I have to admit I struggled to find the substance, at first, at yesterday’s launch of Birmingham’s Creative City initiative. It was gratifying, of course, to hear Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, talk in such glowing terms about the cultural ‘offer’ in Birmingham, and reassuring to hear Andy Street, Chairman of the LEP, acknowledge the hugely important role that the creative industries have to play in the city. And the ‘delegate pack’, too, included lots of good news: a nice brochure about the new Birmingham Library, as well as a booklet outlining a ‘vision’ for Birmingham’s new museum quarter at Curzon Square. Huge credit, incidentally, must go to Cllr Martin Mullaney, and others, for getting this initiative off the ground: a museum of contemporary art (an ‘Ikon 2’) and a space to exhibit the extensive collection of photography we have in Birmingham would hugely increase the opportunities to display art in this city.
As the panel members got up to speak, it became clearer: the launch was about inviting businesses to invest in a fund to help make initiatives like the Curzon Square Museum Quarter actually become reality and, given the involvement of the LEP, about linking cultural development to wider economic growth in the region. And crucially, there does appear to be some extra money on the table from the city council with £5m being earmarked for ‘cultural regeneration’ in the city.
This is to be welcomed, especially at a time when the huge savings that the city council is having to make mean difficult decisions are being made with regards to funding. What concerns me, however, is this: given that there were less than a dozen representatives from the ‘independent sector’ at yesterday’s launch (from a delegate list of 116 people), and much of the ‘mood music’ at the event was around cultural assets like the Symphony Hall, the Hippodrome etc, how do we ensure that this £5m gets to be evenly distributed amongst both big and small organisations? For example, one of the ideas coming out of the popular music review that my committee is conducting is for there to be a ‘development fund’ for local bands, so they can actually be paid – or ‘topped up’ – a modest amount for performing in small venues. Given the scarcity of cheap (and legal) sites to put up posters and the regulations around leafleting, it’s difficult for bands to sell tickets outside of a loyal circle of family and friends. A fund to help bands promote future gigs and help pay for rehearsal space would go a long way towards providing encouragement as much as anything else. This wouldn’t take a huge amount of money, but supporting musicians at the onset of their careers could be one of the best investments we make given the huge importance that popular music has in improving people’s perceptions of a city and sustaining jobs. Details of the £5m fund will become available next month and I hope that this is where at least part of the substance of yesterday’s event lies and that the allocation of the money will be truly representative of the whole of the cultural offer in Birmingham.