A plea from local artist Martin Adams as Waltham Forest prepares to become London Borough of Culture 2019
Ten years ago local artists and residents were fighting Waltham Forest Council over the closure of the William Morris Gallery. This year we have won the race to become the first ever London Borough of Culture – quite a change!
We’ve gone from fighting council cuts to museum services to realising how important culture is. But if we are to be a real borough of culture we should look at what culture really means and has meant to the borough in the past; we have a long proud history that has built, and seen demolished, lots of cultural initiatives.
Over the years we have been home to the South West Essex Choir, Forest Philharmonic, The Essex Art Club, Walthamstow School of Art, The Educational Settlement, Forest Poets, The Arts Club, and many more organisations big and small dealing with all aspects of art and culture.
What enabled them to thrive was an environment where rooms and halls were available at reasonable prices, adult education was valued, studio units were readily available, and artists were valued.
For the council to be taken seriously by artists ahead of the Borough of Culture, it needs to start rebuilding the cultural infrastructure and valuing local artists properly. It needs to rebuild the social housing stock and stop letting the developers run amok – you cannot make use of culture if you have nowhere to live or are struggling to survive. Most importantly, the council needs to learn the difference between entertainment and culture; any gardener will tell you to prepare your soil if you wish to grow good crops, and that pictures of crops will not feed you.
To be of real benefit to artists, the culture of our borough needs to be revitalised from the bottom up. If the council will not run youth clubs, it should make available grants or room hire for those that will. We have some of the best acoustics of any hall in the country at Walthamstow Assembly Rooms, but it is unaffordable (except it seems for big weddings) and needs to be brought back into proper use. Hoe Street Central and the Winns Gallery are both difficult and too expensive to hire because they are not seen as important, but they are the only available gallery spaces.
When the council hires local artists it often fails to pay them properly, and I’ve even known one whose work was ripped off – please start valuing them. Council procedures for payment are arcane and should be simplified and sped up, waiting months for money owed is disgraceful. At the same time big outside names are often brought in and paid large amounts of money for ‘prestige’ projects that have the council’s name attached.
We have new studio projects run by and filled with people from all over London, while locally-sourced and run projects struggle. We have murals where once we had studios.
As was stated by the group campaigning to save the William Morris Gallery ten years ago: “It soon became clear that these cuts were only part of the plan by the council to whittle away the cultural infrastructure of the borough; libraries, meeting halls, adult education and many more aspects of culture were under threat.”
This is where the council should start; build an environment where local artists and initiatives can thrive.
To find out more about London Borough of Culture 2019: