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'Cultural Cities' - report part one

Above: Shanay Jhaveri, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican, describing - at Future Cities Forum - the 'Purple Hibiscus' project by artist Ibrahim Mahama which is wrapping the cultural centre in embroidered purple cloth

At its recent 'Cultural Cities' forum at the BFI in London, Future Cities Forum asked questions about the past and future funding of museums and cultural spaces. This is already an important topic for some pressure groups in the run up to the UK election this July. Museums have been struggling with budget cuts from local authorities. Will the next government increase finding for this important sector?

The discussion looked at how current arts funding is encouraging diversity and inclusion, as well as the use of sustainable materials for art installations and heritage experience. Highlighting the social value of museums to attract funding and the importance of preserving cultural programmes between the UK and Germany was also discussed as well as the challenges of supporting the redevelopment of historic artists' homes such as Leighton House, in Kensington, against the backdrop of the Grenfell disaster.

Contributing organisations featured in this first part of our report include The Barbican, Buro Happold, Creative PEC, Arts Council England, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and architects BDP

Image: The Barbican 'wrapped', courtesy Buro Happold

Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican, Shanay Jhaveri, joined the discussion to talk about the current 'wrapping' of the cultural centre and described how he hoped this and other art initiatives would help to 'cross the threshold of spaces' in the 1950's development and begin to 'speak to the breadth of audiences' coming to the centre.

The 2,300 sq. m of cloth, which has engulfed the Barbican in a vibrant purple colour, is embroidered with ‘batakaris’—a traditional Ghanian men’s garment originating in the north of the country. The fabric has been hand-woven together in a collective effort with hundreds of craftspeople from Tamale, northern Ghana. The work also references the 2003 novel, ‘Purple Hibiscus’, by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In the book, the purple hibiscus symbolises freedom and hope for oppressed people.  

Shanay said:

'The architecture of the Barbican can be divisive but artists gravitate to it and I wanted to give them the building as a canvas. The building has a heritage but we can use it to confront issues collectively today. I wanted to look at the activation of the lake side terrace and invited the Ghanian artist Ibrahim Mahama.for a site visit and he came back with a drawing of the installation that is currently on display. He is very interested in textiles that have history embedded in them but he also wanted to respond to the heritage of the site with the area around the Barbican being the centre of the rag trade post world war two.

'Looking at the concrete of the Barbican building, we noticed it was bush-hammered by hand and although we know nothing of who did the work at the time, we wanted to reference that in the material that wraps the building through the hand-stitching of the fabric. Four-hundred artisans were involved in the artwork in Ghana and it created the economy for the project which was supported by the Barbican. Traditional smocks or batakaris are handed down through families with traces of the wearer and they have reached the end of their life cycles so used here in the art work. For sustainability purposes they will be taken back to Ghana and re-used for other projects in the community where Ibrahim has established studios and other community spaces.

'This is the type of project that I want to highlight at the Barbican. We want to work with diverse and international artists providing them with a platform and partner with them. I want these artists and their work to speak to audiences in London and encourage those audiences to come back to the Barbican to see our commitment level to those artists.

'The current twenty-four hour 'destination city' idea is very much a part of what we are doing here, encouraging families not just to come and eat here at our restaurants but get involved in projects which are also open to local schools this summer. We want to create dynamic spaces with art that goes beyond ticketed events and we are also furthering dialogue through the digital assets that we create such as our videos of the project and enjoy seeing how it is all taken up online through social media.'

Image: Wrapping the Barbican, courtesy Buro Happold

The physical wrapping of the Barbican was a considerable challenge that required the expert skills of engineering firm, Buro Happold. Partner, Andrew Wylie explained:

'We treated the project as if we were 'upholsterers', attaching a backing to the material to help it withstand the elements. As the Barbican is a listed building we could not fix any of the material to it. You cannot drill into concrete because then you start to create problems. So we added weights and sub frames to the material and hundreds of kilometers of ratchet straps.

'There was the challenge of wind speeds to deal with, so we worked on the risk management as if we were sailors, enabling the fabric to be lifted and lowered with the wind speed, like trimming sails.

The sustainability of the Barbican re-use of materials is close to the heart of how Buro Happold works. Andrew as Head of Culture at the firm has been closely involved in the issues of sustainability in many of his arts and heritage projects. One such project addressed the carbon footprint of Bath Abbey.

'There have been many concerns about the cost of operating heritage assets and the shock of energy prices hasn't helped. Bath Abbey through the visitor experience has become more than just a place of worship and questions about how it is heated year round have been asked.

'The solution lay in the great drain from the Roman Baths which flows out into the river at 25 degrees centigrade. We wanted to use it to heat the abbey so used a heat pump to raise the temperature to 50 degrees and dug low level trenches to give a background warmth and prevent damp. The challenge was not to subject people to bugs in the water and also stop the systems from calcifying. The Heritage Lottery Fund supported the project but it was the public engagement to sell the benefits that helped with the fundraising.'

Many museums and cultural centres have been struggling in the UK due to budget cuts

Future Cities Forum asked Bernard Hay, Head of Policy at the Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre (Creative PEC), to join our 'Cultural Cities' forum to discuss the concerns over funding our cultural assets. Many museums are facing difficult times because of cuts to funding from local authorities.

The Museums Association reports that an advocacy survey commissioned by Art Fund and the National Museum Directors' Council (NMDC) has demonstrated strong public support for public funding for museums, with nearly three quarters of UK adults believing that councils should fund local museums. The YouGov survey found that 89% of UK adults think museums are important to UK culture while 76% think local museums add value to their area.

Creative PEC is led by Newcastle University, with the RSA, and operates a north-south, twin-hub to bring benefits to the creative industries across the whole country. Creative PEC started in 2018 at Nesta, and in 2023 moved to Newcastle University, evolving to a twin-hub structure with the southern hub based at RSA House. It provides a step-change for its three main stakeholders – industry, policymakers and the wider research community – in the quantity and quality of evidence available for the Creative Industries.

Bernard said:

'Culture is known for bringing well-being, pride of place and a sense of community as well as trust, so our work is in how to bring awareness of this wider or social value beyond the purely economic and support the case to the government on how not to reduce that to a GVA figure.

'We support this through our 'Culture and Heritage Capital Framework' for the DCMS and take our evaluation methods to try to quantify the value of museums and cultural institutions not just in monetary value but the wider impacts for the UK.

'There are some types of culture that are still struggling post pandemic such as independent cinema venues and local funding is a really big challenge. Local authorities are the biggest funder and are having to make cuts, so we need to find ways to offset that.'

Arts Council England is working on 'Cultural Bridge' in cities such as Berlin

Continued funding for international arts programmes has also proved a challenge post Brexit and the pandemic. Arts Council England's Head of International, Nick McDowell, explained that supporting community projects has been very important in both the UK and Germany, rather than trying to helicopter culture in;:

'Both the UK and Germany have similar cultural infrastructures and funding as well as a shared mental processing. Brexit really showed us that post referendum, we needed to make friends in Europe. We stared to develop strong relationships with the British Council in Berlin and the Goethe Institute in London.

'Most of the money from government goes into theatres and opera houses in Berlin that are spread apart and there is very little in the centre of the city. We therefore set our sights on social engaged practice and community work. There are so many areas where there is no culture anywhere and we decided not to helicopter culture in but build up from the grass roots.

'There is a commitment to diversity in Germany just like the UK but they cannot collect diversity statistics, it is against the law. So with our current Cultural Bridge programme we decided that sixty-two per cent projects should be with disabled or diverse backgrounds.

'Brexit is a big problem but you might say climate change is bigger. Digital programmes are not the answer. The next generation of artists are suffering horribly. There just are not the resources to deal with issues such as supporting artists over permissions to work in Europe for continued periods. It's difficult.'

Cultural Bridge is a programme that aims to build links between the cultural sectors in the UK and Germany.  Each partnership is a collaboration between one or more organisations in each country, which will provide opportunities for artistic exchange and knowledge sharing, and develop new work that explores issues faced by communities across both countries. 

Funding for the programme comes from a partnership between Arts Council England, Arts Council Northern Ireland, Arts Council Wales/Wales Arts International, Creative Scotland, British Council, Fonds Soziokultur, and Goethe-Institut London. 

New partnerships will receive up to £10,000, while continuing partnerships, which have taken part in previous years of the programme, will receive up to £30,000. With the newly announced partnerships, Cultural Bridge now supports 72 organisations through 35 partnerships.

Image: part of BDP's redevelopment of Leighton House

Leighton House, the former home of Victorian artist and sculptor, Lord Leighton, in Kensington, London, has been a museum that has also seen difficulties with funding. The London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's Senior Curator, Daniel Robbins, added to the discussion by talking about the history of approach in redeveloping the house as cultural centre.

He said:

'The council took it on in 1926 and it then became a museum. In the 1950's some additions were made and the winter studio was infilled. Over the years, it has at times been in a poor condition and just sitting there, but it still had a role in supporting the broader council ambitions. The additions that had been previously added were considered something that could be re-visited, with better facilities such as toilets, lift and a shop. These improvements have meant that it could change the dynamic of the spaces for visitors and its community.

'I have just been to a committee that is looking at evaluating its social investment incomes and Leighton House would be a good case study in that sense. The idea of the Leighton House redevelopment really began twenty years ago and at one point it was put in the 'waste management and leisure' council department. I thought this was a crazy idea because it should be in the educational department. But it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened, because it was in that department that the idea came with how a series of capital investments could be made into it.

'Then Grenfell happened and the council withdrew all its capital. What saved it was that fifty per cent of funding came from the Lottery and from the friends association. With this external funding, it has become a place where there are learning and public programmes and it is free to enter.

Image: 'Oneness' courtesy of BDP

BDP architect Director David Artis explained how the project to transform Leighton House has been concerned on one level with showcasing wider cultural values:

'There is a specific character to the place and you can see the way Lord Leighton adapted his house over time. He built it at a point in Victorian society where the place of an artist was lower than other parts of upper class society, to a stage where artists were revered - the age of the artist celebrity.

'An important part of the project was to build the connectivity with the garden to provide a space for the community and creating an ability for visitors to feel comfortable and take ownership. Previously you had to access the house by steps and this was a divisive measure. We managed to diffuse that and design the Perinn Wing as the precursor to the house, a place where visitors can collect themselves before entering Lord Leighton's home.

'As a visitor you now have a choice to engage with the house or just enjoy the exhibition space. The new staircase talks to cross cultural values and there are references to Sambourne House, which was owned by the leading cartoonist of Punch. So links have been created to the wider culture of the borough.'

BDP adds:

'A new staff suite has been created within the volume of the upper gallery space. Leighton’s Winter Studio has been restored and the space beneath it recovered as the De Morgan Café. The existing basement has been extended to provide visitor facilities, display and interpretation space, an archive store and a gallery to display Leighton’s extensive drawing collection.

'The new stair and lift ‘rotunda’ completes the evolution and expansion of the house, connects all levels and balances the composition of the garden elevation. It is the site of ‘Oneness’, a hand-painted mural by artist Shahrzad Ghaffari.'

Future Cities Forum would like to thank its contributors to this important discussion. The second part of our 'Cultural Cities' report will be published shortly with contributions from Rochester Cathedral, The British Library, Sir Simon Jenkins, Scott Brownrigg, Pilbrow & Partners, MICA Architects and the Museum of the Home.

Below: Leighton House Museum and Gallery, Kensington London, showing Lord Leighton's winter studio to the left and viewed from the newly designed and planted garden


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