Debate: A Tale of Two Cities

Exploring the role of culture in building a place with both a cohesive society and a buoyant economy.

What difference do you want culture to make to places?
What will success look like in 5 years time and what will be different to now?
What are you going to do?

Tom Morris: it’s through the stories we tell about our city – the enormous opportunity we’re facing in Bristol is that we’ve ended up with an elected Mayor who has decided to start to define our city for us, he’s dared to say the strength of this city is absolutely its cultural strength as well [as economic, etc.]. We have a lot more control over the stories of our city than we think. All of the other benefits culture offers a city, in all their myriad ways, are in our control and it’s our job to take part in those conversations so that we can properly articulate how much we can get back if we take control of those stories.

George Ferguson: ‘It’s the audience, stupid’. We’re very fortunate, we’re a city with 800 years of culture. The challenge though is how do we engage everybody in this rich environment. We are a diverse city, we have over 150 languages spoken in this city – I’d like to see how we get those that don’t engage with the arts into the arts so we can hear their stories. In a city of half a million people, we’ve every resource and we should make use of the fact that we’re much more diverse than we used to be. I want the arts to bring a sense of belonging.

Kirsten England: I want to reflect on what Local Government is all about right now. We’re shifting from bureaucracy to ‘We’re here to do what it takes to make this place great’. That means brokering, discussing, deal-making. I talk more and more to my staff about us being a boundary-less organization talking to our communities – civic entrepreneurs. Creating an infrastructure where prosperity can be created. This is a moment of disruptive change not steady change: I welcome foolishness, playfulness. York is phenomenal in its assets and its talent. We live in a culture which tends to suppress and contain the creativity of people and I feel Local Government has to encourage creativity. It’s a place passionate about justice and social equity. What we need is a deep conversation with ourselves about what kind of place we want that to be. Even the Bible’s Mystery Plays question ‘Who are we as a city? What do we want as a community?’ We absolutely need to broker those productive, creative relationships. We have an open innovation process running – Innovate York – where anyone, anywhere in the world can be part of changing the future of this city. We are bringing people – artists, scientists, user-testers – together to allow a flourishing of creativity.

Marcus Romer: This city used to run the Roman Empire. It also used to run the train system. That sort of thinking is embedded in this city – this is all about networks, running a hub. One of the interesting things for Pilot Theatre is while working on plays, we’re exploring and playing with technology in partnership with the council. The opportunity for us to work in partnership is absolutely key. It isn’t about a passive audience-spectator relationship. That’s what the arts does best. In a digitized world, what do the sense of boundaries actually mean? Points of action [from communities] – it isn’t about geography, it’s about people. What the arts does is break down boundaries and open up opportunities. We are all connected.

A manifesto seems to be emerging. Is there a sense of direction about exactly what is going to happen? What other things need to happen, over and above what’s already in place, to give people a voice and change things? What’s the priority?

Tom Morris: None of us have mentioned money. [Let's] get on the front foot about what culture can do. We need to be better about talking to our [governmental] representatives and never letting people forget the importance of culture.

George Ferguson: Every year I have to get through a budget – one has to defend. The only way is to sell the story really well. To do that, you need to involve people from the arts. It’s an urgent thing.

What wakes you up most as Mayor? What excites you most?

George Ferguson: from the tiny little things like, what I call, opening the streets [pedestrianizing streets at weekends] to bringing in big acts that mean our young people don’t need to go to London.

Kirsten, your other thoughts?

We are shifting discussions with our museums and theatres to how might we, the council, invest in them. The biggest challenge I’ve got is to secure this city’s funds – tax is an investment. That creates good jobs and vibrant communities.


Recognizing when ideas have value. The arts should have that potential to input into all areas of work. The world is changing and so we have to in our sector and industry. What is the way we can make that work?

We need to be much more ‘with and for’, not top-down. 

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