Nosheen Iqbal is probably right that we did not establish a rapport when she interviewed me for AP223. Perhaps I had guessed she was going to do a hatchet job on me. I was portrayed as a (coolly ambitious!) reactionary only interested in ‘traditional’, non-diverse culture. Jude Woodward, my predecessor, made a similar charge in AP221.
If you read the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) Cultural Strategy and look at the projects we run, you will see that this accusation is untrue. The GLA today is not focused on ‘traditional’ culture at the expense of contemporary or ‘diverse’ culture.
We fund a range of cultural events that celebrate London’s vastly diverse communities, including the London Mela, Hanukkah, Eid, Vaisakhi, Diwali and St George’s Day. The current administration actually increased funding to Notting Hill Carnival in its first two years and has organised new projects with the Kurdish and Somali communities. True, we have cancelled or postponed some events but because there was little community buy-in or not enough sponsorship. It is ludicrous to suggest we are ignoring the cosmopolitanism of London.
We also fund richly diverse heritage – from the restoration of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich to the new building for the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton to our Story of London festival. Our recent Music Education Strategy covers a variety of music and we support the London Jazz Festival. Our work on unpaid internships addresses the barriers for many social groups entering the workforce.
Are we only interested in old stuff? Hardly. We support contemporary visual art on the Fourth Plinth – most recently showing pieces by Antony Gormley and Yinka Shonibare (the scheme was initiated by the Royal Society of Arts and transferred to the GLA in 1999 when it took over Trafalgar Square). We commissioned the largest art work in the UK and are investing £3m in creative programmes in the Olympic Park and fringe areas such as Hackney Wick. We back new art installations, concerts and films in Trafalgar Square.
What seems to irk critics like Iqbal and Woodward is that we do not talk repetitively about ‘diversity’ and that we dare to also champion the value of older art forms. I will not apologise for this. Excellent culture – high and low, traditional and non-traditional, old and new – can have universal value and our role is to enable people of all backgrounds to have access to it. Where we support ‘traditional cultures’ like classical music, folk music, poetry or heritage, it is to ensure they are included in the diversity of what is on offer, rather than excluded for being ‘elitist’ or only for white, middle-class people. I don’t believe we should patronise the public or pigeon-hole people according to their background. These crude accusations are a way of stifling debate about what cultural policy should be. I hope people will look at our work and judge it for themselves.