TAITMAIL The Albany, Lewisham’s cultural anchor

The craze for “Year of Culture” designation seemed to have got out of hand after Brexit when we lost qualification for the European City of Culture, so famously and successfully celebrated for the UK by Glasgow and then Liverpool.

First we invented our own City of Culture competition, with a fraction of the European scheme’s cash, most recently claimed by Coventry and overall with mixed success.
Then The Mayor of London decided to get in on it by declaring a London Borough of Culture every couple of years, under his declaration that “Culture has the power to transform communities and to bring people closer together”. 

This year it’s Croydon, but two years ago it was Lewisham, neither place speaking High Art to most people. And that is precisely the point. This is art and creativity that goes into and comes out of our neighbourhoods - to coin a tired word, the communities.

For Lewisham’s year the borough largely ignored the conventional venues which it didn’t have many of and fell back on its reputation for rumbustious activism with 696 events many of which happened in parks and on street corners. More than 430,000 turned up for We Are Lewisham, an echo of its nearest resident cultural icon’s famous chant, “Nobody likes us and we don’t care”. But unlike Millwall FC (actually just in neighbouring Southwark), it turned out that people did care about Lewisham because, like a favoured football team, they could identify with it.

The whole thing was driven by a single venue that, 20 years ago, was close to bankruptcy. Founded in the 1890s as the Albany Institute - later renamed the Albany Empire - to bring some light into the drab lives of Deptforders, a century later the Albany was not only broke, it was in debt, its building (having been burnt down in the 1970s and rebuilt) was in bad need of repair and recasting, it had no Arts Council funding and a staff of just five, devoted to the notion of community service, manically trying to hold the whole thing together. 

When Gavin Barlow arrived as the new CEO in 2003, the Albany got itself solvent through hirings, partnerships and trawling grant-giving sources, and established itself as a hub for community creativity. “There was” he says “a recognition that people want to be actively creative”. It became a home for other rent-paying organisations, and while the Albany is an ACE NPO itself now, so are 12 of its tenants. With its contemporary missionary vocation for the borough of which Deptford is a part, the Albany now has a staff of 50.

In 2022 the Lewisham Council created a three-year Arts and Culture Fund to support organisations that tackle inequality, remove barriers to participation, and encourage development, including developing links into schools. 

The Albany has maintained a good working relationship with the local authority, and with the mayor naming Lewisham his London Borough of Culture for that year the Albany was given responsibility for the programme with Barlow the creative director. “Lewisham has always been somewhere that stands up for what it believes in” he said at the time, and his brief was to “showcase the power of the arts to inspire positive change and celebrate our borough’s contributions to music, visual art, dance and more”. He wound in other Lewisham cultural nodes such as Trinity Laban, Goldsmith’s and the Horniman Museum.

Last year Lewisham launched a cultural strategy in which the council’s culture cabinet member James-J Walsh wrote: “Culture lies in the people of Lewisham, who are the driving force behind its creation and preservation. Our cultural legacy depends on the active involvement of our communities and creatives, allowing them to tell their own stories in their chosen mediums—whether that be through ‘music and dance’, ‘food and cooking’, ‘painting and sculpting’, ‘clubbing and pubbing’, ‘gaming and broadcasting’ or any other artistic form, traditional or emergent”.  The year made a virtue of Lewisham’s traditional bolshiness born out of its habit of welcoming the different. “It has led to new partnerships and new ways of working” Walsh wrote. 

So with the year of culture in his sails and with funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Barlow has launched the Albany’s creative strategy that stretches 2022 into the future. “We came out of it with new ideas, new partnerships and new ways of working” Barlow says, and with a new designation for the Albany. 

It has now been declared Lewisham’s Anchor Arts and Cultural Organisation with a brief to build links between different communities “through the things that matter to them”. He is building a Community Council drawn directly from residents, which will have a say in programming across the borough – the pandemic had taught the value of open spaces as creative venues. There is to be a panel of Young Creatives and a ramping up of the 2022 invention Artists for Change in which professional creatives were recruited to work directly with local people. 

And there’s a heavy emphasis on youth in a place where the demography is more youthful than in most London boroughs, and youth services have been stripped to the bare minimum.

Barlow has picked up on the Arts Council’s Joint Cultural Needs Assessments framework and adapted it to Lewisham’s profile – so, partnerships that can influence the local ecosystem, putting creativity at the core of the borough’s social, economic, health and environmental goals, bringing out diversity and celebrating it, nurturing the local talent base and investing to address needs and issues.

We Are Lewisham 2022 could have been a great party that ended as 2023 dawned, but it isn’t over yet. Its lessons, said James-J Walsh, have been fundamental: “It has shown that investing in culture is investing in the local economy, in people’s wellbeing, and in future generations”. 
ACE has put out new guidelines warning arts organisations that making “political statements” could cost them their subsidy. It goes on about the “reputational risk” of “activism”. It is a short step from there to cancelling opinion, and every artist will be outraged at the suggestion that they can’t make art without reference the Arts Council’s guidelines on reputational risk. Whether it has anything to do with the Republican supporting Belfast rap group Kneecap threatening to sue after a grant was blocked because the government objected to it ACE doesn’t say, but it is curious that the government statement comes not from DCMS but the business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, who – via a spokesperson – said the government wasn’t going to give taxpayers’ largesse “to people that oppose the United Kingdom itself”. What DCMS did offer was news that it has launched a comprehensive review of the Arts Council before deciding on its future.

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