As a Time Out Tastemaker*, I am always on the hunt for things to do and experience in London. My social calendar is often pretty packed and friends ask me how I do it; how do I find these things? How do I find the time and/or energy? And how do I afford it?
I'd like to say it's because I'm a superhuman billionaire but the truth is, it's not easy; in fact it can be pretty tiring, overwhelming and costly. But what's the alternative? Living in a place as electric as London, I have this unrelenting drive to not take it for granted...oh and my chronic FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) also doesn't help. These are the very traits on which the Tastemakers thrive.
And it was this drive that led to City Hall's invitation for 30 of us, representing a wide range of demographics, to meet with their Culture Team. The aim was to discuss and brainstorm around how to improve the exposure of under-engaged London communities to all our city has to offer. I'm hoping to share some of this discussion with you and to inspire your own thoughts and feedback, as this was only the first step in what we hope will be an ongoing project!
The Premise - to my surprise, only 31% of Londoners feel that they make use of our city’s culture; Sadiq Khan wants to desperately change this. Of those communities polled, it was the elderly, key workers (NHS, Teachers, Fire Services etc), young BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) and low income communities that felt the least engaged. Over the last couple of years, even London's most established (and mostly free) attractions like Tate Modern and the National Portrait Gallery, have reported a dramatic decline in numbers (think 30-40%). Something, somewhere has changed. In a city as diverse as London where a mind blowing 300 languages are spoken, how can we collectively create a new, all-encompassing and non-condescending message that culture is relevant and accessible?
The Format - We were divided into five groups (one for each of the above but where BAME was split in two: 11-18 year olds and 18-25 year olds), assigned one of these communities and challenged with answering the following:
What do you love about London?
How can we attract more diverse communities?
What are some of the quick wins we can achieve?
What can we do to build better relationships with culture?
Any wacky ideas?
Barriers to Culture - every group seemed to touch on five key areas that were problematic:
Cost - Surprise - London is expensive! Yes there are a lot of things in London that are free but more of it isn't. Add to entry prices, the associated cost of food and travel on an excursion out, and some people just cannot afford to make culture a priority.
Time - it isn't just that these things take time to plan and visit, but in the case of certain attractions/experiences, opening times just do not work with shift times.
Visibility - there is just so much going on and too many unaligned sources of information about it all.
Accessibility - some elements of culture are wrongly assumed to be irrelevant to certain demographics and this is often visible in their marketing, sales and costs.
Energy - intrinsically linked to all of the above is drive; many people wonder when and how the hell they are supposed to bother when the process can be expensive, timely and difficult.
Proposed Actions in Brief - after an hour of brainstorming, each table took it in turns to recount their best ideas; were all of them immediately actionable? Of course not, but they were a step in the right direction.
The Elderly - assuming that this demographic would not be getting information online nor able to travel far, it was proposed that more was done to encourage engagement in areas they were likely to go to; think Doctor's surgeries, the library, local town halls, the pension office etc. Jumping on the pop-up culture bandwagon, could we be doing more to bring snippets of culture to them rather than expecting them to come to it? And could this fit nicely with encouraging social get togethers and combating loneliness?
Key Workers (NHS, Teachers, Fire Service etc) - it is no secret that these groups have been feeling unloved and undervalued for a while now. None of us thought that was ok. We proposed a London Loves You scheme that would increase the amount of free culture available to them but would also ensure that certain events/occasions (like Lumiere/Open House) did not only take place at times convenient for those working 9-5PM jobs. We also discussed a Tinder for Culture app that, based on your swipes/likes, would notify you of things nearby you'd enjoy and give you free access.
Low Income Families - the most prominent suggestion was once again to move things out of Zones 1 & 2, but also to work with boroughs to improve communication around more local shows, markets, restaurants etc that were more accessible to those not living in Central. There was also talk of creating a new and improved Family Pass for ease and affordability.
BAME & Young People - in my opinion it was this group that suggested some of the most inspiring ideas; a lot of the conversation centered around a rebranding of what culture means. Can we move culture beyond its traditional definition to encompass things like Grime music, BMXing, skateboarding, beatboxing...? Can we find opportunity in this extension to ensure broader representation, a reclamation of negative labels and the creation of more safe but integrated spaces? Can traditionally negative things, like detention and exclusion, be translated into cultural experience like choir, drama, painting? Can we engage more influencers to become the face of these movements to make them more cool and relevant?
Last Thoughts - traditional definitions and approaches to culture have got to change. Why is there such disparity between the cultures making up London and the representation, accessibility and messaging of its cultural offering?
What do I love about London? I love that it's so much more than England's capital; it is a patchwork of diverse colours, ages, faiths, sexualities and genders all living side by side and intertwining their individual stories. But that the amazingness of this is not reaching all of these communities saddens me. I hope that this commitment by the Mayor and his team begins bridging this gap and that our input and feedback goes at least some way in making that happen.
What are your thoughts on this?
* A volunteer reviewer for Time Out online and in print.