An Invitation to the Croydon Arts Debate

By - Wednesday 2nd October, 2013

Sean Creighton invites readers to attend the Croydon Arts Debate, and argues that the age of austerity means that Croydon can and should have an arts festival

Should Croydon have a borough-wide arts festival next July? That is the big question to be considered at the Croydon Arts Debate being held on 10th October, at the Croydon Unitarian Church by Croydon Flyover. This is a welcome follow-up to the initiative taken by the South Croydon Community Association earlier this year about the future of Fairfield Halls. That debate opened up the whole question of what is the future for the arts in Croydon, and the need to develop a cultural strategy.

The debate will start with a general discussion on the current situation in the Croydon arts scene, followed by a discussion on whether there should  be a Croydon-wide arts festival in July 2014. If this is agreed, the debate will move on to the setting up of a festival-steering committee to organise it. The debate will be chaired by  Professor Lord (Richard) Harries of Pentregarth, a progressive former Bishop of the Church of England.

During the last few months there have been several positive developments, including:

  • The growing success of the Save The David Lean Campaign in showing films
  • The South Norwood Arts Festival
  • The continuing promotion of knowledge and events about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor following the successful festival commemorating the composer last year
  • The plan of the Eagle public house to start a studio theatre
  • The revival of the Warehouse Theatre putting on productions at Fairfield Halls
  • The Heritage Festival sponsored by the Whitgift Foundation

The big negative has been the decision to the council to sell off part of the Riesco collection of Chinese Ming pottery, leading to the Museum Association now considering expelling it from membership. The silver lining is that the debate about the sale of the Riesco collection has helped ensure that the importance of culture has become an important local political and community issue.

At the moment the official council policy as set out in its approved Budget Options papers for 2013-14 states:

‘Reduce the council role in facilitation of culture – including reducing the archive service to a statutory minimum.’

It is deeply worrying when any local authority reduces its support for the wide range of cultural and heritage activities.  The rich heritage and history of Croydon is an important part of cultural activity. Fortunately the council reversed its position (after objections) on the reduction in the role of the Local Archives/Studies service and has now moved it to the ground floor of the clocktower improving its accessibility.

The council plans to consider a new draft cultural policy over the next few weeks. It is to be hoped that a more positive approach will be considered. With further cuts that it will have to make, regardless of which political party is in control from May next year, the council cannot be relied on to invest any serious sums of money in cultural activities. However worthy in its intention the new cultural strategy will be, what it can do to implement it will be determined by budget constraints.

However, the best cultural activity comes not from local authorities. It comes from musicians, painters, poets, singers, dancers, etc., as well as those who support the arts through generating ideas and support. Local authorities can, however,  provide valuable assistance by having a cultural strategy that provides a wide range of support: funding, use of premises such as libraries, publicity, assisting partnerships, supporting special events and festivals, providing background information about the borough’s cultural history, protecting facilities from predatory developers, etc.

Towards a Community Cultural & Heritage Strategy

There are limits to what any individual borough-based cultural group can do by itself. Such groups include general and specialist community and voluntary sector organisations which utilise cultural and heritage activities as part of their work, as well as specialist arts groups. What is needed is for them to develop their own collective Cultural & Heritage Strategy, designed to foster joint working, identify sources of money, sustain what exists, and forming the basis for demands on the council in the future.

The economic recession has had a number of effects on cultural activities:

  • reduced funding from local and central government, cultural agencies and charitable trusts
  • reduced surplus income meaning fewer people can afford to take part in cultural activities as audiences
  • increased entertainment and leisure activities in the home

These may have been counter-balanced by:

  • a greater demand for involvement in cultural activities to ensure increased levels of enjoyment
  • a greater demand to develop skills in cultural activities to give people an interesting hobby or to develop income generation, or to increase chances in job prospects when the economy improves

‘Spiritual Capital’

There is a lot of talk about ‘social’, economic’, and ‘environmental’ capital and ‘social exclusion’. These miss an important dimension about individuals’ sense of well-being and mental health. The experience of social exclusion or the onset of sudden crises, whether economic or health, can adversely affect the way people feel. The constant experience of negative material conditions has an adverse effect on the human spirit. We should also be talking about ‘spiritual capital’. This is not the same as the religious concept of ‘spirituality’. Culture plays an important part in ‘spiritual’ well-being.

The sections of the population most likely to be adversely affected by a general low level of ‘spiritual’ capital and be particularly further disadvantaged by the economic recession are those in lower and fixed income groups, and those who are socially isolated because of economic and cultural reasons. Croydon has a high percentage of its residents in these categories. Therefore an important element in developing a Cultural & Heritage Strategy should be to concentrate on encouraging cultural activities which enable participation at a free or low cost basis.

Community Cohesion and Diversity

One of the most difficult aspects of cultural strategy relates to its contribution to community cohesion and diversity. The cultural diversity of the borough’s residents from different national and ethnic backgrounds can be showcased in various ways throughout the year. However, events do not necessarily attract large audiences from other national or ethnic groups. A good diverse attendance, however, does not mean that people attending will meet and talk with each other, as most people find meeting strangers difficult. There are no easy answers to the question of how to encourage people to meet each other across different national and ethnic divides. It needs a small core of event organisers to make the effort to introduce people to each other and facilitate conversation. The occasions which offer the most potential are:

  • Festival events, especially those based in parks and open spaces
  • Street festivals serving a small number of streets or an estate – these are a great way of encouraging neighbours to meet and get to know each other better
  • Multi-faith cultural activities, especially as many Christian, and particularly Muslim, organisations have diverse national and ethnic congregations
  • Community centres putting on events in which different user groups showcase their activity
  • Re-packaging school fêtes and bazaars as ‘neighbourhood festivals’ to attract non-parents

As I know from co-ordinating festivals in 2005 and 2006 the organisation is not easy and requires a reasonable level of funding for core costs relating to venue and equipment hire, health and safety, licences, as well as paying for performers.

Last year’s Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Festival and this year’s South Norwood Arts Festival have shown what can be done when there is a group of people with vision and organisational abilities.

Croydon is full of people with the wide range of talents needed. The Arts Debate on 10th October provides an opportunity for them to come together to develop a strategy and to work together to organise a borough-wide arts festival next July.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Adrian Winchester

    I hope this will prove to be a well-supported debate. If there’s a genuine will to bring it about, a borough-wide arts festival could be an exciting development but I hope careful thought will go into the timing. I appreciate July seems an attractive month because of the scope for outdoor activities, but I can’t help feeling that we could already be reaching saturation point during the June-July peak period. We now have the well-established Purley and South Norwood Festivals, Croydon Heritage Festival (if that’s repeated), plus others such Crystal Palace. Anyone willing to travel a few miles sometimes has at least two options on the same day. On one July Saturday, there were even two different festivals in South Norwood! So, if a new festival is to avoid competing with others, perhaps it would be worth considering a less congested month such as April or September.

  • Charlotte Davies

    An Arts Festival can be a focal point to bring together the diversity of Croydon, we do not have to reinvent the wheel; but we can build-up a whole programme that leads into an important summer festival. The aim is to create a strategic body to build Arts in Croydon for the long-term; which can bid for significant funds to develop the Arts scene and support existing organisations not compete with them.

  • pascale

    hi! really interesting and thoughtful article, i was just wondering if there were any concrete decisions from the debate or follow-up articles i could find out more from?

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