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Beyond the Creative City

Keynote presentation to Edinburgh International Film Audiences Conference, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 26th March 2014

Creativity and place needs multiple narratives that reach beyond the urban setting.  We need to question some of the assumptions about urban and rural, and more specifically city and non-city that underpin current creative economy thinking.

There seems to be a  contemporary zeitgeist about how brilliant cities are, and how everything drives from the creative energy of cities.  Operating like the evil cousin of Richard Florida’s creative city arguments, these urban celebrants condemn everywhere else, non cities, as passengers, or even parasites on the creative economy.   A C15th lens where people are cast out (or born out) of the city walls until saved or redeemed.  It’s pretty hard to make your way in the film business if you aren’t inside the walls, and it seems to be becoming harder all the time.

This is quite a recent phenomenon.  It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of the city region was in play accompanied by a ‘core cities’ concept of ganging up on London, whereas the Core Cities seminar of 2011 – Our Cities, Our Future – focused on the need to ‘restate the vision for cities as engines of growth’.  Here urban centres lead the way to economic recovery, supported by research that pointed to an increasing role as cultural and entertainment centres.

While the Centre for Cities is looking at how cities can grow through cross boundary collaboration, with place determined by how people live their daily lives, their approach focuses on metropolitan areas with Manchester as both starting point and a  ‘London in the North’.  The  BFI Audience Hubs in England are symptomatic of these changes, and will have to work hard to not fall foul of the replacement of the city region idea with a mixture of centralised power and city autonomy. Establishing a ‘network coalition of organisations across the UK’ is not going to create traction in itself.

The place-making agenda is present in much public policy and the work of  organisations like the Project for Public Spaces, with its roots in the work of people like Jane Jacobs (Death and Life of Great American Cities).  This is an overarching approach to a city or a region, ‘focusing on a collective – a community –  shaping of the public realm to maximise shared value’. Benefits include better planning, design, management and programming of public spaces.

Is this an interesting concept for screen industries moving from product-led approaches, (we shoot it, distribute it, market it, and you watch it), to ubiquitous ‘prosumersism’ and a burgeoning of short film making?  Technological change can make important impacts at local level, for example the BBC Big Screens and local community and schools production.  The key thing about the place-making approach is that it has developed methods that translate community, and the characteristics of a place, into strategy and action.  The cycle of  ‘new project, old project, next new project’,  so typical of creative and cultural investment means effective methods for combining the local and the industry to the benefit of both are not embedded into practice.

Cities have infrastructure, networks and resource that can overcome a lack of method through the often quoted ‘critical mass’ effect.  But without this we are in danger of geography and demography creating  second class cultural citizens.  Digital television, live streaming and social media do not offer cultural equivalence.  The recent ‘Rebalancing our Cultural Capital’ report on the geographic arts funding imbalance in England was timely in that it raised the issue and has stimulated debate in Westminster.   This should not be seen as a retrenchment to regional cultural funding empires, but as evidence of a growing problem that needs attention.

I remain an advocate of creative cities as they have the components in place to develop and support amazing cultural initiatives, people and organisations.  The critical seething mass of creative production in major urban centres does provide myriad entry points for the young creative, and always will.  In my own career the intensity of focus that can be created in a city like Birmingham, or a grouping like the South Bank Partnership, has proven tremendously effective in securing innovation and progress.  Organisations like BFI South Bank, promoters like Flatpack, and audiences are all beneficiaries.

‘Rural’ is more difficult in my view.  Generally partnerships and groupings of influence are less organised and resourced and the narratives of creative city and culture led regeneration are hardly developed.  It will be interesting to see how a ground breaking and ambitious initiative like Mareel in Shetland fares.  In many ways it is similar to the influential Watershed in Bristol.  Both organisations reinvent what a creative centre can be, but rural or remotely located venture do not have city framing to lean on.  In my experience the more rural you are the more flexible and cross sectoral you have to be.  A film festival may have to be combined with other events, different media, important dates in the local calendar, or local heritage as in the case of my next example, Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival.  The Festival’s ambition and pathway is for an international event that occupies a niche of unique importance to the screen industries, artistic innovators, and local people.   The organisation is adopting a strategic, even tactical approach.

There is a statement of clear ambition, governance and leadership that plugs straight into: the industry; other cities and towns; academe; local community; artists; and international and business relationships.  The organisation is creating the equivalent of a city creative partnership in its Board of Directors.  The  focus on commissions is resulting in great national and international profile as work moves on to other festivals and screenings.   The business model rests on exploiting the assets of the town with a tagline ‘the town is the screen’.  An artists trail and promenade event runs through the Festival with installations in a wide range of heritage sites around the Elizabethan city walls.  The old ice houses of the Tweed’s salmon industry, historic prison cells and the town barracks are examples of installation venues.   This results in an industry event in a place with no industry, and a family event that introduces local people to a wide range of contemporary practice.   Given its location the Festival has a much higher than average attendance from less affluent singles and students from urban areas.

The Festival embarked on establishing international relationships  unmediated by major cities, but directly with the embassies, artists, and institutions of other Northern European countries.  This has successfully led to ongoing programming relationships, UK premieres of international work, and the invigorating presence of international artists and audiences in the town.  The Festival also works hard to contribute to the film and moving image cultures of both England and Scotland, including working into the rural Borders area with Scotland’s Screen Machine and, in the future, satellite venues.

As with many rural creative enterprises, volunteering is a key delivery element and volunteers reflect the rural demographic, with an intergenerational programme that pairs up young and older people.  Traditionally most young volunteers were from Newcastle and Edinburgh, but with the reduction in people from North Northumberland going to University we are seeing a big uplift among local young people.

The Festival’s thematic approach marries local relevance with artistic ambition.  In 2013 links to the Nordic and North Sea rim countries arose from discussions about the historic trading links between Berwick and North Sea ports.  The 2014 theme, Border Crossing, takes the Scottish referendum debate and explores it through a global and artistically led lens, again informed by the Festival location on the Scottish / English border and timing that coincides with the referendum vote.

So, in conclusion, it is important to admire and support the cultural dynamism of cities where different sectors and interests have come together to make major cultural and creative things happen.  But the non-city, and the rural are as important to our culture.  We should devote some real effort to coming up with new narratives for rural creative development, new business models that respond to physical distance and dispersed demography, and new investment to support the creation of national and international relationships not mediated by the major cities.

We should also be thinking about principles and methods to keep us on track when challenged by market driven digital innovation and reductions in the public purse.  Are these the kind of tasks that the BFI Audience Hubs should take on?