young David Bowies and Alan Rickmans might struggle to make it in today's capital.

Photo by Stockcar Pete in the Londonist Flickr pool

The sheer amount of cultural activity in London, combined with the ever-present tourist population, masks underlying structural concerns in the arts and creative industries.

Yes, every cultural venue and event seems to be full of people, the commercial creative industries are booming and London is at the the centre of an art market worth billions. What's not to like?

Alongside the issues of funding cuts, escalating rents and the like, there is an elephant in the room. It has been there for a while, and it is getting bigger all the time.

At a recent dinner, the conversation turned from reflecting on the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman to: 'Would people from similar working class backgrounds now stand a much of a chance in the creative sector?'

To an extent talent will always find a way through, but the overwhelming impression of the sector is that social mobility has stalled and most likely gone into reverse.

We already know something about the unchanging nature of audiences for, and consumers of, culture. As Robert Hewison points out in his analysis of recent participation surveys in Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain: "The majority of people are not taking part."

There is a small but growing evidence base that the cultural workforce is similarly resistant to change. For example in their analysis of the acting profession Sam Friedman, Dave O'Brien and Daniel Laurison conclude that: "While class disadvantage may be most immediately visible in terms of a pay gap… at root it is more about the unequal distribution of cultural, social and economic capital." Evidence aside, a walk through Google Campus, the BBC, or the offices of an arts organisation tells its own story.

There are many examples of individual arts organisations and creative businesses showing great initiative in trying to address the social cleansing of the cultural sector, but perhaps unsurprisingly there is little sign of activity at the policy level.

In truth, the arts and creative industries and those who work in them are in a strange position when it comes to the changes taking place in London. We are simultaneously victims and protagonists.

Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project at Tate Modern created a very different kind of audience. © Olafur Eliasson. Photo: © Tate 2003

As we have known for decades, artists and creative types are often the first to make an area 'cool' and then the first to be priced out when rents rise.

Cultural organisations have been enthusiastic partners in the regeneration game and have had their fill in the Lottery-fuelled feeding frenzy for new buildings, only to return for more public funding when we cannot afford to run them.

The cultural sector is a nice place to work if you (or your parents) can afford it, and the people who work in it and enjoy its products are very nice too. They are also increasingly homogeneous middle class nice people.

The not-for-profit arts sector in particular has been been trying the same tricks over and over again for over 30 years – access and education programmes, targeted funding, ticket schemes, apprenticeships etc, in order to diversify the workforce of, and the audience for, the arts and culture. They have not worked and if anything the situation is getting worse. Tweaking and repeating existing programmes and expecting radically different results is foolish in the extreme. It could be time to try something new.

For example, London's cultural scene and its inhabitants are a microcosm of the wider gentrification debate. Very few liberal-minded Londoners knowingly and intentionally shut working class people out of their neighbourhood or their workplace. It's just that life is so much easier when everyone thinks pretty much the same.

The internet and social media rather than providing a counterbalance by making the world bigger and more unpredictable has instead mirrored the offline world by creating evermore rarefied communities of 'people like us'.

One student analysing special interest groups on social media recently characterised the arts traffic as:

basically the same 600 people incessantly bigging each other up.

This has not always been the case, and the kind of cultural chaos that perhaps helped create the Bowies and Rickmans of this world 40 years ago was as much to do with people from radically different backgrounds being thrown together in art schools, drama schools, music venues or design studios.

For example, place is a key factor — both learning/making spaces and public spaces. Public space is turning private all over London and public spaces in the cultural sphere are increasingly over-programmed with content.

The chances of an accidental, meaningful and extended encounter with someone not like yourself is very slim, and the chances of repeating it slimmer still.

At times the arts can create a sweet spot where the public feel at ease and simply want to be there together. Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project at the Tate created a very different kind of audience in what almost seems to prefigure a kind of democratic cultural space that has yet to be invented.

It could be time to stop re-running tired access programmes to try and make people like things that they don't like, and instead start thinking more about how human beings interact with each other through culture.

We may start running out of friends however if the players at a Lotto terminal in Sunderland are seen to be subsidising the occupants of grand tier of the Royal Opera House in London. Photo by Matthew Gidley in the Londonist Flickr pool

While the language of cultural advocacy from funding bodies and arts organisations refers endlessly to art, museums, culture, or whatever for all, we have in reality drifted radically in the opposite direction. Nobody can plan culture or how it is received and perceived. It does not work like that.

We could benefit from some new role models. For example, what would a 21st century version of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop look like? What would a 21st century version of a 1960s art college look like? Certainly not an art college in 2016.

Cultural funding agencies in the UK have become a strange combination of top-down paternalism in how they work with the arts, with a lack of specificity about what they actually want to happen as a result of their funding.

The 'hands-off but bossy' approach of funders that started to grow in the 1990s effectively saw a devolution of cultural policy making from funding agencies to the organisations that they fund, and while it benefits nobody for the state or its agencies to mess too much with its independent clients this has at least coincided with what seems like the social cleansing of the cultural world.

We may not need a plan as such but we do need to be more ambitious for the arts and culture in. As Diane Ragsdale said: "If, in the race to survive, theatres don't really consider their changing place in society then what's the point?"

What would a 21st century version of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop look like? What would a 21st century version of a 1960s art college look like? Certainly not an art college in 2016.

There could be trouble ahead for London's cultural scene. The imbalance in cultural funding and investment between London and the rest of the UK is well documented and shows little sign of changing.

Every year, a higher proportion of the arts are funded from the National Lottery rather than general taxation. (To describe the arts component of the National Lottery as regressive taxation is correct but if anything sounds too far too polite.)

Accelerated gentrification means working class Londoners are displaced to the edges of the city or out of the city altogether and cease to be cultural players, while more affluent Londoners further reinforce their positions in the cultural workforce and audience.

None of this will bother Boris or George too much, and the left have been always been squeamish when it comes to challenging creative types, but as austerity measures bite deeper in the coming years someone may just ask the question: "why?"

We in the cultural world are much too polite to follow the money. We may start running out of friends however if the players at a Lotto terminal in Sunderland are seen to be subsidising the occupants of grand tier of the Royal Opera House in London, and we have been guilty of a massive lack of imagination in finding new solutions to old problems.

Last Updated 27 April 2016