Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Visit to the Arts Council of England

It is raining in London today, for the first time in three weeks of unbearable heat and humidity. It is amazing how much I can feel the change—people continue to pepper the sidewalks, but their strides are more purposeful, even fresher. They have a new directive. It is gray again now too, that normally unescapable shade of London that has characterized it in so many of its portrayals. To be honest, the London I am seeing on this visit is different than the one I grew to love in the spring. This London is noisy and crowded, full of people wandering aimlessly and confusingly through overly sunny streets and past the tiny, pub-lined alleys that make this such a fascinating city. In this neighborhood, in this time of year, I believe that London is an unbearable haven for blinded tourists who do not know a city when it is sitting below, around, above, even between them. Yet I understand that we, as Londoners and lovers of London, need these people to make this city thrive, and of course that is important to us.

I have been thinking about this while reflecting on our visit to the Arts Council of England today, of which I have somewhat mixed feelings. The woman who spoke to us clearly understood our mission and spoke to it beautifully, discussing the need for culture in a global city and how people want to be in places where there is culture. She spoke about how funding goes in on one end and comes out somewhere else; I think this is such a great concept, and I am trying to use it to convince myself that these tourists are needed in order for the continued vitality of the London that I know. If commercial theatre brings in millions of pounds for London, will the small theatres and experimental groups eventually see some of that, whether by visitors looking off the beaten path after exhausting the West End or by a commercial theatre starting a small side troupe for new works? And I suppose, in the context of this course, this brings me to another question: are the small, more local arts projects part of the global city, and do they deserve the same attention?

I would argue absolutely yes. There are people who come to this city because they know that there will be a place for them, or because they know that this is the place to be for puppetry or sound design or modern dance or whatever. In the first class we talked about the draw of a city, the pull that makes people feel they need to be there. It seems like everything is happening in a city. To me, before it is a center for international commerce and a hub for world markets, London is a living, breathing, interacting city, full of daily exchanges on the personal, social level, and existing in the ways in which its residents and visitors and newcomers perceive it. It is a space for development and creativity, for the cultivating of ideas through many perspectives and many lenses. So is there room for the small creative groups in the global picture of London? I hope so.

One of the things I greatly admire about the London branch Arts Council of England, or at least about the woman who spoke to us, is the recognition of the tension between making the global city and addressing the local need. If London didn’t have a local population, would it be a global city? I think people need to live there for it to be a truly functioning place. This tension extends beyond London; the Arts Council of England focuses much of its attention, and finances, on London, and this is understandably sometimes difficult to explain to the other regions. In this movement of global cities towards being massive complexes of global power and wealth, I think it is important to consider the impact that this will have on local life and culture. Class and ethnic issues aside, for anyone can live in a global city and be involved in the local life and culture, what will happen to local communities if their character becomes dominated by international conglomerates tagged with names and brands applicable to every city in the world?