GOOD PRACTICE GUIDE Borough culture power versus Covid

In 2019 Waltham Forest was the first of mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Boroughs of Culture. Lorna Lee, assistant director of culture at Waltham Forest Council, shows how the structure built then helped its communities through the pandemic

On the 10th March 2020 the culture team at Waltham Forest attended an evaluation event at City Hall to share the story of an extraordinary year as the first ever London Borough of Culture. Just two weeks later, on March 23rd, the UK went into its first lockdown.

Along with everyone in the culture community we immediately set about thinking about our response. Ultimately, the work we had done during 2019 drove an important decision - that culture could make a unique contribution to how we meet the needs of local communities and support them through the immediate impacts of Covid-19 and the challenging times ahead.

The cultural activity produced during 2019 was swiftly adapted through two key factors. The first was our volunteers. During our London Borough of Culture year 1,000 members of the local community signed up to be  Legend of the Forest volunteers, supporting a wide range of activities across the borough. In the months that followed the pandemic outbreak this group swelled to 3,000 people who were ready and willing to get involved in reaching our vulnerable communities, volunteering with food banks and delivering medicines.

The other factor was the partnerships we’d developed with local arts organisations, close relationships based on the mutual respect and trust nurtured during the previous year. We knew that our partners were best placed to support their local communities; a grants programme was quickly set up and shared with our local networks. We had an incredible response, and by April 6th we had assembled a culture programme for residents to access in their own homes or safely outdoors. This also provided employment opportunities for the local arts community which was significantly at risk due to lack of regular work during the pandemic.

Lorna Lee: 'Culture is our USP and the key to the character of the borough'

uWorking with a range of local partners, and some larger organisations such as the Barbican, we were able to support an innovative range of activities to reach the most isolated, such as radio broadcasts, digital singalongs for older residents, including those in care homes, online curators’ tours of the Willliam Morris Gallery, cycle-in cinemas and a hugely popular partnership with local makers Blackhorse Workshop which delivered kits to create kites to homes across the borough. At all times, those accessing the programme were encouraged to donate to local foodbanks, thereby further supporting those in most need.

While lockdown was going on Waltham Forest’s Grade II listed town hall and surrounding campus was undergoing an extensive refurbishment. This stunning outdoor space, named Fellowship Square, has at its centre a fantastic fountain, made up of 144 individual jets which can be choreographed to light up and respond to music.

In many ways because of the success of the Borough of Culture the belief that culture is our USP and is key to the character of the borough is well embedded across all departments of the council. A core part of Waltham Forest’s Public Service Strategy is the creation of 15-minute neighbourhoods to provide hyper local services and opportunities, including access to a diverse and exciting cultural programme.

It was therefore natural that culture should be at the heart of the launch of Fellowship Square in July (main image). It presented a real opportunity to again work with local partners to bring our diverse communities back together in a shared and safe outdoor space as we began to emerge from lockdown.

A stunning show of acrobatics, dance and music in the fountain launched the summer season, when over five weekends families and local residents came in their hundreds to enjoy film, art installations, markets for local makers and traders and a community picnic; our partners at Soho Theatre held comedy workshops for local young people. All of this was programmed by and with our communities and had its foundations in the partnerships we’d built up during the London Borough of Culture year.

A key part of this legacy is our community panel, a group of individuals who make decisions on what we fund through our grants programme based on the events they understand will best engage individuals and communities, not just in Fellowship Square but across the borough. This approach was piloted during 2019, and we are now receiving applications from those who wish to be involved in the next panel with the aim that they are representative of the communities and artistic practice of the borough. 

We’ve found that community-led programming has many benefits. It leads to more innovative, authentic and creative programming and generates greater awareness of and deeper engagement with the cultural activities on offer. It encourages collaboration between local arts organisations and businesses, opening up shared opportunities for funding, boosting capacity and economic growth.

It’s not always plain sailing, however. it’s taken time to create strong bonds, and there’s more to do to engage fully across our communities.

As we continue to emerge from the pandemic we’re planning the year to come in Waltham Forest. There are some exciting things ahead, not least in our partnership with Soho Theatre to restore a former art deco cinema, the Walthamstow Granada, as a new comedy venue in the borough. Opening in the latter half of 2022 it will offer creative employment opportunities for our young people as well as a great night out for local people and visitors across East London. We’re looking at how cultural events can help reinvigorate high streets and encourage people to shop locally.

We learned a lot from our year as the very first London Borough of Culture and those lessons continue to inform our response to the pandemic. In turn, we are deepening our understanding further from our lockdown programme, especially from the initiatives which reached those who had never previously accessed their local culture offering. 

As we move forwards we’ll retain a commitment to delivering a blended programme that will include digital and outdoor arts events. Most of all, we’ve seen the power of forging closer with our communities and arts organisations and we’re excited to see what we can deliver together next.

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