Nov 212013

We were particularly impressed with Hull’s evidence of community and creative engagement”. These are the words of the selecting committee for the UK Capital of Culture that was announced on Wednesday and reported in the Leicester Mercury. Hull’s successful bid to be the next host city emphasised the down-to-earth nature of the city, with the campaign video, according to The Telegraph, emphasising the city’s ‘Golden Rules’:

Don’t go thinking you’re something you’re not; don’t go thinking that you’re better than anybody else, or that anybody else is better than you, and don’t shout about it, get on with it.”

As Leicester takes stock and thinks about why it’s own bid didn’t succeed, it might be worth looking at Hull’s golden rules and asking what can be learnt from this ethos and applying them in Leicester?

If you start modestly, and don’t go unnecessarily claiming to be a world-class city, as Hull suggested it restrains itself from doing, then what implications does this approach have that would benefit arts and culture in Leicester? If the judges where impressed with the level of ‘community and creative engagement’ in Hull’s bid, why did Leicester not represent itself well on this score? Would Leicester benefit from having an extended period of ‘just getting on with things’, rather than thinking that it has to be flag waving to get noticed?

If we take Hull’s advice and stop shouting and get on with things, what are the things that would want to get done? How would these things be done with the support of the grassroots communities in Leicester? Who’s voices and stories would we validate and recognise? How can Leicester develop a mindset that pulls together and blends the diverse range of life stories associated with the city at a time of considerable social and cultural challenge?

Lets not forget, however, that funding for local authorities across the region is about to be cut considerably again. Economic regeneration for Leicester can’t be pinned on a lack-lustre creative enterprise dream when the reality has been that demand for creative services has been sucked out of the economy since the collapse of the banks in 2008. If Leicester is to be realistic, it has to do more than just pin its hopes on the bones of a dead king bringing in a few quid here and there.

Perhaps its time to think about how alternative types of civic, cultural and sustainable commercial engagement can be valued? Forms of engagement that give voice to the unique and vibrant ideas and opinions that are crying-out to be heard in Leicester? Fostering a diverse community-led culture that generates stories and connections between people of all ages, races, classes and backgrounds won’t happen by itself. This needs to be supported – and let’s be honest – without spending even modest amounts of cash, because there are other priorities crying out to be fixed first (pavements, roads, playgrounds, care homes, and more).

The questions that I’ve always had about the challenge of Leicester’s city of culture bid are pretty obvious:

  • Was there enough emphasis on grassroots support?
  • In what way could the social impact of community-led culture be enhanced in Leicester?
  • Was the bid shaped by a desire for economic regeneration rather than as something that iscreative, imaginative, challenging and inclusive?
  • Has Leicester done enough to invest in it’s cultural and community services in the past?
  • Did the bid rely on too many established events and entertainment formats without breaking enough new ground?
  • Would Leicester’s bid appeal to people from across the United Kingdom, Europe and internationally?

There are alternative ways of thinking about community approaches to culture in Leicester. Approaches that offer a different vision to the corporate, tick-box mentality that permeates much of our civic and working lives. This culture would need to offer the chance, at the very least, of being an alternative to the centralised and top-down approach that dominates, and would be one that is built, instead, as Henry Jenkins and others suggest, on “technical affordances that encourage iterative approaches to tasks, fluid roles and a lack of hierarchy, shared rather than owned material, and granular approaches to problem solving, network society encourages collaboration on projects by a ‘hive’ community. This community creates through an ‘on-going, perpetually unfinished, iterative and evolutionary process of gradual development of the informational resources shared by the community’” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. 183).

Rather than thinking about Leicester’s cultural identity as something that can be branded and marketed in a temporary slogan, the emphasis has to be on the opportunities that people have to live, share and express their sense of identity through the things that they participate in. We aren’t drones who follow a pre-determined and centralised cultural message, so instead, lets trust people to invest in their own sense of expression and their own sense of identity, and build Leicester’s cultural confidence from the ground up. Remember, reputations are built and not bought.

Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.

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