London: going for silver

Guest post from Tom Campbell, novelist and former adviser to the Mayor of London


With a national government determined to prevail in the ‘global race’, it is no wonder that London’s cultural sector is increasingly described in the language of economic boosterism. This is particularly evident in phrases such as ‘cultural powerhouse’ and ‘world’s leading city for creative commerce’. Such statements are invariably accompanied by a barrage of figures and the key metrics that 21st century world cities appear to be judged on: the value of contemporary art sales, the number of ‘filming days’ or the amount of media coverage generated by Fashion Week.

The figures are impressive, but a cursory look at them tells us something significant about London which is rarely remarked upon. For while London is often declared the most creative city in the world, what it’s actually very good at is coming second – or even a very respectable third.

London – always on the podium

London doesn’t have the most successful film and television industry – that’s obviously Los Angeles, but it can rival Mumbai for second place. New York is the centre for visual art, with London arguably not too far behind. Paris is still the world’s designer fashion capital, but in recent years London has narrowed the gap. The Notting Hill Carnival might not match Rio’s, but it is the biggest street fair in Europe. Digital media is dominated by companies in the San Francisco bay area, but London can justifiably claim to have the largest cluster outside of North America. In truth, London probably cannot be described as the world leader of any single arts discipline or creative industry. And yet, when it comes to the global race, whether in film, design or the performing arts, it is almost always on the podium.

It might not be the most profound observation, but it does tell us something distinctive about London’s cultural sector: its principal strengths lie in its breadth rather than its depth. It is not in any single vertical industry in which London dominates, but rather it is the city’s overall cultural offer which is so abundant, economically significant, diverse and dynamic.

Breadth and diversity

One of the advantages of such a richness and scale of cultural activities is the scope it allows for creativity and enterprise to flourish. London’s long-standing musical theatre, from Noel Coward to Andrew Lloyd Webber and beyond, is an instance of this, combining the talents of actors and dancers with musicians, composers and playwrights to create new forms of entertainment. Or to take a more recent example, the last two years has seen London increasingly recognised as a centre for ‘fashion tech’. With its plethora of fashion designers and digital entrepreneurs, new businesses are developing products in wearable technology, smart materials and connected clothing. It’s hard to think of another city in the world in which this could happen so naturally. Paris may have the prestigious fashion houses and San Francisco the technologists, but neither has both.

Many of the policies and funding streams currently in place at the national and city levels either fail to recognize this or else actively jeopardize it – tending towards protection of ‘excellence’ rather than fostering a breadth of offer. Arts funding in a time of austerity, for example, means that funding has been channeled more exclusively into the UK’s renowned cultural institutions.  In response to the changes in funding criteria, universities are rationalizing their research and teaching – focusing more and more narrowly on those few areas in which they have ‘world-leading’ expertise. Meanwhile, cuts to local authorities have meant that local cultural facilities and services, community arts projects and public libraries are under threat.

But London’s success is not based on having the world’s biggest concert hall or most famous art collection. The city’s creativity will endure because of what goes on between and around them: the fine-grained, not particularly world-class cultural provision, accessible at the local level. It is the quality of interactions rather than excellence of institutions which should be the guiding principle. In short: we should worry less about how Tate Modern is faring against MoMA, and more about the loss of artists’ studio space, small music venues, bookshops and independent retailers.

Coming second, but winning the race

Politicians will always want their targets, economists their international benchmarks and journalists their rankings. But if we have to turn the cultural life of cities into a competition, then let’s aim firmly for second place. Provided we do that, London has every chance of coming first.