Special post 3: Festivals and urban cultural policy: Some meditations on the literature

Okay, so apologies for another long break from posting – I’ve been in Sydney, interviewing the Sydney Festival’s Lindy Hume for Meanjin Quarterly and aso catching up with my colleagues at the University of Western Sydney and NewMatilda.com.

I’m going to make it up to you all today with a long post on the literature of urban cultural policy as it relates to festivals.  This will be the final post in my “special series” on academic festivals literature, which has been a lot of fun to read up on. It’s another fascinating area of the knowledge base, and while I could spend days delving into it, I am going to discuss the literature in general before examining a couple of specific papers.

Firstly, to a review of the literature. The best general review in this field is by the Centre for Creative Industries and Innovation‘s Justin O’Connor, whose fine monograph The Cultural and Creative Industries: A Review of the Literature (amazingly, freely available online) contains a very helpful chapter on the “creative cities” topic.

Drawing from this review, we can begin with Sharon Zukin’s Loft Living. Perhaps the paradigm exploration of the “artists move in to decrepit industrial suburb, make it cool, then get forced out by gentrification and obnoxious yuppies” meme, Zukin’s book in many ways sets the scene for the early 2000’s literature spear-headed by Landry,  Leadbeater and Florida. O’Connor offers up one of the best one-line summations of Florida’s thesis, by the way, with this withering bon mot: “Though thick with statistics, Florida’s book is marked by an absence of any empirical investigation into what is, in fact, only very circumstantial evidence.” Zing.

Other important work in this vast field include the complex and generally only poorly-understood work of “informaitonal city” guru Manuel Castells (check out this fat reader which collects his urban sociology writings), the charming and influential Art Worlds by Howard Becker, and the (I think) quite impressive and relevant work of Allen J. Scott. It’s worth quoting O’Connor in some detail here:

[The] close connections between the clustering of cultural industries and urbanity itself [were] … an intrinsic part of that ‘rediscovery’ of the City which took place in the 1980s and 1990s. The ‘network society’ was predicated on the growth of key nodal points which controlled and directed global flows (Castells, 1996). Cities were now the new economic powerhouses built on the ability to process knowledge and manipulate symbols. A literature on global or world cities followed, marking the re-emergence of the usual suspects – New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Hong Kong – plus a few new ones and leaving space for a range of second and third tier cities plugged into the new global infrastructure of flows (Sassen, 1991).

These different currents flowed together to generate a current of reform and transformation of city life. This certainly applies to those developing a cultural industries policy discourse; most cultural consultants were deeply concerned with ‘the art of city making’ (Landry, 2000; 2006) and involved in projects around cultural venues and quarters, street markets, alternative retail, new forms of public art and signage, urban landscaping, architectural and larger scale regeneration projects, and campaigns such as the ‘24 hour city’. This represented a coalition for urban transformation that drew on a European tradition rather than the real-estate driven model coming from the US (Bianchini and Parkinson, 1993). It stressed public space – in its widest sense – and how urban design as democratic planning and contemporary aesthetics might provide the basis for a new popular urban vision. It looked to Barcelona rather than Boston, Montpellier rather than Philadelphia. From our point of view however it needs to be emphasised that the cultural industries themselves were also part of this (very loose) urban coalition and their links to the City are not just economic but cultural – and to an extent not frequently recognised – ethical and political.

Festivals pop up in this literature in a couple of ways. The first is in the sense of postmodernist analyses which see festivals as a special part of an urban fabric, for instance in the Bakhtinian sense of a carnivalesque, Rabelaisian frolic. Charles Taylor, interestingly, has a fascinating discussion of this point in A Secular Age. This postmodernist sense of festivals as special moments in the life of the city also pops up in a number of the 20th century’s key thinkers, for example Benjamin in his idea of jezt-zeit and of course Debord in his idea of the “spectacle”, and you can see this sense of the festival reflected in Landry and Bianchini’s influential book The Creative City, where they write:

our deepest feelings about the city are at the moment expressed only on special occassions, such as carnivals and festivals, which are clearly spearated from “normal” activities.

But the main theoretical lens through which festivals have come to be viewed, at least in the urban policy sense, is economic, specifically around the idea of urban regeneration and that nebulous word ‘clusters’.

Here we can turn to Hans Mommass, whose paper “Cultural Clusters and the Post-industrial City: Towards the Remapping of Urban Cultural Policy” was published in 2004 in the journal Urban Studies [Vol. 41, No. 3, 507–532, March 2004] and has been helpfully posted online as a PDF here.  In his paper, Mommass remarks:

… cultural clustering strategies represent a next stage in the on-going use of culture and the arts as urban regeneration resources. In earlier periods, this predominantly involved the creation of big statements and flagship projects, from the Grand Projects in Paris to the emblematic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Today, with all major cities having developed their own spectacular festival agendas and (re-)opened their flashy museums and theatre complexes, the regeneration-through-culture agenda has moved to a higher level. Here, we see a shift from a policy aimed at organising occasions for spectacular consumption, to a more fine-tuned policy, also aimed at creating spaces, quarters and milieus for cultural production and creativity. [page 508]

The problem with this shift, Mommass argues, is that “this broadening of the developmental perspective has raised a lot of uncertainties, conflicts and ambiguities.” Are we talking about a cultural policy primarily oriented towards developing the local arts and cultrual scene? Perhaps – but the emphasis on tourist numbers and eocnomic multipliers tends to argue that for many government stakeholders, economic  outcomes are far more important. But is the idea of “cultural clusters” even backed up by robust evidence from the micro-economic literature? Well – no, as the savage debate over the validity of Richard Florida’s thesis shows.

Further, there are a range of logical inconsistencies with the creative clusters idea. Mommass proceeds to unpick these in a nuanced, well-argued paper which exposes the often contradictory nature of the various – superficially similar – “creative clusters” arguments, using examples from contemporary Dutch urban planning and cultural policies, such as Rotterdam’s Rem Koolhaus-designed museum district. I won’t go into the intricacies of his argument, but simply point out that Mommass discerns at least five themes here, none of which are necessarily consistent:

Mommass’ five inconsitent discourses of “creative clusters”:

1. “Strengthening the Identity, Attraction Power and Market Position of Places” – eg. place marketing via (often grafted-on) cultural precincts

2.  “Stimulating a More ‘Entrepreneurial’ Approach to the Arts and Culture” – often driven by fear of declining audiences for traditional artforms and performing arts organisations

3. “Stimulating Innovation and Creativity”  – a more general “creative industries” cultural policy, based around copyright-heavy cultural industries,  in line with the Cunningham-Hartley “QUT school” arguments, wherby creative clusters are supposed to generate what Mommass describes as more generally “favourable conditions for artistic/cultural growth and renewal in the context of a wider (global) culturalisation of the economy and a related economisation of culture.”

4. Finding new uses for old buildings and derelict sites – eg. Renew Newcastle and the other tropes of such “place-making” strategies

5. Promoting cultural diversity and democracy – a suite of policies which developed out of the Greater London Council cultural policy ideas of the 1980’s. Examples include “a search for various unorthodox channels of cultural expression (festivals, parks, activity centres), for forms of financial investment through loans and equity rather than subsidies and grants, and for new support systems, organising training programmes and stronger marketing and distribution channels.” Mommasss also distinguishes, quoting the Greater London Council, “the intention to develop a new aesthetics “which is not ‘traditional’, ‘ethnic’, ‘folk’, ‘exotica’, but which is appropriate for what needs to be expressed here and now’.”

1984; in Bianchini, 1989, p. 37).

You can see some of the tensions and indeed likely contradictions of these policies in the debate over the impact of Glasgow’s 1990 turn as European City of Culture. It’s intersting that as a complete outsider, my friend Marcus Westbury went to Glasgow a few years ago while making the first series of the documentary Not Quite Art. He found Glasgow incredibly vibrant, even perhaps a kind of nirvana of artist-run spaces and underground cultural initiatives. There is some limited support for this view in the academic literature, for instance Beatriz Garcia’s work, based on three years worth of research, which looked into the successes and failures of Glasgow’s community cultural programming and cultural rebranding in 1990. Garcia formed a quite positive assessment.

On the other side of the ledger we have Gerry Mooney, whose 2004 paper in the journal Local Economy, “Cultural policy as urban transformation? Critical reflections on Glasgow, European city of culture 1990” [19(4): 327-340] offers a swingeing criticism of the boosterism inhenrent in the excercise.  “Flagship cultural events”, he argues, “can do little but gloss over and divert attention away from the major structural problems which characterise many ex-industrial cities.” Mooney concludes by arguing that “the lessons of Glasgow’s experience are also very relevant for other cities such as Liverpool that are also increasingly embracing cultural policy as a route to urban transformation.”

So there you have it. As ever in the swirling field of cultural policy, the prima facie policies put forward by champions of arts and cultural events often disintegrate into more special interst lobbying and rent-seeking when examined more closely. As both Justin O’Connor and David Hesmondhlagh argue (and I’m quoting the latter discussing the former here), “the emphasis on using ‘creativity’ and ‘urbanity’ for the competitive advantage of cities risks going beyond a reconciliation of economics and cuture to being an annexation of the latter by the former.” [David Hesmondhalgh, The Cultural Industries [2nd Edn], London: Sage, p. 144].

SPECIAL BONUS FOOT-NOTE: No discussion of the liertature of cities and culture should be complete without a mention of Mike Davis’ brilliant and excoriating City of Quartz.


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