I love London. And, after the recent unsettling events, I would like to take a moment to focus on the city’s finer side: its cultural institutions and its arts. In times like these, I think, London deserves a pat on the back for being an encouraging and inspirational example.
London manages to show how culture can be relevant to (local) communities, socially engaged and at the same time straightforward about its monetary value. It does so in its landmark institutions like Tate and the National Theatre, and in its local initiatives that can be found virtually around every corner. And, by doing so, it provides a sneak preview of what the future of cultural institutions all over the world should be; institutions that connect and engage, within society, without going bankrupt.
One of my favourite places in London is the Camden Arts Centre. Just off the dirty Finchley Road its green garden and quiet café with free Wifi are a resort to parents with children, expat students and the like. The building is welcoming, the coffee is good, the shop well stocked. High quality exhibitions are combined with educational activities, regular evening events and family activities. Yet, that doesn’t make it any different from the many other arts centres all around London. What makes it great is that it is my arts centre. It’s local. Only ten minutes away on foot. And, it really is local. It feels like the local café or shop where I am known and welcome. (It is often the local café and shop.)
And it’s not just the places with local reach that are locally relevant. V&A’s freely accessible courtyard is a great place to breath in the dense city and the Wellcome Collection serves a delicious lunch (both with free Wifi, notice a trend?).
In performing arts, Cardboard Citizens is one of the many community theatre institutions in London. They change the lives of homeless and displaced people through theatre and the performing arts. I went to one of their performances by a new group of young actors, coming from a homeless background. Given, their musical about the lessons learned on the streets did not live up to West End standards, but for these young people, their audience in the area where it was performed (east London) and coming from the actors’ real experience, it was so highly relevant the show occasionally gave me goose bumps.
The musical London Road in the National Theatre showed that socially engaged culture can be of the highest quality. The performance about the Ipswich serial murders is certainly one of the best I’ve seen in my life. It’s based on interviews with the people involved in the events, in such a way that many of the lines are literally the lines of the actors. This gives the show the strength of an oral account, whereas the professional actors and brilliant movement (and overall) directing makes it aesthetically pleasing.
(“It took five murders before anybody cared about our situation,” the characters in London Road repeatedly say. To me, this bears a significant resemblance to the comments of some of the youth involved in the recent riots, nobody ever talked with us, but now you do. It shows there is an enormous potential for culture (or anyone) to make society better.)
Finally, after both shows, as well as in all galleries, theatres and museums in London, the institution wasn’t afraid to ask for donations. London Road collected for a social cause (after all, this was engaged theatre) and collected well, with nearly everybody donating. The others collected to keep their doors open. And they weren’t shy about it.
Maybe what I like most about London’s cultural institutions is that they are straightforward about the tangible (monetary) value of culture and the arts. Of course they also address its intellectual and educational value, but even that has a monetary value. As long as there’s an honest relation between the value you (the institution) offer and the value they (the visitor) return, there’s nothing wrong with a collection box. In short, there’s nothing dirty about asking people to pay for culture.
One of the highlights of my recent visit to London was a meeting with some of the great people from Tate (John, Tijana and Kirstie, thanks!). I love how Tate has wonderful shops at convenient locations throughout their buildings (especially in Tate Britain), the way they combine a decent free part with wonderful paid exhibitions, their accessible and high-value members programme and basically everything else they do at the meeting point of culture and coins.
I full-heartedly believe that culture and the arts have an incredible inherent value, to people, communities and society. However, the mere fact that something has value (or, is valuable) is not enough in the future. We need to make an effort to make culture relevant to (local) communities, socially engaged and above all to be honest and straightforward about monetizing these efforts. Many institutions in London, to me, are great at doing so. I know there are others all around the world that do so. Yet I also know there are many that still have a long way to go.
Photo by sharkbait on Flickr.com