Cardiff still needs to aspire to be capital of culture

Yvette Vaughan Jones assesses what has been achieved in the four years since Cardiff mounted its ill-fated bid

When Cardiff was preparing the 2008 bid for European Capital of Culture, no one imagined that year was going to be famous for the biggest economic shock in living memory. So four years after the crash and down in the double dip, how robust is Cardiff’s cultural offer? And how has the cultural sector responded, morphed and adapted to the challenge? Is there a new paradigm emerging or is there resistance to change and a clinging on to the old ways for fear of losing that which is good?

The legacy document from the European Capital of Culture bid outlined a number of priorities for going forward including:

  • Develop and build on the bid process, to create a long-term cultural strategy for the city.
  • Ensure trusted professional expertise is driving the process.
  • Maintain the collaborative approach, respecting the diversity of cultural organisations and differences in scale and capacity.

Coming up to its fifth anniversary could be a good time to reflect on what has been achieved.  It is also a good time to put into context Cardiff’s position with its competitor cities and to look at the cultural environment in which they are competing. The Cultural Olympiad has just finished, Derry City of Culture is coming up in 2013, and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games’ own cultural programme will kick off in 2014. How has Cardiff squared up to these major UK events?

There have been successes. Post 2008 bid, the Cardiff Design Festival has gone from strength to strength and is now established in the calendar. The embryonic Cardiff Museum/Story of Cardiff is ensconced in the Old Library. And at the community level, many of the relationships forged have maintained. The emerging Cardiff Contemporary visual arts initiative, which aims “to use the whole city as a gallery space” certainly builds on the recommendations in the report but has been a long time coming. In October 2013 the international world music exhibition Womex will be held in Cardiff, Though essentially a trade festival it will provide an opportunity to develop skills, capacity and public engagement.

The time since 2008 has also seen the creation of new organisations. The two National Theatres of Wales, for example, have had a great impact both within Wales and beyond, The Wales Millennium Centre, Artes Mundi and Wales in Venice were all born at that time and have all developed profiles beyond Wales. There have been some excellent Cultural Olympic projects, for example the Adain Avion, Coriolanus and the Branches project.

However, they have largely come from the endeavours of individuals, or been the result of organisations working independently. How much more might have been achieved, and more efficiently had the consortium stayed intact and driven forward the lessons and the momentum from the Cardiff 2005 experience?

In those cities where the consortia remained in place after the major events, it has been possible to create some profound and lasting legacies. The Manchester International Festival emerged from the Commonwealth Games. The CREATE festival will be one of the legacies of the London Olympics, and there has been a concerted effort to link programming for London 2012, Derry 2013 and Glasgow 2014. Major international cultural initiatives have taken place recently out of the consortia working on the Shanghai Expo-China Now festival and the forthcoming Brazil Transform festival. All involve major investments in culture through the private sector and public funding. It is not obvious that the Cardiff 2005 experience has directly enabled its cultural organisations to play an enhanced role in large UK-wide cultural events or even to generate its own major cross sectoral initiatives that can bring real impacts to the city and to Wales.  There has been a failure, too, to maximize opportunities to attract inward investment.

It is extraordinary to think that it was in 2005 that Edinburgh Festivals commissioned their report Thundering Hooves to look at the future of all 12 of its festivals. The premise behind the commissioning of the report was that Edinburgh understood that its pole position in the Festival world might be vulnerable. There was, and remains, an understanding that to do nothing risks the city slipping behind in this competitive field.

They dared to ‘imagine’ an economic downturn – very prescient in 2005 – and to build robustness into their strategies to ensure they would ride the bad times as well as the good. In its analysis of the bad times (they called this The Low Road), the report suggested that a number of things might happen:

  • Infrastructure plans, are delayed or are put on hold.
  • The artistic leadership could move toward a more insular way of operating. A lack of investment in joint delivery of information and signage would trigger a decline in standards, efficiency and audience tolerance levels.
  • Some of the new festivals in the UK (Liverpool, Manchester) offer higher wages and better opportunities. As a result, the quality of artistic production and delivery drops as staff defect to other cities.
  • There is no political vision or long-term policy agenda, an increase in parochialism at the local level and a lack of engagement with the arts community results in cuts in arts funding. The country becomes more fragmented as local politicians push their individual agendas and petty politics overshadow any vision around a cohesive future.

In short, the message was that if Edinburgh stood still, “the Thundering Hooves would gallop past”.

The report recommended a concerted effort at consolidation and collaborative working. Its key recommendation was to set up a structure that would act across 12 Edinburgh based organisations, funded by contributions from each of them, to conduct research, joint marketing, and joint programming. The results, it suggested, would include immediate direct benefits to the individual festivals and cultural organisations. In addition, it would would create a powerful lobbying voice that could work with other agencies to deliver much wider results. They called it The High Road:

  • The airport expansion continues, providing direct access from international cities. This, paired with Visit Scotland’s extensive tourism campaigns in Europe and the Americas increases overall visitor traffic to Scotland.
  • A new entrepreneurial spirit permeates each of the Festivals.
  • By 2010, the festivals have a joint marketing and sales strategy in place; robust data on Festival audiences allow them to respond to the region’s changing demographic patterns; a joint box office system provides audiences with easy access to tickets for all of the festivals.

The Thundering Hooves report was endorsed and implemented and this year, the Edinburgh International Festival recorded record attendances. In the Olympic year, the consortium was able to market its offer in London aggressively. It created new events for the Olympics including the first International Cultural Summit. This brought together the Ministers of Culture (who are generally also the Ministers of Sport) to Edinburgh together with thinkers, academics and politicians from across the world to debate the importance of culture in the 21st Century both as an economic driver and as a social enabler.

While the cultural sector does have a tendency to over claim its power and impact, it certainly is a contributor to and a stimulant for growth, both in its own right and as a contributor to inward investment and cultural tourism. Furthermore, it provides the antidote to the ‘clone city’ by providing differentiation and distinctiveness. It is a smart sector employing people’s creativity rather than depleting resources and it drives skills and employability in the workforce.

But just as cities, regions and countries have a tendency to declare themselves as ‘intelligent’, “smart”, ‘clean’ and ‘green’, so too the creative city, region and country is fast becoming devalued by its over use.  Creative cities need more than a creative workforce, otherwise Wales would be soaring ahead in the league tables. It needs strategies to develop and retain talent, create ideas and maximise impacts. It needs smart interventions, events and experiences that not only inspire the local people and the cultural sector but draw in the best from outside and create a noise in the already noisy metropolises and those centres across the world.

It seems counter intuitive that at a time of recession and diminishing resources, the element of the Edinburgh plan that has yielded the most results was the creation and resourcing of the umbrella organisation Festivals Edinburgh. But it is a fact. The organisation now has eight full time staff. It provides research, joint marketing, joint programming and advocacy for the 12 Festivals. It must work, as each festival pays for it voluntarily from their own budgets. The Festivals Edinburgh consortium has been able to lever major funding from both the private and the public sector. It has been particularly successful working internationally with Ministries of Culture in India and China, where it can speak with one voice and be a single brand garnering support and spreading the word for the city as a whole.

Other cities that have embraced this approach have seen the impacts not only on the sector itself, but on the cities as a whole. Examples of collaborative approaches can be seen in Liverpool, Manchester, and London. For example, the pedestrianisation project undertaken by the Exhibition Road consortium in South Kensington was an integral part of its cultural strategy and has transformed the visitor experience.

Increasingly across the UK Culture Boards are being set up as partnerships across the cultural, higher education, media and tourism sectors. Plymouth, Newcastle, Gateshead, and Bristol all provide examples. They not only combine energy, ideas and resources to create something ‘bigger than the sum of its parts’, but also provide smoother decision making, swifter implementation and grow devolved leadership. This helps build capacity in the sector and enables people to take on responsibilities and agendas that are bigger, bolder and more challenging than their day-to-day experiences. It requires trust and maturity – collaboration is not an easy option – and it involves a creative fusion of ideas as well as a pooling of resources. In the end the results speak for themselves.

There have been strategy documents written for Cardiff and legacy documents outlining how to build on its successes (and failures). Yet there is still no real cultural consortium that can work inside and outside of the city to bring in the kind of investment and interest that the creative sector deserves. The evidence of the successful cross-disciplinary projects shows how effective collaborative working can be but, for some reason, in Cardiff, this is not sustained between the major events.

A fresh look at the way culture is managed within Cardiff is overdue. The creation of the Enterprise Zone south of the Central Station provides a focus for thinking and action. A concerted cultural presence would allow high-level negotiations to take place with the private as well as the public sector. The courage to take a good look at both the low road and the high road without shrinking from the implications would be a good start.

Yvette Vaughan Jones is Chief Executive Visiting Arts at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London

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