This year, Waltham Forest will become the first London Borough of Culture. The title awarded by London’s mayor Sadiq Khan will see this corner of north east London, home to 270,000 people, host a year-long programme of arts and culture that will involve tens of thousands of people and hopefully have an impact that will be felt for generations to come. ‘Borough of Culture’ is a concept that emerged from the mayor’s visit to Hull, UK City of Culture in 2017 and created with the intention “to put culture at the heart of local communities, where it belongs. It will shine a light on the character and diversity of London’s boroughs and show culture is for everyone”.
As an executive producer at Hull 2017, I saw first-hand how a perfect storm of great art, ambition, media attention, political will, strategic investment and the backing of residents can help change the perceptions of a place for the better. Hull was a great example of how arts and culture, as part of a wider package of investment, can help shift a narrative of decline that is sometimes imposed on our cities and towns. How a cultural programme responding to, and inspired by, a specific place can make locals’ lives better and bring in visitors.
As the first Borough of Culture we have the opportunity to define this project for what could potentially be the next 32 years. To help establish this competition as something useful for the capital and most importantly its residents.
London Borough of Culture is not the same as UK City of Culture and nor should it be. In Hull we worked to establish its City of Culture status with a programme that spoke with the accent of the place, while still creating a UK cultural festival – made with the scale and ambition that such an event warrants.
Borough of Culture is a much more locally focused affair. We have a target to attract 500,000 visitors to Waltham Forest, but our primary aim is to involve its different communities in the creation and presentation of the programme. It has to be an event that could only ever happen here and bring about real and demonstrable change in how a local authority places culture at the heart of its decision making and future planning.
UK City of Culture is as much about altering a misplaced, undeserved metropolitan snobbery about a regional city, as it is showing its residents a good time. Residents tend to be bound by certain totemic themes that help them define a sense of place, in Hull these were the bombing in the Second World War, the demise of the fishing fleet and latterly renewed optimism due to investment in green industries, particularly the manufacture of offshore wind turbines.
In London’s boroughs the challenges are slightly different and the programme must reflect this. London is the most diverse and culturally well-served city in the world so why this competition? This is simple, the same issues face the outer boroughs of London as they do the (many much smaller) cities bidding to be the next UK City of Culture.
Waltham Forest has a population on a par with many cities across the UK – a population that is certainly larger than Hull – yet it has very little arts infrastructure. There is only one National Portfolio Organisation for instance in The William Morris Gallery. Yet, it does have a wildly creative and self-starting arts scene that will take centre stage this year. Borough of Culture is an opportunity to create a counterweight to the national institutions and globally focused festivals.