London has some of the best museums in the world, free art, global-standard culture and entertainment — 70% of visitors to the capital come here to take advantage of our booming creative industry.
But thousands of young Londoners are being excluded from this part of city life, because of relative poverty, cuts to arts funds, the over-reliance on unpaid internships in the cultural sector, and an apparent unwillingness for arts institutions to look outside central London.
The Culture Education Challenge, a new project launched by A New Direction hopes to solve some of these issues by investing £1.4m. The cash will be shared between seven initiatives across London with the aim of tackling the social and economic barriers that prevent young people from engaging with and succeeding in the arts.
While young people can feel disenfranchised from society, unable to afford housing or higher education, organisations such as Westway Trust, Oval House and The Barbican Centre Trust aim to shine a light on opportunities within the arts industry. They will provide mentoring, visits to cultural institutions, and also give away theatre tickets to help young people explore new art forms.
The full range of opportunities available will be showcased by connecting young people outside central London with professionals in the industry — not just artists and musicians but also stage directors, curators, lighting technicians and less well known disciplines.
The Culture Education Challenge wants to help children who miss out on opportunities because their school lacks connections to venues, galleries and museums. The participating organisations will offer young people the chance to organise and curate their own events and so gain practical work experience.
One of the root causes of the problem is a trend for arts organisations to market their events at the same schools. Sian Bird, cultural partnership manager at Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning, says: "Only 23% of schools interested in doing more are being actively sought-out by cultural organisations. There is huge untapped demand out there."
That demand is the primary focus of The East London Cultural Education Partnership which is investing £170,000 in schools across Newham and Barking and Dagenham.
"We aim to ensure that young people in east London no longer miss out on the creative opportunities on their doorstep — whether that's helping them on the path to a job in the creative industries, helping to unlock self-expression or inspiring a life-long passion for creativity," explains Bird.
The scheme connects schools with organisations like Bow Arts, Newham Music, Stratford Circus and Guildhall School of Music & Drama so creative students get the specialised teaching support they need. Bird says: "Once we know what the young people in each school particularly want and need in that area, we will link them up with the cultural organisations who offer the creative opportunities that best fit this."
Statistics from A New Direction show that young people from low income families are less likely to be read to, less likely to attend arts events and are more likely to experience the arts through school rather than at home.
But how do organisations reach them? One solution is working with social housing associations. Creative Youth, a partnership between Oval House in south London and Hyde Housing, Metropolitan Housing, London and Quadrant and the Walcott Foundation, is investing £128,600 to offer high quality arts experience to young people from low-income families.
The project will give 12 young people a year training in arts leadership as well as financial help with living costs. Over the course of the year those selected will be shadowing professionals before devising their own event with other youngsters — be it theatre, dance or an art exhibition. According to Stella Barnes, director of participation at Oval House, "their only limits should be of the imagination."
"Children used to experience culture through school trips," Barnes tells Londonist. "Now these are being scaled back, and if the theatre is more expensive than going to the cinema, young people are inevitably going to choose the cinema."
Creative Youth is countering this with free tickets for theatre, exhibitions and performances while Westway Trust is launching an incentive scheme called Bounts, which rewards teens with freebies for activities like volunteering and going to the gym.
Meanwhile Westway Trust is working with 500 young people in Kensington and Chelsea. It's a borough often associated with affluence though the north part of the borough is one of the most deprived areas of the city. That's why Westway Trust is working with Vinspired charity to create a programme called #CultureMakers.
Louise Wolsey, director of community development at Westway Trust, thinks all young people regardless of their social background should aim high. She says: "#CultureMakers is a progression pathway, opening up career opportunities through routes previously closed off to young working class people."
A 2011 report found that 60% of people at the top of their professions, including CEOs of FTSE 100 companies and MPs, held a degree in the humanities, arts or social sciences. It is these subjects that encourage independent thinking. And it's these subjects which the Culture Education Challenge supports as these subjects will produce the next generation of architects, engineers, designers and leaders.
For those young people who aren't accessing the arts at school, at home or in the museums, galleries and theatres London is famed for, the Culture Education Challenge may be the lifeline they need. Aside from the economic benefits the arts have intrinsic value which everyone should have access to regardless of wealth, class and background.