Last night I attended the recording of the BBC Leicester debate ‘What’s Next for Leicester?’ after its bid to become the UK Capital of Culture 2017 failed. As a structured debate the BBC are expert at bringing people together to consider a controversial subject in-depth. This should have been a vibrant and dynamic discussion about the cultural activities that matter, not only to ordinary citizens and residents, but also to people who want to push ahead and take a lead in arts and culture in the city. Instead, this debate was sterile and had about as much passion as a group of accountants trying to settle a bill at a business development seminar.
The panel included Sir Peter Soulsby, Leicester’s mayor; Cllr Nick Rushton, the leader of Leicestershire County Council; Fiona Allen, chief executive of Curve theatre. Aminata Kimara, Artistic Director of Unidentified Drama theatre company, and James Bowen, MD of the Belmont Hotel. The recording was tucked away on the top floor of Curve, in one of the private seminar rooms, with an audience that was brought together by invitation only, based on a carefully controlled list of attendees. Perhaps this is representative of the wider issues of cultural and economic debate in Leicester?
There was no strong creative voice expressed on the panel, and no testimony by grassroots creative practitioners to relate this debate to the experiences of creative artists and activists who struggle to get by in Leicester. The debate and discussion focussed, instead, on the problems of booking hotel rooms and planning a ‘brand’ for the city. Important as these things are, I can’t help but think that this is putting the cart before the horse. Where is the creative leadership? Where are the artists, and writers and producers and developers of creative content, performers, activists and events planners? Surely an ethos of creative ambition and intention – dare I say a manifesto – needs to be articulated before the debate is turned to models of organisation, business planning and marketing?
There was no mention during the discussion of what actually takes place in Leicester. Look at Pedestrian, Off The Fence, Leicester Peoples Photographic Gallery, Handmade Festival, among many other groups. Then there is FD2D, The Monograph, Arts in Leicestershire, and [the bizarrely titled] Leicester: It’s Not Shit, who are telling the story of how Leicester’s arts and creative communities work and what makes them interesting – and have been doing so for a long time. Did any of these groups get given any acknowledgement or recognition in the official debate? If I was being unkind, I’d say that the expectation is that the community arts and grassroots creative champions are expected merely to sit in the audience and listen to the executive managers devise a strategy on their behalf, and then they are expected to act as ‘brand ambassadors‘ for something that they don’t feel they belong to, didn’t help form, and yet are still expected to be grateful for, even when it doesn’t work in their interest.
Would the debate be stronger if it brought together people who practice art and creative performance in the city? Would it have been a stronger debate if the people who administer and manage the infrastructure had taken seats in the audience instead? Who is empowered to speak in this debate is as important as what they speak about? Where are the young people? Where are the voices that are marginalised? Where is the challenge to the people who hold the purse strings and make the spending decisions?
I wonder, though, that Leicester has missed the boat when it comes to the creative economy debate? Does there need to be a de-coupling of the economic and the cultural regeneration debate in the city? Would Leicester be better served by cutting its arts and culture free from the professional management organisations and allowing them to find their own feet? Would the regeneration money be better spent on technology infrastructure, on transport infrastructure, on environmental development? The point was made well on Jim Davis’ BBC Leicester phone-in this morning: ‘If people don’t have cash in their pockets to spend, they can’t be going to events and theatre?’ If you can’t get a cheap bus into the city then you are cut-off from what’s on offer. Perhaps solving these problems is less attractive and brings less glamour, but its a whole lot more important.
Realistically, Leicester has to face up to the fact that other cities are doing the creative economy thing better, and have stolen a march by building infrastructure and networks that have more pull and a stronger sense of identity. Investing in challenging creative activities is not just about spending money on prestige buildings, it is about creating space for people to share and experiment. Other cities, though, have put massive amounts of money, time and expert investment into their infrastructure, buildings, services and communication networks. Leicester doesn’t have an independent contemporary gallery? Perhaps this tells us something about the nature of the debate and gives us a sense of why the next steps for Leicester have to be founded on more than a sense of optimism and blind hope. While Leicester is Forever Steadfast, it isn’t a city of dreams, and ironically, that’s the strength that being missed.