Transcript – Episode 1

Man 1:  This podcast is a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency committed to building creative communities and inspiring creative minds.

Anita Walker: Hello. I’m Anita Walker with the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” I’m in London in a part of the city known as the Design District. I’m inside a typical contemporary architectural firm, very cool, smart and shiny, and inside this place resides another company called Future City and a future thinker named Mark Davy. You won’t like everything he says, but he’ll make you think about the future and about the powerful place of the arts in our cities and towns. We started our conversation over tea of course talking about a subject that comes up every time I’m among artists: gentrification, artists being priced out of real estate they transformed from ghetto to groovy. We don’t own the topic in Boston. It’s everywhere, and it’s big in London. Here’s Mark’s take.

Mark Davy: I mean, that’s been the case forever that– you know, Warhol did it, where he took over lofts and had loft parties, and, I mean, artists have always found cheap places and always found interesting places, but they’re cheap for a reason. They’re not cheap forever.

Anita Walker: You should know that Mark spent years as a working artist, taught arts in college and is probably doing as much as anyone I know to put artists to work for big money.

Mark Davy: I think that cities like London are actually changing, organic places. They’ve been industrial, and then the industries have gone. They’ve been places for immigration, and then those populations have gone and others have come in. So the idea I think of a successful city is the very nature, the way that a city changes and evolves and the geography of the city changes. You look at London now. The new center of London is the east, and, I mean, 50 years ago if you had said to anyone who lives in the East End “One day you’ll be at the center of the new London” you’d have been removed from the pub really, so the fact that London is changing, moving east, and now they’re talking about London moving west and they’ve got Crossrail, which will open up the whole of London in a way that can’t even be imagined yet, you’re seeing the spread to the suburbs, the suburbs becoming urban because the geography means a younger, more transitory workforce wants an urban experience, they don’t want suburbia, so developers are beginning to see the market changing for the kind of places that they’re making. There’s so many layers to this, and it’s kind of just too easy to say “Oh, 100 artists make an area interesting and then they should somehow remain there.” I just find it difficult.

Anita Walker: Okay, now that he has your attention he explains.

Mark Davy: Okay, so I think you have to step back quite a long way from this. I think we have to understand what are cities for. So my experience is particularly London. This is where I was born and raised, and a lot of my work is here. You come back to this idea of London is a sort of mix of different things. It’s a trading city, so it’s a city where people work, it’s a city where businesses come to work, and the current sense around what businesses want is they want an authentic, interesting place, so the Googles and the Apples and the tech companies, if that’s the new business after heavy industry and even tourism, is about places that have some form of narrative. The issue then of course is if a city has evolved and changed over what is the true narrative for the city? There are places in London that were first made interesting by Jewish immigrants. Those Jewish immigrants went, then Bangladeshi immigrants came in, and those Bangladeshis have gone, and Eastern Europeans have come in, and each one’s left a mark, changed– the church becomes a temple, the temple becomes a bingo hall, and so the whole beauty of London is this kind of idea of scraping it back and changing it. The problem now is London in its current guise– and I think a lot of big cities around the world– is that it’s property-driven, so the money is all in property. We <inaudible> property are owning democracy, I mean, as you are. Therefore property is where the money is.

Anita Walker: As you said, Mark, bingo, where the money is. Mark has built a practice figuring out how to excavate money from major real estate projects and invest that money in art and culture. But let’s back up. First, the problem, a mismatch between developers as private-sector businesses wanting to make money and the pressure to take on responsibilities for a contemporary city.

Mark Davy: What is a modern, contemporary city meant to be? So other developers here, especially the developers building on the very big brownfield sites, Nine Elms, King’s Cross, White City, South or Gas Works, Stratford, Greenwich Peninsula– these are big brownfield industrial sites, and they are having huge investment, mostly with money that isn’t UK money. It’s Malaysian, it’s Chinese, it’s Russian, so the funds to build these developments are coming from outside. The choice of the developer in terms of the architects they use, the landscape architects, it’s because it’s driven by effectively a capitalist process it’s very difficult for local authorities or cities to say “You must do it like this. You must use this architect, and this architect must work in a particular way.” I mean, they do try, but on the whole they haven’t been very successful in making private developers who are effectively taking the risk in spending their money that they’ve borrowed to build flats or apartments or residential or commercial spaces– it’s been very difficult to jump into that context and say “You have a responsibility to offer the city something back.”

Anita Walker: Then there’s the language barrier.

Mark Davy: But we don’t understand how to talk to developers about why they should give up 10,000 square feet and give it to a ballet company.

Anita Walker: So Mark has developed a new language.

Mark Davy: We use language like “cultural master planning”, “destination strategies,” “placemaking” that they could sort of kind of get so they understood what we meant. As soon as you’ve talked about public art everything just shuts down. It becomes a cost issue, and do we like art or not like art? And so a lot of the thing was really us beginning to try to understand their world more.

Anita Walker: And timing is everything.

Mark Davy: The arts just have to be much more engaged, they have to come in earlier, the authorities have to be much more a part of that brokering introductory process getting around the table, trying to find a common language. I think that a lot of economic work still needs to be done. We were talking this morning, actually. We still find it very difficult to put a kind of economic model on the table that says “This will give you PR value. This will give you community value. This will give you planning value.” You’re trying to create a value set that enables, again, a developer who is effectively going to– depending on how much money they’re paying– if it’s millions they’ve got to go to someone and say “I’m about to spend millions of pounds on this,” and they go to their board or they go to their shareholders, and I don’t think we– again, I see things as someone who was in the arts all my life– I don’t think you even just get a sense that that individual you’re talking to has got to go into a boardroom and have a conversation without you there and say “I’m going to give away all our prime space for five years,” and they’re just “What? You’re what?”

Anita Walker: London has faced increasing challenges finding money for cultural development. Public-sector funding is on the decline. Philanthropy is not a strength. They don’t have the tax structure to support it. But…

Mark Davy: Suddenly something has changed, and this is the really interesting thing. Suddenly the property market, the city-making market has realized that the arts are partly really interesting in terms of describing places, the catalyst for place. So when the market is interested in something it kind of wants to understand. It wants to invest in it. It’s looked to the public sector to tell it what the arts are, to talk about placemaking, and I think the public sector’s been very poor in kind of articulating what place is in a way that a private organization, a developer or the private sector would understand. So what’s happened is the private sector just says “Well, no one seems to be able to tell us, so we’ll do it ourselves.”

Anita Walker: And that’s where Mark begins his excavation.

Mark Davy: We’ve been very good at working with the property sector to get them to see the arts and culture as something they should invest in at three months to planning phase and not the last thing that goes in with an X marks the spot when everything is finished. And by allowing us to get in so early we’ve been able to influence energy centers that are now giant kinetic artworks or “Slipstream” at Heathrow, which was originally landscape and cladding, is now a gigantic sculpture by Richard Wilson. It’s vast. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It’s in Terminal 2. We’ve managed to get 19 studios for artists by taking over redundant space and creating a five-year strategy. The English National Ballet have moved to a new site funded by a property developer. So we’ve been able to get in early enough to be able to question the budgets that are being set for that new development and give them creative solutions which still get them what they wanted in the first place.

Anita Walker: Mark believes that the cultural sector, well, and government for that matter, has been very slow in joining the party and finding a place at the table early. That’s when you can literally turn a construction budget upside-down and get a better result.

Mark Davy: There are so many of these projects that we’re doing, such big, exciting projects, where the funding is not money that is– you’ll never see them advertise, because what we’ve effectively done is excavated them out of a discussion where someone said “What is that over there?” So it’s a bridge. Okay. Now, what’s the value of the bridge? It’s five million pounds. Okay. And then later you go back to them. “If I could persuade you that I could build you a sculpture that joins those two points and which you could walk across, could I have that budget?” And that’s how we’re getting lots of the projects. We’re literally flipping the budgets. So we have an energy center being worked on by Conrad <inaudible>, and it was an energy center with a huge 50-meter chimney, but it’s now a giant kinetic artwork by an artist, which just happens to have inside it energy center machinery in the middle, which you won’t see. So what we’re effectively doing is saying take that budget, take that budget, take that idea and then give it back to them but in perhaps a much more creative way, which of course then gives them cultural partnerships, because if suddenly developer A is spending five million pounds on a sculpture which could be a bridge that’s an interesting discussion to have with arts providers. You now have five million pounds to spend on a sculpture, and if that developer is working on– let’s say they have 15 major assets inside their development, landscape, architecture, energy centers, bridges, facades, amenities. Every one of those things could have a sort of cultural value, a cultural DNA.

Anita Walker: When Mark says there’s cultural DNA in any major project he means any project.

Mark Davy: Wherever major amounts of money are being spent on roads, bridges, infrastructure and buildings and so on, if you could get in there early enough and flip their thinking so that they still get their bridge, they still get their roads, they still get their stadium but the arts were part of the thinking then suddenly there is a lot of money.

Anita Walker: Mark Davy, Future City in London, one of our “Creative Minds Out Loud.”

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