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Becoming London's first Borough of Culture next year is just the beginning of a fundamental change of approach for Waltham Forest, says Sam Hunt.

Photo of large building with people holding legends banner

The competition for London’s first Borough of Culture was fiercely contested, with 22 of the capital’s local authorities submitting bids. It’s a concept that emerged from London’s mayor Sadiq Khan’s visit to Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, with the stated intention “to put culture at the heart of local communities, where it belongs. It will shine a light on the character and diversity of London’s boroughs and show culture is for everyone.”

Work will be genuinely co-created with the artists, creatives and communities from the borough

From the outset it was clear across the capital that this was an opportunity to use arts and culture to strengthen communities, to define a sense of place within the very different characters of the towns within towns, cities within a city and to show that the true culture of London should be celebrated through its people and their stories and not just its institutions, festivals or buildings. In February this year, the first two winning boroughs were announced: Waltham Forest in 2019 and Brent in 2020.

I was an executive producer at Hull 2017, and saw at first hand how culture can bond individuals and different communities into celebrating a collective sense of place. Something we all share with our neighbours is the place we call ‘home’, and to have pride in where you live simply brings people together. Artistic programmes that respond to place help understanding and cohesion. Artists are good at drawing out an essence of a place, interpreting the shared histories of communities and in turn defining some kind of shared identity.

Catalyst for change

I intend to build on this experience in delivering the first London Borough of Culture programme. We aim not just to make sure next year is as good as it can be, but for it to become the beginning of something, for the borough and for the city. We need to define this project for the future.

This is not a mini UK City of Culture, and nor should it be. The programme needs to be a catalyst for positive change, to be responsive to the hyper-local issues facing some of Europe’s most diverse communities. These are communities that have never had this opportunity before, and are often overlooked due to their proximity to the perceived ease of access to the cultural riches of the global megalopolis that is London.

We are confident that the scale, ambition and quality of the creative programme will attract visitors to the borough (at least the 500,000 promised in the bid). But most importantly, this must be a useful project for the people of Waltham Forest, and as such we need to prove its worth from the off. At the centre of the project will be a year-long, world-class arts programme - an arts programme drawn from the place, that could only ever be presented in Waltham Forest.

Work will be genuinely co-created with artists and communities from the borough. Our opening show, called ‘Welcome to the Forest’, will see Leytonstone-born Talvin Singh collaborating with producers in the borough. Visual artists Greenaway & Greenway are working with students from Leyton Sixth Form College to create an audiovisual takeover of the facade of Waltham Forest’s town hall, telling the history of Waltham Forest through the eyes of its young people.

Alongside Talvin, we will welcome back other famous sons and daughters, asking them how they are passing the ladder back down. It is critical that London Borough of Culture becomes the platform where the next generation of London’s artists are seen and heard.

But it is not just about supporting new talent on stage. Critical to success will be our career development programme, with a focus on creating opportunities to develop careers in the arts and creative industries. As well as engaging with a borough-wide volunteer programme (with the wonderful title ‘Legends of the Forest’) and community casts, we will be developing the next generation of cultural leaders, drawn from the diverse communities of the borough. These are the people who will go on to shape the future of the capital’s culture.

Commitment to the local community

Some people have questioned the need for London to have its own borough of culture competition. I understand why, but think this objection is short-sighted. Inequalities that may affect access to the arts are as present in the boroughs of London as they are in any town or city across the country. Cities should be doing everything they can to support their own culture. This is happening already: Liverpool is running a similar scheme to London in 2018, and the stakes for winning the competition for UK City of Culture are getting higher and higher.

But the real strength of the Borough of Culture competition lies in the fact that it was bid for, won and must be delivered by the local authority. When cuts are happening across the board and the chill wind of austerity blows through council treasuries, to have councils commit to placing arts and culture at the heart of the communities they serve is a cause for celebration.

Waltham Forest Borough Council is using the title to begin a process of systematic change by placing culture at the core of decision-making and becoming a ‘culture-ready council’. It will recognise and support the intrinsic value of arts and cultural industries in the everyday life of the borough’s residents and as central to future economic development.

Arts programmes will never be a panacea for all the ills of a city, but they are a tool for making life better for the people who live there, and a reason for people to visit.

Next year, the cultural programme will be specific to a special part of north-east London, and will enable the community to celebrate its culture, however it may choose to define it. But it is vital to realise that the celebrations are merely the heralding of a structural change that will put culture at the heart of society, policy and community for a generation to come.

Sam Hunt is Creative Director of Waltham Forest 2019.

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