The big questions at Croydon’s Congress on Culture

By - Friday 19th January, 2018

We were invited to ‘have the conversations’, so how did they go?

Council creative director Paula Murray addresses the congress.
Photo author’s own.

Croydon’s Congress on Culture brought together representatives from businesses, charities, and voluntary organisations along with arts professionals and activists to discuss the borough’s cultural offering. The congress was hosted by Paula Murray, the council’s creative director. Richard Ings of Arts Council England was visiting speaker, with the business event hosted and co-ordinated by Shaking Hands.

The day was spent ‘having the conversations’, to quote its programme, and also included discussions of the role of the arts in Croydon’s well-being and prosperity, and the challenges the town faces as it waits to find out the result of its bid to become London’s first Borough of Culture in 2019.

Round-table discussions followed informative talks on the arts and quality of life, and on business support for cultural activity. The topics under consideration were health, sport and well-being, events, the town’s night-time economy, the role of the tech sector in Croydon, and how business can support local arts. These discussions were facilitated by ‘champions’ at each table, whose job was to keep the groups on track and elicit specific information: three strengths in the area being discussed and three challenges or points that don’t work so well. Each participant could join in three such discussions.

A high level of involvement and lots of curiosity about what other people are doing

Short films by BRIT school students were shown elsewhere in the Clocktower complex, and Neil Chandler, newly appointed director of Fairfield Halls, was available to anyone who wished to chat to him in an extended ‘meet and greet’. Further networking took place over lunch and a ‘cultural speed dating’ session gave representatives from cultural organisations and professionals from regeneration and public health the chance to explore ideas for submission to a pilot funding scheme. The day ended with a session on young people and culture chaired by David Butler, the council’s director of education and youth engagement.

Paula Murray explained that the goal of the congress was to ‘map’ both the present and the future for Croydon’s culture: to gain a snapshot of how things are now, and then to plot a pathway ahead. Just as important was the chance to make connections, share ideas and gain a fuller sense of how many are engaged in cultural initiatives.

Round table discussion group.
Photo by Shaking Hands, used with permission.

Selecting discussions gave each attendee a unique experience of the congress. My choices were health, sport and well-being, events and the night-time economy. All three were marked by real involvement, curiosity about what other people are doing (followed by exchanges of business cards and noting of email addresses as helpful new contacts were made) and shared commitment to Croydon’s cultural renaissance – or, as I prefer to describe it, the exciting increase in awareness of Croydon’s vibrancy (not a new phenomenon, whatever notions of a ‘cultural desert’ we’re collectively imprinted with) and the wish to make our creative life deeper, broader and more inclusive.

Failure to pay creatives means failure to value their work

In my three groups, the themes which emerged were as follows:

  • in the health, sport and well-being session: the importance of evidence-based economic advocacy for the arts. Data on the impact of cultural activity (such as involvement in music, theatre, dance, drama) in improving health and well-being is detailed and impressive. This is a good in itself – but money is then saved because people are better off both physically and mentally. At a time when the economic case for investment in culture needs to be made again and again, this should form the foundation of the argument
  • the need to challenge the belief that creatives will work for nothing. Even if they would (and many can’t afford to), they should not. There are serious risks in ‘volunteerising.’ Failing to pay means failing to value, and services should not be dependent on anyone’s free time and goodwill. Again, to demonstrate the economic value of the arts could help challenge such assumptions
  • serious concern about many young people’s low activity levels and the impact of this on their health. Creative solutions are being developed across the borough and those responsible for such projects had the opportunity to connect with each another
  • in the events session: the discussion was engaged but a little too familiar. It’s been pointed out before that there are too few arts spaces, that the spaces are not appropriately sized, that resources in the town centre should not come at the expense of neglecting surrounding areas, that there are problems with information-sharing, and that too many still feel excluded
  • in the night-time economy session: this was the most polarised discussion I attended. Members were divided by their views on Boxpark’s contribution to Croydon and on the impact of negative perceptions around crime and personal safety. There was agreement, however, that the night-time economy is not in great shape

I look forward to the council’s response to the feedback we provided. I also wish the very best of luck to Croydon in the London Borough of Culture competition.

This article was amended on 21st January to accurately reflect the hosts of the day, and of the business event within it.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Mark Sultana

    Its great to see the value of creativity being put on the table it’s the single biggest issue with live music artists and events in Croydon too many events without quality artists because they are not valued and paid market rates

  • Laurence Grant

    Hi Liz,
    Great article. To update, the business session was hosted by Shaking Hands, and commissioned by the Council/Paula Murray. Rachel lead the Arts and Health segment that preceded the business hour.
    Thanks for crediting the photo.