Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Croydon Heritage Festival and the Role of Whitgift Foundation – Part 2

Is a Director Needed?

There is the argument that every Festival needs a Director to really work. ‘It has to be basically one person's vision. It can't be a group effort - suggestions yes but not a mish mash. That just becomes vague and lacks focus.’ This seems to be a good point. However, from my experience co-ordinating the Lambeth Riverside Festivals in 2005 and 2006, it is almost impossible to have a vision beyond the aim of trying to involve as diverse a range of local organisations and their activities as possible, and showcasing local talent. The argument for a Director is much stronger where a Festival is commemorating an individual or a specific historical event or movement, as was the case with the 2012 Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Festival. The latter worked well because the (unpaid) Artistic Director Jonathan Butcher had the vision and a dedicated volunteer team.

Dependence on Volunteers

Another reservation about Whitgift being in charge is that it does not have the expertise and relies on expert volunteers and groups to put on the events. Well of course; there is no other way. Without a proper budget it is a weakness and a strength as is the experience of the Lambeth and Wandsworth Festivals. It is almost impossible to attract speakers who require a fee; it is impossible to bring in heritage based arts activities.

In last year’s planning process White Label tried to tap into people’s knowledge and expertise without offering a consultancy fee. At least one person felt patronised and used. As many of my friends and acquaintances keep saying to me ‘if one is a volunteer, when others are being paid, there is a real sense that 'they' are the experts, despite 'them' probably not having actual qualifications in many areas.’ ‘How dare they make money on the back of our expertise.’ Several now refuse to share their knowledge and expertise with production companies which will not pay a fee. I have done that myself including with the firm that makes Who Do You Think You Are. But I was happy to help Kush Films with one of their Freedom Riders film shows last year. This is not so applicable to the Croydon Festival; someone has to be paid to co-ordinate, and make sure the venues are booked and the publicity created. This year it is largely a member of the Foundation staff team. In that sense it is no different from the Council now GLL officers in Wandsworth or Lambeth Archive staff undertaking that role.

As I know from several years involvement in the Wandsworth Heritage Festival it takes time to build up a momentum from one year to the next. One of the problems facing groups that want to take part is that given their year round busy schedules, they do not always have the member resources to put on events in a Festival or to run stalls. But such Festivals allow one to seize the opportunity and rise to the challenge.

Wandsworth Heritage Festival

Last year I deliberately stepped aside from organising anything in the Wandsworth Festival. This year because I am still focussed on the commemoration of John Archer as Battersea’s black mayor (1913-14) through to November, I am planning four walks and a couple of talks about him. I am also trying to organise an opening Saturday events of stalls, displays, talks and walks. The four speakers I have lined up for the day are people I know on my personal, rather than through the local heritage networks.

Lack of money is a problem though as long as many events can take place in the Libraries there are no hall booking fees. Wandsworth’s libraries were and continue to be available now that GLL manages them for the Council, along with the Heritage Service. It has also taken on the task of leading the Heritage Partnership which I am member of and co-ordinates the Festival.  Fortunately the finance for the printed brochure is available in the GLL contract, and there have been recent discussions on how to improve publicity especially through social networks.

Lambeth Festival

Inspired by the Wandsworth Festival, Lambeth started one last year, building on the collaborative working of the Local History Forum and its Archives Open Day. I gave a talk for and at LASSCO, the architectural salvage business at Vauxhall Cross.  This year’s Festival is now being planned. Both Festivals show what can be done on a shoestring budget.

The difference between the experience in Lambeth and Wandsworth and in Croydon appears to be that rather than approach the Festival in a partnership way, Croydon’s has been presented as something that will happen. This was obviously not the case given last year’s emerged from discussion with the Local Studies Forum. What has gone wrong this year appears to be the fact that Whitgift did not inherit from White Label a database of all those involved last year, and therefore is still trying to find out who it should be contacting. As a result I am one of those who was not contacted.  

Inadequate Planning Time

The first announcement for this year seems to have been made towards the end of January. There may well be individuals, like my neighbour David Clark, whose History of Norbury was published by Streatham Society last year. David has offered some activities for the Festival. But there may be others  who do not yet know that is being planned, and who may need to be paired up with a group as the organiser of an event for them. A mechanism needs to be developed which networks people together wider than the organisations that are members of the Forum. This may be something that could fall within the remit of the newly launched Croydon Arts Network given the inspiration of heritage for arts activities. Time is now too short to try and discuss with people outside the Borough organising events with them, like Kush Films to show Freedom Riders, Tayo Aluko to perform his Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes shows, Martin Hoyles to talk about Ira Aldridge, staff of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership to discuss Croydon and slavery. Time is too short to develop activity about the Chartist and radical poet Gerald Massey whose archive is at Upper Norwood Library, or on the textiles history of the Borough, or  on the histories of new groups settling in Croydon like the Ukrainians, who will be celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Taras Shevchenko, their ‘Robert Burns’, an artist, poet and nationalist who knew Ira Aldridge. The number of topics is ever expanding including Croydon contribution to the campaigns against smallpox vaccination, to nationalise the land or tax land values. If the Festival continues through 2014 to 108 then there is the whole question of what should be included in activities relating to the remembrance of the First World War. Lambeth and Wandsworth are already fleshing out their frameworks for this. I suppose this is where the concept of ‘vision’ discussed in Part 1 comes in.

The Challenge of Involving Schools

Involving schools is a key challenge for Heritage Festival  organisers, often suffering from overload and decreasing resources. Because of my network contacts I was invited to lead two assemblies and a couple of workshops on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in last October’s Black History Month at Winterbourne boys primary. I was happy to do that unpaid. However, there was no way I and others could been involved working with pupils in the Nubian Jak Community Trust John Archer Project in Wandsworth (2009-10), or its British Black Music 1900-1920 Project (2012-13) in Lambeth, Waltham Forest and Wandsworth, without fees payable from Heritage Lottery Fund grants.  If Whitgift made money available every school could be offered during the Festival the opportunity to have an incoming ‘expert’, and have a guided walk. It may also need to pay for the cost of any transport needed.

Developing Community Ownership

It is through earlier planning and widening involvement that the Festival can  develop with a much greater sense of  community ownership. This last couple of years has seen several community and other heritage initiatives inc. the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Festival, the Friends of Church Alley Broad Green project, and the Lightup Foundation’s Now and Then Project. South Croydon Community Association is working up a heritage trail project. Showcasing such projects in an annual Heritage Festival helps to widen the audiences they reach and increases knowledge and understanding among the wider public. It may also stimulate other community groups to set up their own projects.

Whitgift’s Potential Wider ‘Public Benefit’

With its considerable resources (buildings, archives, fields, etc) Whitgift could use the Festival as a test exercise in developing a strategy to add value to arts, culture, education and heritage in Croydon throughout the year, strengthening meeting its legal requirement as a charity in relation of ‘public benefit’.  By the time the Festival takes place, the local elections will be over. If Labour wins Whitgift will probably have to start have to re-think its role in Croydon within the framework of the cultural and heritage strategy that Labour will need to adopt, and with the strategy which will be developed by the new independent Arts Network.

Festival Contact Details

To take part in this year’s Festival please contact

 Catherine Shirley
Marketing and Communications Manager
The Whitgift Foundation 
020 8256 1579 

Background Discussion on Croydon Heritage Issues

Forthcoming on Croydon Citizen:

Taras Shevchenko

South Croydon History – 3 parter

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