Energy Cities and Cultural Development

Walk Among The Worlds by Maximo Gomez. Photo: Alain Sojourner

Walk Among The Worlds by Maximo Gomez. Photo: Alain Sojourner

We’ve never been to a conference on the cultural and creative industries at a University that didn’t have someone providing a theoretical critique of the subject. On 1st October Robert Gordon University and the City of Aberdeen co-hosted an event which drew on the experiences of other energy capitals to understand cultural and creative industries development. Pacem critique, this was a morning full of insight into the sorts of strategies, policies and actions that make a difference to cities and see the arts thrive as part of their communities. It benefited from specific experience of being a European Capital of Culture (something Aberdeen aspires to) and it was a good renewal of the process of building a culture and arts development agenda for Aberdeen.

The subtitle was ‘Global Energy Cities and Cultural Illumination’ but the real point is that Energy Cities with strong industrial stories have specific challenges not answered by the narrative of post industrial regeneration.

Jon Price, Chris Fremantle and Mark Hope were amongst a number of researchers and research partners from or associated with Gray’s School of Art (part of the Robert Gordon University) attending the conference. These notes and comments are an immediate response to the presentations from the four cities represented.

Chris Fremantle notes: if you want to cut to the chase – Calgary demonstrates a stand out participatory approach to cultural planning; Stavanger offers some really significant lessons on being a European Capital of Culture and Houston is doing some really solid work to make sure that it’s arts and culture sector is robust and effective. But let’s start with Toronto.

Sally Han from Toronto kicked off with a history of artists in the 60s beginning to be interested in telling their stories of their place and how through a sequence of capital investments the cultural infrastructure of the city had been built up. She also highlighted the importance of city support for reuse of civic buildings to support arts infrastructure.

Toronto in particular addressed the issue of buildings for the arts, creative and cultural practitioners (through Artscape which recycles public buildings for cultural tenants). This is a challenge in particular for Aberdeen where the cost of property is very high. Scotland has a very strong keystone organisation in WASPS, but I’m not sure they’ve ever been asked to look at Aberdeen in terms not merely of studios, but of accommodation as well, and I’m not sure the City has accepted the significance of the issue. Whilst it didn’t come up in the conference, the Houston organisation Project Row Houses offers lessons that might be relevant given that any initiative in Aberdeen is going to be in a serious regeneration context where generating real social as well as cultural value will be vital.

Han highlighted the impact of careful selection of keystone tenants to create synergies (an international festival with a youth focused street arts programme). Really clear messaging was at the heart of her advice – there has to be a genuine commitment to a consistent message (an elevator pitch that everyone buys into). The target over several years has been a local government investment of $25 per capita into arts and culture. The increase this represents has been achieved through a local Billboard Tax. The argument was that this would mean that the City could support young up and coming work without having to compromise its commitment to its long-standing cultural institutions.

Patti Pon from Calgary described herself as a ‘fierce’ advocate for the arts and being focused on “City building through arts development”. She wasn’t afraid to speak about investment, you put something in and you get something back (you change energy from one form to another, but the amount of it doesn’t change). Investment in the arts creates a return and the evidence suggests that ranges from $7-$17 for every dollar invested.

Patti also argued that whilst the arts might learn from business in terms of bottom line, there are things that business can learn from the arts as well. In particular she highlighted the way that a group of theatre people can go into an empty room and come out three weeks later with a piece which they then perform to an audience who each night experience it as something new. She offered this as a realistic articulation of innovation and creativity which businesses could learn from. In discussion afterwards she cited the influence of EMC Arts in NYC on their thinking about innovation.

Following a failed bureaucrat led bid for Canadian City of Culture, Calgary’s cultural plan was developed through a strong participatory process. They selected a self identified sample of Calgarians (the Circle of 100) who all signed up to the statement “I believe Calgary should be a cultural capital.” The aim of this was to get out of the “echo chamber” of hearing the things we want to hear. There is a continuing process involving signing up to the value of culture.

We also had an excellent example of building synergies. The Calgary Hotels Association sponsors a “remarkable experience accelerator programme.” They don’t fund shows. Rather they support consistency and continuity in the arts and culture sector. They recognise that however good their bedrooms are, visitors photograph cultural events in the City – that’s where the experiences that are remarked upon at home take place. And it’s the ability of organisations to deliver year in year out that matters, not any one event.

Rolf Noras started as Cultural Director in Stavanger in 1997 and led the City into, through and out the other side of being European City of Culture in 2008 (in parallel with Liverpool). He offered some strong conceptual frames such as “a bridge between tangible and intangible energy.” He also offered a strong conceptual driver from Goran Cars, “where people used to move for work, now businesses move to interesting and cultural cities.”

Noras rehearsed his reflections on Stavanger’s experience of being European Capital of Culture. Some of his headlines were:

Build a programme that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Develop creative partnerships with international artists (they all have to commit to staying a month and in addition to doing a programme of performances, they also have to do lectures and workshops – this builds long term sustainable relationships with local practitioners). Balance local and international. Focus on public participation. Have a strong platform for communications. The year after being Capital of Culture is more important than the year itself – you need an afterglow fund. Distinguish between short term and long term effects. Commit to external evaluation. Dare to provoke, be different, bold, surprising and unique. If everything is successful then you have failed because you haven’t taken risks.

There is a danger of these sorts of lists because they go from description to prescription, bypassing explanation (thank you Melehat Nil Gulari for that useful test), but Noras’ analysis is not merely based on his own description of leading Stavanger through this experience, but he has also taken a sabbatical resulting in the publication of research on 12 Capitals of Culture entitled, “What would you do differently if you knew now what you know now?”

The final presentation of the morning was from Richard Graber from Houston Alliance for the Arts. This presentation really went into the nitty gritty of how an City arts development programme (of course set up as an independent agency) can make arts organisations look more attractive to investors.

HAA has ten core granting programmes, acts as a producer as well as grant maker, and is accountable to local representatives (to the extent of having a specific grant programme driven by them and their local agendas).

But the nitty gritty is:

HAA commissions key statistics on a regular basis – on arts and prosperity, on the creative economy, and on cultural participation. These empower everyone.

HAA has a number of structures to support collaboration including a database co-operative consolidating the mailing lists of the cultural organisations generating a sufficiently large sample and understanding of patterns of attendance (loyalists, loyalist samplers, dabblers and cultural omnivores). You need to understand your audiences really well to genuinely grow attendances.

They also do a regular community mapping exercise to see where arts and cultural organisations are engaged based on grant reports.

Finally a crowdfunding website (power2give) encouraging arts and cultural organisations to develop grant proposals into really strong public facing pitches, with HAA matching public donations dollar for dollar.

Then there is their capacity building programme. This has a focus on Money, Management, PR + Marketing, Systems (eg HR). It operates at four levels: Pre-Incubator (startups); Resident Incubator (scale-shift); Accelerator (orgs up to $750k turnover) and Sustainability (orgs over $750k).

This is based on the model offered in Non-profit Lifecycles: Stage Based Wisdom by Dr Susan Kenny Stevens.

In parallel there are Board Development and Financial Literacy programmes.

Scotland has strengths in these areas with both Arts & Business Scotland and Cultural Enterprise Office having strong track records and well evolved programmes.

Jon Price adds: There were many words of wisdom in the presentations but the question for Aberdeen is how applicable any of these models are to the situation here, and whether either the sector or the authorities have the capacity to respond on a meaningful scale.

The conference was attempting to inform two immediate local issues: how do we move on constructively from the failed capital of culture bid (as a city); and how do we respond to the challenge articulated in the University’s ‘new north’ document around cultural narrative (as a region)?

I did wonder how the lessons from Stavanger, about how to be a capital of culture and how to create the ‘afterglow’, could be useful to a city struggling with not actually being a capital of culture. But I think the principle of creating a programme which couldn’t happen elsewhere – that’s responsive to the landscape or other aspects of the situation – is pretty key to anything that might emerge, and obviously relates to the idea of a cultural narrative.

An underlying question, both in terms of the city and the ‘new north’, is the relationship of public and voluntary sectors to business. All the presentations showed how that had been developed very effectively in their own places, but without it being reduced to just ‘how do we get more money out of business’. That may ultimately happen, but I don’t think it’s achieved by heading straight for that as a target. What seemed to be more useful was having a tangible ambition for the sector, whether the $25 spend or becoming a capital of culture. In each case there was a sense that the arts sector had to get its act together locally in the first instance. Investment was a key word and the arts have to articulate what the return on that investment is going to be, and also who you talk to about it.

An obvious feature of the American and Canadian models is that they’d had to establish these independent arts trusts so as to have a conduit for funding. Paul Harris (ex-Head of Gray’s School of Art) has mentioned doing something similar – creating a super fund to which businesses eventually contribute – but I think there is a debate to be had as to whether that model is feasible or even desirable in the context here, with the different public sector organisations that we have and with the different scale of Aberdeen or even Aberdeenshire compared to these huge cities. Houston’s cultural sector has evolved a substantial infrastructure of boards and administrative committees alongisde its multiple grant programmes. It’s clearly highly organised but the complexity looked entirely disproportionate to what might be required here. What is certain is that the sector needs a coherent internal and external communication process, which requires some level of co-ordination. A cultural trust is another and much further step.

I noticed that the two Canadian cities had both developed a Nuit Blanche event (pictured) as part of the process of galvanising their partners. These had also helped demonstrate the tourism potential of culture. There’s obviously value to local arts sectors working collaboratively on a tangible, highly visible activity. Maybe to some extent Aberdeen’s festivals already serve this purpose (more discussion needed?), but it might be worth looking further at how those particular events have functioned in Calgary and Toronto.

Mark Hope, Director of the Board of Woodend Barn, Banchory and long standing partner with On The Edge, comments: I was struck by the enthusiasm that was apparent in all 4 cities from both their business communities and their City ‘authorities’ (as well as their arts communities, but that is no surprise). Great care and much hard work had been done in every case but very little of that effort seemed to have been spent justifying the value of culture and the arts. It seemed as if this was obvious to enough key people in these cities that everyone’s energy could be directed towards creating the appropriate events/networks/communications/resources and then follow-through to deliver something special and enduring.

It does not feel like that in Aberdeen City or Aberdeenshire even though the “7 to 17 fold” return on investment mentioned by Patti Pon is mirrored here – 13 – 16 fold was the estimate for Aberdeenshire three years ago, based upon latest Council figures – see excerpt below and attachment.

I enjoyed the day although I would have valued time for Q&As and panel discussions with the invited speakers. Perhaps more importantly, I hope the speakers spent the previous day meeting with City and Shire Councillors and senior officials in economic development and other departments apart in addition to culture/arts; not to mention business leaders who seemed very under-represented at the conference. These are the people who really needed to hear the presentations – my impression was that most of us in the room were already converted.

extract from Aberdeenshire – Investing in Arts & Culture, May 2011
To summarise, we know that creative and cultural activities by volunteer-led organisations benefited the Aberdeenshire economy by at least£2.6 million in 2009 in addition to enhancing the quality of life of nearly200,000 users. Council grants to these organisations totalled £194,600, so every Council £1 was directly leveraged by at least 1,344%.  This excludes any account of volunteer time and excludes indirect economic and social benefits which are probably much greater than the direct benefits.  For capital investment, Aberdeenshire Council grants were leveraged by over 1,600%.


  1. How do we catalyze the energy from the conference in order to move forward?

    Thanks both for summarizing the day so well. I agree with Jon that the nature of the relationships between the public and private sector is a narrative that ran through each presentation and offers a range of models for discussion. This leads to considering the context and history of the relationships that already exist between local authority and independent cultural activities. Not just organizational, but also uncovering the details of the ‘cultural narratives’ sought in one of the afternoon workshops. The question this poses is how is a larger narrative developed that moves in time with the live culture of a place as it evolves, is changing, forming on a daily basis. What answers, or further questions, do we have as a research community to develop an exciting conversation like this?

    Each energy city offered some great ideas that act as starting points. However, they are all examples of their time – including the years of planning they span. My research with Woodend Barn has revealed similar approaches to the relationships between a community and those they seek to work with as the Finnish model. This includes developing long-term relationships between an organization, its aims as they evolve, and the creative practitioners they choose to work with. Over time this builds a depth of trust and new, shared knowledge that has the possibility to shape collective cultural narratives in a meaningful way. This is just one way of working, but it shifts the nature of the relationship between the ‘public’ and what we refer to as the public sector. It can re-energize the debate about the power relationship between the citizen tax-payers as the ‘public’ who are also the beneficiaries – audiences, participants and makers of the culture we are attempting to honor. I noticed in the Toronto model the regular use of the phrase ‘the arts community lobbied the government until it happened.’ The billboard tax for example was won in this way. Is this likely to happen here?

    Personally I think the dynamic relationship between the narratives of the city and the shire is a unique and potentially rich cultural characteristic. It opens up conversations that future inquisitive guests to the region would find interesting. An example would be discovering the story of the newly propagated Banchory lavender at the Cruikshank botanical gardens and then not traveling out to Banchory to Woodend Barn walled garden and archive of the plants local and fascinating history. It seems counter productive to draw boundaries around culture.

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