London: Capital of culture

London Essays – Issue 1: Soft Power

London: Capital of culture

It’s still not widely understood how much culture shapes international perceptions, attracting visitors and investment and giving a nation authority. As the UK’s military, political and economic power wane, it’s our culture that increasingly gives us standing and influence.

By Sir Peter Bazalgette

To take just one, though central, example, there is little doubt that Shakespeare’s international influence is an enormous national asset – one of the reasons why the English are so tolerated and respected.

There’s revealing research from the British Council about the realities of this ‘soft power’. It’s a longterm, formative process that begins early. For example, young people who have participated in cultural activities with the UK are significantly more likely to be interested in working with, and doing business with, the UK than those who have not (44% to 33% on average). They also rate the opportunities the UK offers as a place to do business or to study more highly.

In this respect the UK is lucky to have the capital city it does. London is a cultural superpower; its orchestras, theatres, dance companies, opera houses, museums and galleries play a powerful ambassadorial role around the globe. But as I argue here, when we discuss how we can sustain and enhance London’s extraordinary cultural standing, we must always remember that the benefits are for the nation. That is the responsibility that comes with London’s privileges.

But lets begin with London’s global cultural clout. There are broadly two ways London exerts cultural soft power. First, visitors come to the city to enjoy its unsurpassed cultural life. Research by VisitBritain demonstrates a quarter of tourists to London come specifically for the cultural offer, compared to 14% for the rest of the UK. These cultural tourists spend more than others. But each visit is not only an economic stimulus – it’s also an act of successful diplomacy.

The second way London makes its cultural influence felt is through taking arts and culture overseas.

The second way London makes its cultural influence felt is through taking arts and culture overseas. On 25 June 2009, London’s Royal National Theatre launched NT Live, putting theatre onto cinema screens across the country. The effect of that inaugural transmission of Racine’s Phædre was extraordinary. In a single night, it doubled the audience for the play’s three-month live run. Five years on, something even more remarkable was happening. Sam Mendes’ sell out production of King Lear at the National also doubled its UK audience through broadcasts, but in addition it was seen by nearly 50,000 people abroad. An international community enjoyed a cultural event of power and significance. NT Live has been seen by about two million people in the UK since its inception but nearly four million globally. It is now a presence in 45 countries.

Every year, the British Museum lends thousands of artefacts around the UK – but also abroad. In 2013–14, the British Museum loaned 2,229 objects to 148 venues overseas, and crucially this included loans to such nations as Russia, Iran and India, where we need to lay the foundations for long-term friendships.

Or take the case of the Cylinder of Cyrus, the celebrated artefact made in Babylon in 539 BC. This was loaned to the National Museum of Iran in Tehran from September 2010 to April 2011, and was seen by a million people. It has also completed a tour of the US and travelled to Mumbai, where it drew 80,000 visitors.

But for all the reach of London’s global cultural offer, the city can’t be complacent. First, we need to make sure that we sustain and build on London’s cultural power. Second, we need to ensure that London makes an ever greater cultural contribution to the rest of the nation.

There are a number of simple things we need to do to enhance London’s cultural strength:

Sustain public funding

London’s arts and cultural institutions manage to deliver amazing returns on modest public investment. Sadler’s Wells, for example, receives just 9% of its income from Arts Council England, and makes 75% from ticket sales. The Royal Opera House gets under a quarter of its funding from the public purse, and makes some 43% of income from trading and fundraising. The V&A is one of the nation’s great international attractions. It’s free, but still manages to get more than 40% of its income through tickets, trading and fundraising. But the glaring omission here is local authority support. Unlike the rest of the UK, this has almost disappeared in the capital. If local authorities wish their communities to benefit from culture, they must support it and not be over reliant on ‘spill-over’ benefits from Arts Council funded organisations that have their operational bases at the centre of the capital.

Maintain and develop leading venues

To their credit various metropolitan organisations are currently investigating whether they can create a new orchestral hall with world-beating acoustics. And as London expands east, we need to ensure these new precincts have souls as well as sewers. Hence we can welcome the plans for Sadler’s Wells, the V&A and the Smithsonian to move into the Olympic Park and we hope future governments feel able to support such developments, at the same time as addressing the urgent and legitimate claims of other cities.

Nurture young creative talent

The creative industries are growing three times faster than our general economy and arts and culture incubate the talent, which feeds into this national asset. London is the beating heart of our creative sector and so it’s crucial we look to discovering and nurturing the creative talents of the future. The capital’s conservatoires are engaged in work of national importance. LAMDA’s alumni frequently win Oscar’s and Baftas but the institution itself has found it tough going to bring its facilities up to 21st century standards. As the visual and performing arts are sidelined in some state schools we have a pressing need to discover and enable the next wave of Thomas Heatherwicks, Steve McQueens and Jonathan Ives. There are now a small number of Saturday morning clubs, funded by Sir John Sorrell and the Arts Council, which give young people with flair the technical drawing skills they need to be designers. Here is an idea that could be scaled up for all creative disciplines.

Unlock the talent and potential of London’s diversity

Diversity is a national resource, to which our culture is fundamentally indebted. London’s population at the last census was a little over eight million, and more than three million of those came from a black and minority ethnic background. A third of London’s population was born outside the UK. Some 50 non-indigenous groups have populations here; 300 languages are spoken in London’s schools. Importantly, this diversity is part of a predominantly youthful population – 63% of Londoners are under the age of 44, compared to 53% elsewhere in the UK. Diversity means new talent – and that’s what our arts and our creative industries need. That’s why the Arts Council is promoting what we call the Creative Case for Diversity, an artistically driven approach to diversity that aims to revolutionise the artistic content, audiences and creative workforce, getting all communities engaged and removing barriers to participation. The Arts Council’s London-based organisations will be taking a leading role with this – but all culturally interested parties must embrace and use this diversity.

Ensure a good supply of affordable space for young creators

Art and artists have helped drive the regeneration of large parts of London. The irony is that often they then find themselves priced out. So we need to think how we can ensure that the city can continue to offer affordable space for small creative businesses, as commercial rents continue to rocket. Meanwhile enlightened new social investment models, bringing with them even more valuable mentoring, are in their infancy but demonstrably effective in helping small creative businesses develop. We need to turbo-charge these.

Improve London’s digital connectivity

London’s digital infrastructure is fast becoming as important to its cultural industries as its transport infrastructure. There’s been some progress in the past few years, but when I read of a creative agency in Clerkenwell that sends work to clients on memory sticks via messenger bikes (uploading content takes them too long), I fear for the future. To be a world-leading city London needs world-leading Internet and mobile connections. We have to work out how to make this investment.

London’s position as the economic and cultural powerhouse of the UK is unlikely to change anytime soon, but London must not become a world apart from the rest of the nation. London needs to lead; it enjoys natural advantages and should spread its success and knowledge across the UK, forming stronger national bonds, especially with the regional centres and cities from which we expect future economic growth. That’s why the Arts Council is asking the London-based national institutions to share more of their resources and their work. Long-term resilience lies not in isolation, however glorious, but in collaboration. London was built on trade. Let’s remember that and ensure the continuing interchange of talent, ideas and capital that has made London great.