“Alas poor culture, I knew him well”

“Alas poor culture, I knew him well”

Reported by Charlie Hislop

It is the last Friday in November, and off to the side of Guildhall Square, hidden away from the city’s Christmas attractions a small group of people are meeting in the cold evening.

Sandwiched between the Arts Council funded MAST theatre, and the Arts Council funded John Hansard gallery – AKA the city’s ‘Cultural Quarter’, they are gathered for a solemn occasion – a wake. They have come to bury Southampton’s City of Culture – to share fond memories and grieve together.

It’s a small affair, after all you couldn’t fit the many thousands of people either involved in the city’s cultural life, or those who got drawn into the bid thinking that our culture was a participatory sort of thing, without causing some serious safety and transport issues.

But those who are attending are people behind some of the city’s community, arts and cultural activities over many years, as well as some City of Culture leading bid participants and featured ambassadors.

It is a short event – performance art at its most impromptu.

It isn’t pretty.

The participants lit candles and headed off on a short parade around the parks. Back in the Square, standing over the ‘corpse’, the small crowd begins with a moment of quiet reflection. It is brought to an end with a loud nose blow and the eulogy, ‘Alas poor culture, I knew him well.’

One or two participants felt that they had a lucky escape by choosing not to get involved in the bid, past experience telling them to stay away from corporate-driven initiatives. People recalled the number of times they had been invited to write their ideas on a Post-it as part of some corporate process like the City of Culture, some going back more than 20 years, and the issues were the same today.

They were left feeling numb.

Others felt that they had been used, and that the bid had really only superficially embraced the actual culture of the city, and the judges spotted that.

“I just feel really sad, and there are so many people with talent in the city, and the city doesn’t know about them. And there are so many people who are trying really hard to make beautiful things that they would really like to share.”  said one woman who wanted to share her disillusionment.

Another women, who chose not to give her name, suggested that the real agenda had been to get increased funding for the city’s arts institutions, and unless it is tied to that local culture isn’t valued.

“There are so many interesting things happening here – take the First Gallery in Bitterne, and its as if these things happen in spite of the city rather than because of it.”  she said.

People spoke of other cities that are proud of their creative talent, and nurture them, whereas Southampton people have to move elsewhere, or find other things to do.

There was support for the feeling expressed that tourism, visitors and business interests dominated what was happening now, which – combined with the focus on the universities and arts institutions – meant that local art and culture was being bypassed yet again.

“We are never listened to. You know, we get patronised and patted on the head, and wheeled out for photo opportunities, and then fucked off.”  chipped in one of the wake organisers.

The ‘fondest memories’ of our city of culture were those things that as a city, a geographical community, or a community of interest or activity that we engage with was a view that a number of people supported.

“Despite the city, we just create things and make things, and we do it in our own little places. And that’s the good thing about it, but it would be nice to have the city acknowledge it, support it and put it in the spotlight.” complained someone who also didn’t give their name.

Around the ‘corpse’, people spoke of the many projects, facilities and initiatives that had been allowed to die in the city over the years, which had brought people together, or acted as hubs for creative activities.

People saw the city council as never being on their side, and with no-one ever taking responsibility for helping things to happen. When Harbour Lights was under threat years ago, people recalled councillors saying that Southampton wasn’t the sort of place that needed an independent cinema.

More than one person said they thought that summed up the quality of leadership in the city, and wondered what sort of vision they had. The felt that the council was far more likely to respond positively to the universities, and businesses and institutions, than it was to initiatives from local people.

There were tales of people taking ideas and initiatives to the powers that be, who always seem interested but then no-one hears anything more.

“If they aren’t interested, why don’t they say ‘No’ if that’s what they mean.” complained one of the mourners who had put a lot of effort over the years into promoting local community activities.

The City of Culture bid created the same let-downs.

“When they started recognising real people as cultural ambassadors, I grew less cynical.” one speaker – let’s call them Everlasting Optimist – said.

But the aftermath left people feeling used.

One active community champion told the group “However much we put in, and asked to be kept in touch, the answer was just ‘follow us on social media. I feel as if we’ve all been thrown away like an old dog that’s got rid of.”

“We need honesty, and transparency. And if people are following up, then they should really explain what they are doing. It makes me cross that they have got this money, and they aren’t accountable to anyone.” concluded one of the wake organisers.

“When we lost the bid, I remember asking the bid team ‘Will you in contact? Can we be involved in what the losers’ money is spent on. They reneged on that.” they continued.

“People have been stonewalled out of the follow up, which is not very cool.” said one artist who had put a lot of effort into supporting the bid.

Speakers recognised the effort that the previous Cultural Trust had made to win trust and engage people, and the extent that it had begun to immerse itself in the community’s conversations and worked to break down bureaucratic barriers.

“And then, in a puff of wind, it was all blown out. No-one asked us, and all the hundreds of hours we had spent building relationships were wasted. It just felt as if someone in power was able to just withdraw the money. It just leaves people feeling bitter.”

This was yet another speaker who wanted to remain amonymous, having put in effort over many years, over many administrations and cultural iterations with eternal hope, but who feared being frozen out, or lose access to grants in future.

The invitation stated the idea was to finally bury the city of culture initiative, in the hope that a phoenix would arise from the ashes.

The last word went to one of the city’s cultural entrepreneurs:  “I’ve always said that the scene in the city is very fragmented. We have the dough, but not the yeast. What we need is something to help pollinate across the arts mediums and the areas. Something that values its artists and the things that people do.“

Unfortunately the phoenix couldn’t take off that night. The Ferris wheel and Bungee jumps had a monopoly on the airspace, and the temperature had dropped to the point of preventing further discussion. It left people thinking what could happen next.

The participants, however, were all adamant that after being sucked in and spat out by the civic centre-led City of Culture process, the phoenix would not be arising through the ‘new’ culture trust and associates – Southampton Forward and its millions of pounds of grant funding. It has all been left to us  – again.

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