The proposed Town Centre Festival for July next year being funded by Croydon Council poses both dilemmas and opportunities for grass roots cultural activists.
At the Croydon Arts Network get together at Matthews Yard on Thursday 13 November, John Bownas outlined his role as the Council’s Festival organiser with a budget of £100,000.
Some attending thought that rather than have a Town Centre Festival the money should be put into the community initiated local festivals like Purley and South Norwood. On the other hand it was noted that many people in different parts of the Borough will be prepared to go to the Town Centre, but not to local Festivals in elsewhere. The local Festivals should continue to grow organically.
It was noted that the Festival is a one-off event being funded from the surplus at the end of the 2013/14 financial year, the same pot that funded the free swimming in the summer and the extra money to Upper Norwood Library. However, there was concern about the potential budget impact on the local festivals, and this needs clarifying.
John explained that his aim is to attract big names from outside Croydon to show that Croydon is a place to come to. The Festival will not be named ‘Croydon’ but the title will not be announced yet.
Top-down Decision Making
Concern was expressed about the top-down nature of the political decisions to have the Festival, the lack of a steering group for it, and the declaration of the Cultural Quarter. The Quarter starts from opposite East Croydon Station and includes Croydon College and the Fairfield Halls, Queens Gardens, Braithwaite Hall, the Spread Eagle, Matthews Yard, Exchange Square and the Minster.
Festival as Opportunity
I suggested that whatever the reservations about the top-down political decision making (which needs to be continually challenged), the Festival can test the viability of the part of the Town Centre covered by the Cultural Quarter. The regeneration of the Town Centre cannot wait on the Westfield/Hammerson development which is now going to start and finish a year late. If the cultural initiatives do not work then we will see the re-closure of the excellent venue of the Braithwaite Hall and the closure of Matthews Yard (because it will cease to be economically viable). Therefore it is important to ensure that the Festival is a success.
£100,000 is not a substantial budget for a Festival to be held over 4 days. Obviously many events can be charged for, although free events will also be needed for the benefit of those with limited budgets. John spoke about the possibilities of sponsorship, but there will be many who will be worried if Westfield and Hammerson and other Town Centre developers become sponsors.
The Problem of Attracting Audiences
John explained how he is using the Croydon Culture facebook to publicise events, which are now being fed into The Croydon Advertiser, and his hope to produce a brochure of all the cultural events in Croydon. He was urged to use the Just Croydon site as well.
There was a discussion about cultural activities as ‘businesses’. They need to attract audiences to cover their costs. Artists, venues and equipment etc have to be paid for. A passionate defence of the wider non-business value of cultural activities was made.
Croydon faces two problems. Firstly, the negative image it has so that artists and audiences are not prepared to come into the Borough. Secondly, the problem of audiences. The continued problem of small audiences at many events at Fairfield Halls was a reminder of the fact that this was one of the issues that led to the South Croydon Community Association’s initiative to discuss the future of the Halls that in turn led to the setting up of the Arts Network.
John stressed that audiences will come to events that people want to go to. But they cannot be expected to attend those they are not interested in. This was challenged by the argument that the narrowing of what is put on to meet the vagaries of public taste will be at the expense of minority and more challenging events.
It was pointed out that a number of venues in the Town Centre had closed or stopped running cultural events, that appropriate venues were a problem for many people organising events or see themselves as promoters.
Limitations of Social Media
The potential emphasis on the current way in which social media is used raises concerns about it as major mechanism to grow culture in the Town. There are large numbers of people not on social media. The absence of ethnic groups at the meeting and the above average age of those attending illustrate the problems of engaging younger people and those from different cultures. It is obvious that to get a younger crowd interested other, more up to date routes must be sought by the Arts in Croydon and this Festival in particular.
The dilemma facing the Network is that it has not developed in the same way as TechCity whose monthly meetings encourage people to come. The Just Croydon website needs some tweeking so that those registered on it are alerted to what is being posted up on it, rather than simply being alerted to individuals or organisations being followed.
Small venues and street based activity
While John can work with promoters and Fairfield Halls and Croydon College managements to attract big names to encourage Croydonians and people from outside Croydon to come to the Town Centre, the real challenge is going to be how to put on programmes of events in the smaller venues: e.g. Bernard Weatherill House community spaces, Braithwaite Hall, Spread Eagle and Matthews Yard. Can these be utilised throughout the day?
Then there is the need for street based activities, and the use of open spaces like Queens Gardens and Exchange Square, and the combined use of open space and the church in the Minster area. Cultural activities will need to be seen in their widest definition, including heritage. People should be able to move through the Cultural Quarter area from one event to another and back again. Some events, like indoor theatre and film, should be repeated at different times of the day. Whether Park Hill Park whose Friends are planning festivals should be included as an open space was also discussed.
The mural initiative of RISE gallery needs to be a key feature of making the walk through the Cultural Quarter a discovery experience.
The Festival is therefore a high risk venture, but one well worth trying to make successful. Even though the Council is unlikely to have any money to fund culture from 1 April 2015 because of the next round of cuts it is expected to make by the ConDem Government, success will encourage it to find non-financial ways in which it can support cultural developments.
John has a personal track record of festival organisation, including involvement in past years at Glastonbury, and has a very down to earth common sense approach. It is to be hoped that he will be allowed to be innovative, flexible, develop ways to have a continual dialogue to shape the Festival so that organisations and individuals want to take part, and not be subject to political interference. His emphasis on music however is a concern for those involved in other types of cultural activity.
People with Technical Expertise
There is a group of Croydon residents who do not appear to be linked into the Arts or other networks: those working in event organisation, in promotion and in technical support like lighting and sound. The technical teams working on the Kate Bush show, for example, included two Croydon residents. Ways need to be found to identify them and discuss with them what contribution they may wish to make.
The Transport Problem
The problems of transport into and out of Croydon Town Centre could make or break the Festival. The Council will need to negotiate with Network Rail and the train companies not to have any works affecting trains coming into East and West Croydon, and a moratorium (apart from emergencies) on any street works that will adversely affect the time it takes to get into the Town Centre by bus.
The Council’s small grants programme was drawn attention to, and those attending urged to look to funding from organisations like the Arts Council given that the report to Scrutiny Committee shows a low level of funding into the Borough from such sources.
More about John Bownas
John was interviewed about the Festival by Croydon Advertiser:
You can find more about his background experience at:
You can see his slide show ‘Press Release. Getting Your Story Told’ at