A landscape for imagination

Art and culture can imbue a sense of place and inspire ambition but such achievements have to be delivered and defended. Jude Kelly, artistic director at the Southbank Centre, argues that local authorities should have confidence in their ability to offer leadership as well as management

Southbank undercroft
Grafitti artist in the Southbank Centre undercroft


Southbank Centre
The Southbank Centre balcony


Anthony Gormley on the Southbank
Anthony Gormley on the Southbank Centre

Southbank undercroft
Riding the Southbank Centre

I think that it is fitting that Southbank Centre occupies the site of the Festival of Britain. The modern Southbank Centre now provides 21 acres of public space in the centre of London, but it was the Festival of Britain over half a century ago that confirmed the notion of public space as a democratic principle. The festival demonstrated the right to inhabit public space for different purposes and it established that one of the most important purposes was for the delight and pleasure of culture.

Culture of many kinds can make a place feel positive, vibrant and inclusive. In small community environments, the places we use to pursue various aspects of our lives – the faith space, the eating space, the playing space, the education space – are all so near that they are allowed to overlap and merge. In large conurbations these places get split up and we go to school in one place, work in another and practise our faith in another. This can also mean that the natural environment to enjoy culture tends to get split up into ‘the art gallery’ or ‘the theatre’.

There is a desire in modern society not only to have these very specific and bespoke purpose-built spaces but also to have opportunities to congregate on a larger scale. We are, after all, social animals and we need places where we can enjoy being together. We need community and within a community you need culture. At the Battersea Arts Centre and the West Yorkshire Playhouse I realised that the cultural space provided a catalyst for other agendas – a safe place in which quite difficult things could be debated and discussed. I began to understand that the arts can provide a place that is about celebration and entertainment but also about investigation.

In recognising the great potential for people to share and enjoy their differences, one has also to recognise the entire spectrum of interaction: from the simple sense of joy in social dancing through to the avant garde, the complex and the difficult to understand. For many leaders who are taking responsibility for our cultural spaces, particularly in a civic context through our local authorities and the regional and national agencies, there is a dilemma of providing pleasure for the many while protecting the individual voice. There is also the question of how one provides access to people’s rightful cultural heritage and how one gives people the information and the confidence to be curious, the ability and the right to decide whether they like something or not.

In the face of challenging cultural content it can be difficult for leaders to hold their ground but they must have confidence in the achievements of culture. A hundred years ago there may well have been great debate regarding whether universal free education was appropriate but now no local authority could say they are in two minds about education and its worth. The same commitment to culture has to be made by local authority leaders. There is clear evidence that the opportunity to express and be expressive, to be culturally engaged and to be able to make a cultural contribution is fundamental to the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

The millions of people involved in cultural production, whether amateur or professional, occasional contributor or prolific performer, clearly illustrate that culture is very much part of the modern mainstream. Politicians and local authorities need to acknowledge this and there is growing evidence a great many are prepared to make this case. Many regeneration schemes now have culture as a focal point and serve as good illustrations that regeneration is not just a question of buildings and economics. Regeneration is also about a sense of spirit, the generation of the new voices, new ideas, energy and creative expression. These are the things that create sustainable communities and they are also the things that create interesting places.

Culture, like education, is a method of releasing the potential of the individual and, in the same way that education helps people in prison or social exclusion, the arts work to enliven the imagination, the sense of possibility, the sense of curiosity. I do not think there can be too many claims for education or too many claims for the arts. It is ultimately a question of whether leaders in a local authority framework are prepared to recognise that while bricks and mortar, fiscal return and provision is a set of foundations from which humans can live their lives, when they start living their lives fully they want to find ways of expressing – or looking at how others have expressed – what living means.

This is where one begins to see that art for art’s sake has a huge meaning. While you may not be able to produce the figures to demonstrate and quantify the good that a Bob Dylan album has done, we can all recognise that the world without Bob Dylan, without Bob Marley, without Mozart, without novels, without poetry would be an unimaginably poorer place. Is it a local authority’s role to keep putting these things in front of people, to demonstrate and preserve the things that we have achieved together as human beings? I would say it is. This is the local authority’s role of leadership and this is the difference between leadership and management.

Cultural leaders should be confident in culture’s properties of life enhancement and confident that the language of culture has its place in modern social and political debate. Leadership is about acknowledging that you have a 360-degree relationship with the people on whose behalf you are delivering services and, while you have to acknowledge that people need delivery, they also need to feel that a local authority is interested in the issues of wellbeing. Local authorities need to remember that there are very few places to which ordinary people can look for support and that not all the support they want is financial – they want to feel believed in and cared for, they want to feel witnessed. To miss out that aspect of language is cowardly.

At Southbank Centre we have been able to demonstrate the important physicality of cultural space. I like to think of this place as similar to a thriving port city, where the excitement comes from the different and the unexpected, where not everyone is the same. Here we have the skateboarder mixing with the classical musician and both are able to make the space work. Southbank Centre welcomes everyone who wants to make use of it, to include rather than exclude. I think this approach has been successful; I do not think it is helpful for people to enjoy being separate from others, to secure their status by making others feel excluded.

It is unrealistic to suppose that everybody can use the same space at the same time without some element of conflict or without each person who chooses to use the space being respectful of the things that make social spaces pleasant. On the south bank the skaters have had problems with the graffiti artists using the same area. An audience going into a Rachmaninov concert may not wish to hear jazz in the foyer as they arrive. However, these problems require mediation and sensitivity but they are not insurmountable and ultimately the different interests and cultural expressions make for a much more valuable and enjoyable shared space. Around the country we have neighbourhoods that have evolved over time with the influences of various communities. While we know that communities need to build cohesion to be successful, we also know that they work best when they are not ghettoised. Culture is a way of removing the ghetto.

Local authorities must also guard against a tendency to ghettoise culture and the arts within their own structures. With the messages of cultural achievement increasingly articulated and understood, we need more people with a background in cultural practice working in local authorities to bring these issues into the mainstream of public service thinking.

So much good practice has come out of local authorities across the UK that the public sector should have confidence in its ability to deliver and defend the benefits of culture. Newcastle, Gateshead, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and many others have already demonstrated what is possible if you recognise the need for accountability while being prepared to stand up for what you believe in, take a few risks and have faith in people.


Judy Kelly OBE joined the Southbank Centre as artistic director in September 2005 and is responsible for creating a unified artistic vision for the whole 21-acre site. She made her name as artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre in the 1980s establishing it as a national venue. In 1986 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company before becoming the first Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP) in Leeds.

This article was originally published in Inspiring our ambitions: sport, art, culture and place, edited by Derrick Anderson and Martyn Allison (SFI, May 2007). The SOLACE Foundation Imprint (SFI) was launched in October 2005. Electronic versions of the booklets that have been published to date can be downloaded from www.sfi.uk.com. Hard copies of each edition are distributed with the Guardian’s Public magazine.



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