Iconic Buildings, Local Communities And Cultural Capacity Building

People ‘in the community’ often seem to have a problem with proposals for iconic cultural buildings. Could this be because they only become involved (‘consulted’) after, rather than before, ideas of this sort have been floated? Would things be different if Artists in Residence were truly just that? And would this help ‘capacity building’ for the arts, as well as physical regeneration?
What impact and ‘meaning’ should iconic cultural buildings seek to achieve in terms of cultural excellence and relevance to their local communities? And could permanently established Artists in Residences have a role in working with local people to produce iconic developments which everyone values?
Issues such as this have been much discussed in cities like Liverpool in the past few years; and if anything the debate (e.g. about Liverpool’s proposed ‘Fourth Grace’, a notion initially imposed ‘top down’ and now abandoned, which did not derive from locals and cost much in terms of time, energy and other resources) seems to be becoming more rather than less heated. Local people often do not, at least initially, like change, or ‘iconic’ buildings which may appear to be strange, or which do not appear to have a clear purpose. Yet the wider future-facing view is that regeneration and cultural development must move forward and that special / cultural buildings must be ‘different’, excellent in modern terms, if they are to be effective in their own terms.
This hiatus of understanding will not be resolved just by ‘locals’ taking a few trips to see examples of innovative iconic development elsewhere. Perhaps only a serious willingness (and ability) on the part of decision-makers, to examine what local people understand their contexts and requirements to be, will enable genuine and constructive dialogue about the future to develop.
Such a willingness and ability would require a re-emphasis even before the initial stages of proposals, away from technical considerations to a long-term commitment to the community on the part of the professionals seeking to develop landmark buildings; and it would probably therefore also require a new approach to staff training and professional skills, or possibly a new type of role, as yet undefined, for some regeneration and cultural professionals… perhaps the ideal opportunity for Artists in Residence with a broad knowledge of the issues and excellent communication skills?
Local people may find change and cultural re-emphasis more acceptable, and better understood, when there is genuine embedded involvement by regeneration leaders in community development over time. The need, for instance, to build a new concert hall or gallery will be more easily appreciated – if re / new build is genuinely a better option that the less glamorous choice of refurbishment – where there have been efforts to establish to most local people’s satisfaction that such innovation is actually necessary or practically desirable for discernable reasons. And there is always the possibility that locals might in fact have views and opinions which could actually improve what is finally proposed for development.
Cultural and regeneration professionals need to to identify and value, on an equal basis, locally-based people who are already in a position to act as ‘translators’ or go-betweens in the necessary dialogue. To have significant impact, this would require that the roles and training of those engaged to lead development be revisited, so that (a) they are more easily able to identify appropriate local people, and (b) they become comfortable in valuing what locally-based opinion leaders offer, without any feeling on the part of the developers that they are thereby under threat from others, locals in the informal setting, who also have communication and developmental skills.
Iconic choices are not just a matter of local dignitaries’ civic pride, but mean that community dialogue must actually precede proposals, not simply emerge from them. At present this rarely happens, not least because regeneration officials are frequently only brought in as the proposals begin to take shape, and much of their initial briefing will be by those who already desire the changes proposed. There are obviously cost implications, but if a more genuine engagement is to be achieved these may be inevitable.
There is a strong case for capacity / audience building for artistic and other cultural activities, which is both a necessary pre-requisite and a desired (though unfortunately not an inevitable) outcome of landmark and iconic cultural building. It would be interesting to interrogate the extent to which capacity building is influenced by physical development, and how much this is true the other way around, as well as evaluating the synergistic impact each has on the other.
In cultural contexts, the desirability of long-term on-going dialogue with local communities is yet another reason for cultural organisations in any given location to develop genuine, deep-rooted (and preferably conjoined) community programmes. As with regeneration professionals, this would require considerable training and re-emphasis of role within cultural institutions if it were to have substantial and sustainable impact. The nature of the work which needs to be done is probably at present not fully appreciated.

Posted on October 13, 2005, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Equality, Diversity And Inclusion, Liverpool And Merseyside, Politics, Policies And Process, The Journal. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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