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Justine Simons OBE, London’s Deputy Mayor for Culture and the Creative Industries: “The EU is the biggest market for London’s creative sector - any deal must not come up short"

Justine Simons OBE is London’s Deputy Mayor for Culture and the Creative Industries. For over a decade she has helped to develop the capital’s innovative cultural policy, having overseen giant leaps forward for London culture such as the installation of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, the cultural programme for the 2012 Olympics and most recently the unveiling of The London Borough of Culture scheme.

One idea promoted by the scheme is that we should all be travelling around our city more. To celebrate boroughs of London that aren’t so well-known, and to celebrate and empower communities with culture. The initiative was described as “life-changing” by the Leader of Waltham Forest Council, London Borough of Culture 2019, as over 300 new partnerships with artists and community groups were forged.
 
In the run-up to the announcement of the London Borough of Culture 2021 on February 11th, Justine tells Run-Riot: “I loved the mix of world class culture and genuine grassroots access [in our inaugural year] – for example celebrated choreographer Matthew Bourne returning to his old primary school in the borough and teaching the kids to dance the Nutcracker, that’s the kind of experience that will stay with them forever.”
 
As well as talking more about the Borough of Culture scheme, in this interview Justine tells Run-Riot how she finds herself having to justify the value of London culture to naysayers, as well as why ensuring a good trade deal with the EU is essential if we are to continue to be as culturally prominent as a city as we are today.
 
The inaugural winner of the London Borough of Culture in 2019 was Waltham Forest. What feedback did you have from organisations within the area when the year wrapped up?
 
Waltham Forest’s year as London Borough of Culture was a triumph – I couldn’t be happier. It’s an innovative idea and Waltham Forest have really proved it’s a strong concept. It’s not like it’s just a one-off event, London Borough of Culture is built on powerful social and civic foundations, for example, every single one of the 88 schools in the borough got involved, more than 1000 local people volunteered as ‘Legends of the Forest’, and there were more than 1,000 events, workshops and activities across the year.
 
I loved the mix of world class culture and genuine grassroots access – for example celebrated choreographer Matthew Bourne returning to his old primary school in the borough and teaching the kids to dance the Nutcracker, that’s the kind of experience that will stay with them forever. Damon Albarn, another former resident, invited 100 international and local musicians together for a major Africa Express concert. There were other big moments too, with 70,000 visitors coming to the opening Welcome to the Forest weekend.
 
Clare Coghill, Leader of Waltham Forest Council, described London Borough of Culture as ‘life changing for the Council’. She has seen first-hand the transformative power the arts can play in bringing together communities and has the drive to bring culture to all as a core priority for the borough in the years to come. The council has invested in the old EMD Cinema and will bring it back into use in partnership with Soho Theatre; 100 young people will be part of a Cultural Leadership Programme growing the next generation of creative talent and the borough has 300 new partnerships with local artists and community groups which will continue to bear fruit in the years to come.
 
Will you be making any major changes to the scheme for the 2020 winner, Brent?
 
There are no major changes to the way we run the London Borough of Culture programme this year after the great success of Waltham Forest 2019. The main change going forward is that we have made it a biennial award, so the next London Borough of Culture awards will be 2021 and 2023. This is in response to boroughs which wanted a little more time to put bids together. Of course every year will always be different as boroughs present programmes which speak to the character and stories of the local area. Brent for example have put young people at the heart of everything they are doing, no decision is taken without them. Brent will be bringing to life lots of stories from the borough – from the Grunwick Strikers to the Kilburn High Road, Reggae to Wembley and the biggest Hindu temple in Europe. There will be new artistic commissions in every library and the MOBO’s will return to Brent for the first time since they were dreamed up by Founder Kanya King in her Brent bedroom.
 
Is encouraging Londoners to venture out of Zone One a key objective for the Borough of Culture initiative?
 
Inspired by the UK city of culture and European capital of culture programmes, Sadiq wanted to help improve access to culture for all Londoners wherever they live in the capital. We are lucky in our city to be home to world-leading institutions and internationaly renowned artists, but sadly some Londoners can’t access culture or feel unable to.
 
The London Borough of Culture is open to all boroughs – but it’s really about culture on your doorstep. It’s about celebrating culture locally, but also opening up the great creativity in boroughs to a wider audience. For example, a third of visitors attending events in Waltham Forest in 2019 were from outside the borough.
 
Our goal was to bring communities together, give grassroots creativity the chance to shine and show how culture can inspire and unleash the potential of young Londoners – and I’m really happy that it’s gone so well, a new flagship for London!
 
What are you particularly looking for from the Borough of Culture bid presentations?
 
For me it has to be brilliant and compelling creative ideas and vision, ideas that are authentic to the borough – shining a light on the unique character and building civic pride – and of course it must be inclusive with genuine engagement with the community. In the final running this time we have Croydon, Greenwich, Hammersmith & Fulham, Haringey, Hounslow, Lewisham and Sutton, and I am super excited about announcing the winners with the Mayor on Tuesday 11th February [congratulations to Lewisham for 2021 and Croyden for 2023!].
 
Away from this, what's your one biggest challenge for 2020?
 
There’s no doubt that one of the biggest challenges we are facing in 2020 is the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU – it’s the biggest market for our creative sector and so any deal must not come up short. London’s creative sector accounts for one in six jobs in the capital and it’s vital that the industry has access to talent from Europe and to European markets. Despite Brexit, we are seeing investment in London and we will continue to champion our world beating creative industries. There are many EU nationals working across the creative industries and the Mayor has made clear that our EU Londoners are Londoners, they belong here, and they will always be welcome.
 
There's long been rumblings of an LGBTQ+ Community Centre for London. Is this a project the Mayor's office would support?
 
The Mayor and I have been very clear about the importance of LGBTQ+ venues which play a vital role in the supporting the community. We have created the very first Culture at Risk Office at City Hall and a large part of our work has been focussed on protecting and saving LGBTQ+ venues. Also the London Plan is now the capital’s most pro-LGBTQ+ planning strategy ever. This includes, for the first time, collating a list of venues that put on regular LGBTQ+ focused events to help safeguard these venues during planning decisions. After years of decline we have seen some very encouraging signs and the decline seems to be halted, but we can’t rest on our laurels and we will continue to do everything we can to support and safeguard these vital spaces.
 
What's your ideal day out in London?
 
Art, vintage shopping and some great food – with good friends
 
And then your ideal night out in London?
 
A great contemporary dance show – either at Sadler's Wells or something surprising at The Place.
 
How often do you come across people who ask why culture is such an important consideration for the Mayor's office? And if so, do you sympathise with their viewpoint?

Quite a lot in this job – but it’s a good discipline to keep reminding myself why culture matters to our city. I often say you only really know the true value of something when it’s gone – and so if you imagine London without culture and creativity it’s really easy to see how central it is to our success as a city. Culture is London’s DNA. Four out of five people coming to London say culture is the reason they come, whether that’s to live, work or play. The creative economy generates £52bn per year and one in every six jobs in London is a creative one. These are also futureproofed jobs – they are unlikely to get automated because you can’t automate the imagination. But the value of culture to London is about much more than the numbers. Our culture is who we are, it’s our identity and it’s how we express ourselves, it brings us together creating bridges when often there are none
 
You've spoken in the past about street art as being progressive, and even as a means of protest. How important is it?
 
I am a big fan of London’s street art. If you look on TripAdvisor street art tours of the capital are one of the most popular activities. In 2018 on the 100th anniversary of the first women getting the vote we commissioned 20 women artists to create artworks across London’s walls and public spaces. It was part of the Mayor’s #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign and was a huge success. Individual creative expression is important and powerful and all Londoners should be able to hone their creative talent, safely and legally, and make a positive contribution to their city.
 
I know you've written this wonderful longer read about the value of culture, where you talk about your excitement that culture is finally en vogue for cities, but do you have a one-sentence sell to convince people of the power of culture who may be naysayers? We'd love to hear it so we can use it with people we come across in life!
 
Ok, I’ll quote Grayson Perry who said ‘Life without art would be a series of emails’. Hard to argue with that!
 
@justinesimons1

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london.gov.uk/what-we-do/arts-and-culture