London Essays – Issue 4: Culture


London, the city of Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, Hogarth and Francis Bacon, Handel and David Bowie, Hawksmoor and Stirling, has long been an important centre for the arts.

By Geraldine Bedell and Ben Rogers

This issue of London Essays looks at the past, present and future of culture in the capital, and especially at how London’s position as a global city affects and is affected by the arts. What does a highly diverse population mean for the creation and consumption of culture? What do the arts mean to London’s fast-changing, increasingly globalised economy? How does new technology change cultural experience? What will maintaining London’s role as a global artistic capital require? How can all Londoners be engaged in the capital’s rich cultural life?

As several of our essayists point out, over the last few decades the arts have flourished in London. New galleries and performance spaces have opened and existing ones grown. The capital has enhanced its standing as a global centre of theatre, music, publishing and design, and moved from being a middle-rank to a first-rank player in visual art, film and fashion.

The range of cultural activity is stunning and continues to evolve. The City of London is planning a new cultural hub, with a world-class concert hall, a new home for the Museum of London and more exhibition space. East London is to get ‘Olympicopolis’, as the V&A, Smithsonian, Sadler’s Wells and the London College of Fashion open new facilities in the Olympic Park. In our interview, the V&A’s director Martin Roth talks about his ambitions for the site.

An underlying theme of several of these essays is that audiences increasingly see themselves as an active part of the creative process, and that artistic consumption is more public than ever. Adrian Ellis observes audiences’ enthusiasm for experiencing the arts in new kinds of spaces, and challenges planners to imagine creative districts where inventive experiences can flourish. Geoff Mulgan suggests that digital technology offers a new way to satisfy the very old desire to make our world speak to us of its history, meanings and spirit.

Many branches of the arts in London are clearly in rude health. London’s high-end art galleries and auction houses, and its West End theatres, seem to be flourishing. The great public galleries and museums are jammed from morning to night; some shows open round the clock. And while government has cut funding to these organisations, they have found ways to thrive. The real worries lie elsewhere. As several contributors point out, London’s arts world is marked by complexity and interdependence. Tom Campbell surveys the whole through the perspective of the value chain – breaking the creative sector into its constituent productive elements – while John Holden envisages it as an ecosystem. Both accounts underscore the contribution that is made at all levels, as the subsidised and commercial, high-end and grassroots, establishment and experimental feed into one another. The band playing in a grotty room over a pub tonight could be headlining the O2 in a few years’ time.

But here there is real cause for concern. Shain Shapiro discusses the steep decline in London’s music venues and outlines some of the steps the GLA is taking to support those that remain. Justine Simons reveals that ‘culture under threat’ is the one standing item on her weekly agenda at City Hall; all kinds of artists’ spaces are closing. Louise Jury finds out what SPACE, Artsadmin and Bow Arts have learned over the years about keeping artists in the capital.

London is in many ways the model of a liberal, cohesive, cosmopolitan city. Nicholas Kenyon welcomes the change in arts institutions to become more porous. Deborah Bull emphasises the arts’ growing relationship with universities. Raheel Mohammed makes a case for the arts offering a way for marginalised communities to have a voice. But other contributors, led by John Kieffer, argue that the city’s cultural offerings are failing to engage many. This is bad for the energy and creativity of the city. And it’s bad for cohesion and fairness.

Tony Travers and Bob Stanley, writing about film and popular music respectively, remind us that the city has its own soundtrack and images – created by a few but shared by us all. Over the next few years London’s phenomenally creative artists and audiences will need to turn some of their efforts to keeping the arts alive and animating the city.

We are, as ever, grateful to Capital & Counties Properties PLC for their support.