“You’ve shared an experience that was extraordinary”: on the importance of public art

The Sultan’s Elephant marches through London, 2006. Image: Getty.

“Culture plays a vital role in bringing people from all backgrounds together. And I want every Londoner to have the opportunity to access culture on their doorstep.”

As someone who runs a performing arts centre in Stratford, east London this statement from London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan is something that resonates deeply. In spite of the incredible cultural offer that exists in this city and the audiences that flock to enjoy it, my experience has taught me that it is only through a localised or ‘doorstep’ offer that it is truly possible to engage people “from all backgrounds”.

We have found that performances in outdoor public spaces have the greatest reach in drawing people together. These outdoor events can be affronting, disruptive, intriguing and joyful. This is the type of art that you can just happen upon, and as a result the audience is always a random coming together of individuals across class, gender, ethnicity, age, and (dis)ability.

Part of the exhilaration of this (often unexpected) experience is that you share it with strangers. In a big city, when it feels difficult to smile or even acknowledge someone that you don’t know, suddenly you’ve shared an experience that was extraordinary.

As well as building and unifying communities, studies have also shown the link between culture/art and health. However, the recent Creative Health report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group also made plain that engagement with publicly funded art is relatively low amongst those who are economically and socially disadvantaged. While there are multiple reasons for this, bringing artistic performances to peoples’ doorsteps not only allows us to come together through joyful and inspiring experiences: it is also a vital investment in the health of our communities.

Of course there are many examples of incredible spectacles taking place in the city centre. The unforgettable Sultan’s Elephant, nine months after the 7/7 bombings, brought people together to marvel at something fantastical and transformative. I remember watching it, mesmerised, in Horse Guard’s Parade.

Putting outdoor spectacles in less grand corners of the city is important. It brings outstanding experiences to where Londoners live. It makes a statement that our neighbourhood and our community is worthy of something remarkable too.


Arts centres have a duty to serve their communities: it’s one of the things that differentiates them from commercial theatres. They are community hubs that play a civic role in neighbourhoods, and they should serve the whole community, not just a sub-section of theatregoers. But no matter how diverse the range of work presented and the breadth of access and cultural learning programmes, there are always invisible barriers to entering cultural institutions. Outside the building, the opportunities to reach new audiences and make unexpected connections between people are vast. 

The nature of outdoor work, particularly in more residential areas, means that these unexpected connections are integral to the success of the events. We presented some large scale aerial circus performances in a park in North Woolwich last summer as part of a community festival. The work involved building a huge aerial truss – from which the artists hang their equipment, ropes, hoops, silks, and so on – in a park with no infrastructure for live performance.

Through getting to know the regular users of the park, our performers were able to use a bowling green club-house for dressing rooms, and the members of the club then came along to the performance. They felt an ownership of the event having met and helped out the performers. Without investing in these relationships with local people, we would simply be imposing ourselves on a space that isn’t ours. Local communities need to be part of the experience from start to finish and seen as more than just a prospective audience.

Presenting outdoor work often means you can give a platform to local artists and support existing projects, inviting community groups to perform and making technical equipment and expertise available to support them.

Working in an arts centre, you are continually surprised by who walks into your building because of the range of work you present. By taking work outside our building we can engage with people who normally wouldn’t cross the threshold. We live in increasingly challenging political, social and economic times and the bonds within communities are vital. Putting art on doorsteps of people regardless of their backgrounds, that connects us through joy and inspiration, has an important place in nurturing our society.

Tania Wilmer is director of the Stratford Circus Arts Centre, east London.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.