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Cultural Leadership And Vision In Cities

October 12, 2005

When and how does a Big Town become a City? And, just as importantly, how does a Great City ensure it will never seem to be just a Very Big Town?
Doubtless we all have our first-off answers to this slightly strange question; but at base we would probably agree it’s not simply Size that matters. Quality rather than just Quantity is what counts in the metropolis status stakes – as perhaps would also an Elected Mayor.

Imagine all the people – and all the things they’d do….

Cities are centres of communication, learning and complex commercial enterprises; …. they focus and condense physical, intellectual and creative energy. They are places of hugely diversified activities and functions: exhibitions and demonstrations, bars and cathedrals, shops and opera houses. I love their combination of ages, races, cultures and activities…

Richard Rogers Cities for a small planet (Faber, 1997, p.15)

So what does lie at the heart of a city, especially a great one such as Liverpool? What exactly does define its soul?

For me, and I suspect for many others as they ponder such questions at this pivotal point in Liverpool’s development, the critical aspect of our city’s renaissance must be a focus on what is most creative: both what we already have, and what we can forge for the future.

But this is in no way just a plea in disguise for ‘more arts funding’. Rather, I want to propose that Creativity in the City be seen as the critical factor which defines us and holds more promise than anything else for what Liverpool could become.

Thus, the real challenge is to shape and nurture a vision of our future which engages the entire creative process, the arts, the sciences, the full spectrum of the intellectual infrastructure and more…… For there is also a Plus Factor in all this to which we shall return and which we neglect at our peril.

What a modern, thriving, thrusting city needs more than almost anything else is continual recharging and renewal, a culture which challenges what is already known and done – however splendid that culture may be historically.

A city which delivers well the known and acknowledged needs of its citizens will also be one which looks to produce creative synergy with sometimes unanticipated outcomes. There can be no standing still in the search for excellence in the city.

So, to formalise the initial proposition, a Great City is one which

¨ does not just celebrate its past, but works hard to create it own future;

¨ does not simply curate its history and acknowledged culture, but seeks always to support the living arts and to ensure that benefit and creative process evolve from them;

¨ does not offer handed-down knowledge alone for its citizens, but strives ceaselessly to promote and engage the processes of learning and discovery which produce new understandings and insights across the spectrum of intellectual and creative endeavour.

Put thus, we see that Liverpool, more than many other cities, is well-blessed. We have in our heartlands an abundance of internationally recognised organisations and institutions which seek insofar as their resources and vision currently permit to deliver just the requirements listed above. The fight to ‘save’ our theatres and world-class symphony orchestra has been long and hard but, after almost decades of uncertainty, it seems we may indeed have won. Our universities and colleges permit comparison with many others, and are in significant respects outstanding. Our architecture and cathedrals are world renown.

But this inventory alone is not enough. The Great City demands more of itself than satisfactory audits of institutions, however important. Great Cities engage and nurture the best creative practitioners that can be had, put together in organisations which reciprocally appreciate and enhance the skills and traditions which are thereby brought together. Great cities value their indigenous artists and intellectuals but also welcome to their lead organisations both students and distinguished visiting practitioners who will inform and challenge current beliefs and thinking. And so through these same organisations Great Cities facilitate and even thrust upon us thriving collectives of artists, scientists, intellectuals, power elites of all sorts who can and will not accept on our behalf that which is routine or can be taken for granted.

A city’s creativity must not however remain solely civic. For it to mean anything it has also to be communal. The synergy of the city’s formal creative enclaves must be engaged and by mutual consent brought to bear on the lives of the people. This is the Plus Factor to which reference was made earlier.…..

And here lies the fundamental challenge for Liverpool at the beginning of the new Millennium.
Our city, Great City though it is already in many ways, is also a fragile, vulnerable city which is only now repositioning itself after many years of decline. The poverty of experience and expectation of many of those who have grown up and live in this city is part of the urban tragedy of our times. For too many here, Liverpool is the only place they know, the small-community-defined comfort zone from which they must collectively emerge if they are to demand the standards which those with wider and more privileged experience already expect. For too many of our citizens, impoverished both materially and ‘culturally’ through accident of time and place, the leap to acceptance and engagement in creativity in its fullest sense is a step to ‘high culture’ too far.

It would be very serious act of decontextualisation and of course entirely improper to suggest that perhaps there are communities in Liverpool ‘suffering’ from a ‘cultural deprivation’ which somehow diminishes civic pride or reduces the people’s determination to see their city great again. I hope therefore that I can avoid any charge of cultural / intellectual imperialism in pointing to a number of what I see as significant discongruities in the cultural fabric of this city – discongruities which I believe must be recognised and addressed by anyone who seeks to offer Liverpool civic (and therefore cultural) leadership.

But significant discongruities there are, disconnections of understanding between civic excellence in the cultural / intellectual infrastructure and socio-economic well-being, or between artistic / creative engagement and personal fulfilment. For instance, like parents everywhere, many here regardless of their own background would dearly wish for their own children to achieve success in the formal education system; yet these same people often express considerable antagonism towards the students who live in flats and bedsits in their midst and who thereby help to keep local shops and businesses viable – and who as graduates could with the right persuasion stay on in our city and help to revitalise it.

Likewise, many would see the flagship arts organisations of our city as indispensable elements of our civic identity – yet few expect to patronise these same bodies personally. And how many people in Liverpool know that the eponymous University has to its credit impressive numbers of Nobel Laureats? Indeed, how many people know anything much at all about what goes on in the research institutions of our city’s universities, or anything about the significance of this research in the regional economy or indeed on the world scene?

And so we could go on; for there are, to put it starkly, parts of our local communities where to ask even these questions would be to understate massively the alienation from mainstream understandings of culture and creativity. There is a palpable disinclination amongst too many of our young people beyond a certain age to lose their ‘cool’, to allow themselves to become engaged, let alone excited, by positive, imaginative and exciting ideas and activities. There is a fear by those in some parts of our communities that any bending towards the mainstream will result in cultural engulfment, that others do not respect or understand their particular traditions and beliefs. Above all, there is sometimes still apathy and an unwillingness to trust in a more accepting and better future.

This then is the true challenge which now faces the Great City of Liverpool.

Our civic leaders of the future will need as an urgent priority to deliver a cultural and creative concordat, a bringing together of traditions and modes of understanding which allow the many rather than just the few to translate hope into action – and this I believe can be achieved only through the pursuit of excellence, the engagement of the very best of what is creative in all the fields of endeavour we have considered.

We need architects and sculptors who regain the public sphere for community and performance; actors, artists and musicians who draw on their many cultural traditions to bring people together and enhance their lives; teachers who capture the imagination and ambition of their charges; community workers and volunteers whose enthusiasms, local knowledge and skills are welcomed and engaged by the civic authorities; research workers and academics who build on, and see the local economic benefits which may accrue from, the distinguished record of our institutions of higher learning.

It will be a task of breathtaking proportion to sustain in their own right, and simultaneously to bring together, the historically disempowered communities of our city and the hitherto so-called ‘elitist’ cultural institutions which history has endowed to us.

It cannot be said too clearly there are many already on all ‘sides’ who seek excellence without compromise or fear, who want and will for the city a common understanding alongside outstanding achievement across the spectrum of artistic and intellectual endeavour. But individuals of goodwill can reach only so far on their own. Cultural nostalgia, lack of resources (human, material and civic), entrenched, sometimes limited bureaucracies, the inertia of years of low expectations, cannot be overcome by individual goodwill alone. All these factors are real and enormous barriers to progress.

The challenge for Liverpool’s first Elected Mayor will be to achieve a very fine balance in pursuing world-class excellence for our city across the artistic / generically intellectual board, whilst also seeking to achieve maximum creative community synergy and engagement and maintaining personal political credibility – a tall order indeed, but one which I believe those in our amazing, deeply culturally blessed, Great City will support and embrace.

A version of this article was first published as a chapter in Manifesto for a New Liverpool, 2000 (published by Aurora, The University of Liverpool & Space)
by Hilary Burrage,
Chair, HOPES: The Hope Street Association

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