Mind the culture gap: Do Londoners take the arts for granted?
Standing at the bus stop the other day, I bumped into an acquaintance who had been working outside London for the last few years. When I asked how he liked living in Bristol, and then Liverpool, he reeled off a list of positives before saying, “but culturally, there were only ever one or two shows or exhibitions on at any one time – I missed the variety of culture in London.” What, I asked, is the best thing he had seen in the six months since he’d been back? “Er, to be honest, I haven’t been to anything but it’s just knowing it’s all there if you know what I mean,” came the reply.
This conversation, and reading Craig Taylor’s critically acclaimed book ‘Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now, As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It’, made me think about the disparity between the pride Londoners take in the city’s cultural life and their actual patronage of it.
Taylor’s critically acclaimed tome is a bravura piece of editing, a selection of the over 200 interviews the writer conducted over five years with the broadest range of Londoners imaginable, from a manicurist and market trader to a barrister and hedge fund manager. His interviews focus on very individual experiences of the city, covering both its extremes and intimate aspects. Yet outside the arty chapter, ‘Putting on a show’, there were very few allusions to the effect free galleries and museums or the quality of arts centres or theatre have on city life.
Now, I’m guessing that if Taylor had interviewed a bunch of people who work in the creative industries – fashion, the media, design etc – the benefits of London’s arts scene would have featured more prominently in people’s stories. But aside from the group of people that arts marketers would refer to as ‘aficionados’, perhaps it is out-of-town visitors and tourists that make up the weight of London audiences.
Research would appear to back this up. In a 2009 report created for the London Development Agency, researchers found that 36% of Londoners cited the city’s parks and gardens as a very important factor in their decision to take a day trip into town. In contrast, museums and galleries drew 23% and music, theatre and arts performances only 17%. Of the latter category, an astonishing 48% said that performing arts were not important to them.
Does any of this matter? Most Londoners are busy making ends meet and looking forward to the next meal out or night in the pub. Neither the time to saunter round an exhibition or money to see a West End show is always forthcoming. Yet it is important for all sectors within the arts to attract as many Londoners as possible because the cultural institutions of a city have to reflect its inhabitants to thrive in the long-term. I like the attitude of an artist interviewed by Craig Taylor in ‘Londoners’. His interview begins: “I was trying to think about London; about how you could take and unify everybody.” That’s something our arts institutions need to think about.
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