TAITMAIL London, sniffing the cultural coffee

When we finally awake from this nightmare, and by my calculation that should be just in time for the last few shopping days to Christmas, the world will look completely different. And the world at Christmas, before we went into our Covid coma, was the high street.

As we rub our eyes and stretch our imaginations, there’ll be no Topshop. No Debenhams. No Cath Kidston. No Edinburgh Woollen Mills. No Victoria’s Secret. No T M Lewin. No Jenners. Hardly a John Lewis to warm your hands on. And then, we’ll have done all our shopping online.
 
But our shopping centres won’t be ghost towns. They’ll be full of colour, activity, people and creative entrepreneurialism (by December we creatives might have come up with an easier word for that mouthful), because their much-loved architecture will be full of artists, makers, performers and art lovers. Some will have become pick-up points for stuff ordered online, sure, but there’ll be a new generation of museum shops – the V&A, Tate, British Museum will be desperate to make up for the 75% loss in footfall trade. There’ll be workshops teaching people to make their own table sculpture, linocuts, origami pets. There’ll be virtual world arcades with kids mercifully released from confinement to carry on doing what they were doing while they were in it, but together. There’ll be pottery studios, glassblowers, knitting workshops, all with cash points. Because for the first-time commerce is seeing valuable and possibly life-saving margins in creativity.
 
Covid didn’t strangle our high streets, they were already choking to death to the extent that in 2019 the government announced a High Street Task Force, to “provide guidance, tools, and skills to help communities, partnerships and local government transform their high streets” with an added on post-Covid £50m four-part scheme called the Reopening High Streets Safely Fund.  It gave Historic England £95m to launch a four year rescue programme for high streets by creating High Street Heritage Action Zones, based on the historic nature of our parades’ architecture, and also announcing its cultural programme commissions for a “national artistic celebration of the high street”.
 
This week that £7.4m initial programme began with a High Street Tales podcast series https://historicengland.org.uk/get-involved/high-street-culture/high-street-tales/ in which seven writers were commissioned to deliver pieces on seven traditional shopping centres, lest we forget, in North Shields, Woolwich, Wigan, Hastings, Leicester, Wednesbury and Great Yarmouth. The first was released yesterday. “Historic England is taking a unique approach in combining cultural programming, community engagement and physical regeneration to transform high streets across England” HE announced. “The cultural programme’s aim is for artists to work with local people to help them rediscover and express the pride they have in the places they’re from” added Ellen Harrison, HE’s head of creative programmes.
 
They’re not all called “High Street”, of course. Ordnance Survey defines a high street as a minimum of 15 shops in a 150-metre strip, and before the pandemic closures hit there were 6,136 of them in England with 404,745 buildings, an average of 66 per high street. Right now many of those whose tales are being told are anxiously looking for a career change. 
 
And we already knew that our dying high streets were a disaster waiting to be turned into an opportunity, the Arts Council’s Darren Henley told us so last year: “An investment in culture is an investment in our high streets” he said as he published a report on turning shopping malls into cultural quarters. This week his deputy Laura Dyer added: “We believe that culture can play a crucial role in reanimating the high street and bringing life back to our historic town centres”. It seems to have caught on with wealth creators, bringing me to the wealthiest town centre of them all and what is probably the biggest vote of confidence for marrying retail and community arts: the City of London. 

Last November Maria Adebowale-Schwarte, CEO of the Foundation for Future London, wrote in AI: “The hard facts: the creative industries are looking at a £77bn turnover loss by the end of 2020, and London will see over 50% of that loss. Talking to diverse arts and culture freelancers and organisations, the impact is most significant on people who felt that doors had never been opened, despite skills, commitment, talent and ideas”. https://www.oxfordeconomics.com/my-oxford/projects/573027

She was then appointed to a taskforce by the Lord Mayor of London, William Russell, which he chaired and which published its report (Culture and Commerce: Fuelling Creative Renewal https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/assets/Things-to-do/exec-summary-culture-and-commerce-fuelling-creative-renewal.pdf) this week. It says that the creative industries are “on the brink of disaster”, as is retail London. And it says, frankly, that the City of London’s future lies in commerce working out with creative industry how to repeople the high street. 

Among the organisations represented on the 20-person taskforce-of-all-the-talents are Bloomberg, London First, Amazon, ACE, the other London mayor (in the person of deputy mayor for culture Justine Simons), King’s College and the Genesis Foundation (John Studzinski himself).

“It is critical for culture and commerce to work together and harness London’s creative energy to retain its position as the best city in the world in which to live, work, learn, and invest” said Russell at the report’s virtual launch on Monday. “I call upon culture, civic and commercial organisations across London to consider what the task force is proposing, with a view to implementing as many recommendations as they are able to, in order to help accelerate the recovery”. And Russell is a financier by profession with no record of involvement in the arts.

The report says that the pandemic has caused an “epic shift” in how people behave, including the normalisation of working from home, reluctance to travel into city centres, a reappraisal of priorities and an increased use of local amenities. 

It wants to “bring London alive through creativity”; to build a framework for skills and knowledge sharing between culture and commerce; and to develop creative enterprise hubs for cross-sector innovation. To achieve this it proposes ten specific projects, among them a creative freelancers’ network and an international creative collaboration programme, and it wants to see evidence of all this happening by the end of this year.

“Two-way models of exchange need to be developed domestically and internationally to facilitate knowledge and skills exchange, support organisational and personal development, leverage digital acceleration and strengthen global trust and understanding” says the report. “By drawing on each other, culture and commerce can better navigate the challenges of a post-pandemic, post-Brexit world.”

Nowhere does the report refer to the high street, that small town talk is somehow inappropriate in the global playground that is the Square Mile, but that is what is meant as much as it is in Wigan and Wednesbury. 

“London’s world-leading creative sector helps secure its position as one of the best international cities in which to live, work, visit and invest” according to the taskforce. “The creative sector has enormous potential to play a critical role in London’s recovery - reanimating our spaces in unique ways that attract people back, equipping people with the skills needed for employment and innovation, and building the connections required internationally for London to remain a global hub for commerce and culture.” 

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