Shining a light on Waltham Forest

The new Borough of Culture creative director talks to James Cracknell about his hopes for 2019

Sam Hunt

Sam Hunt, the new creative director for London Borough of Culture 2019, previously led the UK City of Culture celebrations in Hull

When Sam Hunt was unveiled by Waltham Forest Council in June as creative director for the inaugural London Borough of Culture, he described the borough as being home to “radical artists and cultural provocateurs” and of boasting “globally significant cultural heritage”.

Sam previously led the creative programme for Hull’s year as City of Culture in 2017. But if Waltham Forest is already so culturally vibrant, I ask, what is the purpose of it being London Borough of Culture?

Says Sam: “In Hull I saw the impact a project can have on a place, the feeling it gives, and the tangible benefits it can have on an area.

“This is an exciting and unique opportunity. This is the first London Borough of Culture, so we can define what that means. Waltham Forest is very different to Hull – we have a fluid community. It is so fluid and so transient, yet it has this history of culture.

“I want to make sure people are not left behind. This is going to be created by and for the community, not just an arts programme brought in and foisted on people.

“The point of it is getting people to love where they call home. We want Waltham Forest to be recognised as a cultural destination and shine a light on the incredible vibrant community here.”

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan launched the Borough of Culture initiative just over a year ago, after being inspired by the European Capital of Culture and UK City of Culture programmes. He invited the capital’s 32 local councils to bid for the award and said a winner would be chosen “based on their artistic vision and ambition to deliver outstanding cultural initiatives”.

Council leader Clare Coghill leapt at the opportunity and launched Waltham Forest’s bid at last year’s Walthamstow Garden Party. The council’s bid won widespread support and made Waltham Forest clear favourites to win – which, in February, they did.

“Part of the reason Waltham Forest won this is because the council has consistently invested in arts and culture,” explains Sam. “But how do we take that, and enable the community to self-organise?”

In the Echo in April local artist Martin Adams questioned this investment and made an impassioned plea to the council to use this new opportunity to “start rebuilding our cultural infrastructure” – making venues affordable and accessible.

“There will be direct funding for artists and we will be increasing the amount of quality work made by and for artists in the borough,” continues Sam. “But there needs to be a shift in the role of the council – it needs to become an enabler rather than a creator.

“We need to self-organise and create a programme that has until now been created by the council and consumed by the public.

“This is not a cynical appropriation of the artists of Waltham Forest. The process is just as important as the product – we don’t want the rug to be pulled out after 2019.”

Arts education and career opportunities for young people will play a central part, says Sam.

“Our professional development programme will create a pathway to give people opportunities for careers in arts and culture. If you build in enough opportunities, the legacy will take care of itself.

“This is an unheard of opportunity for this borough; the investment of about £5m and an economic impact that will be far more. We are going to be creating something that everyone will be part of – and a celebration of a great place to live.”

One of the specific goals of Waltham Forest’s bid was to ensure that “85 per cent of households in the borough” take part in cultural activities during 2019. Is this realistic?

“The core tenets of the bid are going to remain,” says Sam. “There will be a big launch event and we will announce a process of how people can be involved.

“We are being quite canny to make sure we carve a niche in the wider cultural scene, from the artists to the audience. This is a London borough of culture and we need to make our mark.”

Sam is originally from rural Cumbria but made the decision to move to Waltham Forest as soon as he was appointed to his new role.

“I moved to Walthamstow Village. You can’t do something like this without living here, to get to understand the area. You need to have integrity.”

How familiar is Sam with the borough?

“I knew quite a bit about Waltham Forest [before taking this job] – it turns out my great-great-grandfather is buried in Epping Forest. I also have family in Mile End and I have a working knowledge of outer London from working in Croydon.

“In other projects I have had a year to get to know a place and I don’t have that here – it’s just six months – but I am amazed. Walthamstow Wetlands has become a favourite place of mine. Then you go to Chingford and within a couple of minutes you’re in Epping Forest. Geographically this is a very interesting place.”

And what has Sam spent his time doing since his appointment?

“So far it has been a whirlwind of meetings. Today I was at The Mill, which is a fantastic place. I am trying to get my face shown around but I am also creating a team that will deliver on the promises we made in the bid.”

There will not be enough money available from the London Borough of Culture award to start building or refurbishing arts venues in Waltham Forest, but Sam says it is about showing people there’s a demand for such places.

“Other places have used arts as a tool for regeneration, whereas here you have already got this incredible community of artists and makers – this is about amplifying that and showing it is here. It is about enabling that message as well as putting on a kick-ass arts programme. It makes it very exciting and celebratory.

“Hull got £32m and none of it was for infrastructure, but now they’re opening an arena. This is once-in-a-lifetime for a borough to have that spotlight shone on it.”

And what of that “kick-ass” arts programme? A full announcement is set to follow in September, but the council has already begun promoting a “spectacular laser installation” in Epping Forest, a “Hitchcock themed festival” in Leytonstone, and a “waist-high carpet of 50,000 solar-powered light molecules” in Walthamstow Marshes.

For Sam and for Waltham Forest, 2019 is going to be illuminating.

For more information on London Borough of Culture 2019: