A £16 million cultural centre in Tower Hamlets looks set to energise its diverse community and widen access to further education where other initiatives have failed, says Sara Wajid.
"City boys, Bangladeshi grandmothers and dungaree-clad students" are just some of the people who will use the Rich Mix Centre in Bethnal Green Road when it opens in 2004, according to its director, Anwar Akhtar. It is the familiar rhetoric of utopian multiculturalism, but for once it seems plausible.
The concept of a major arts and culture centre in Tower Hamlets has been brewing for more than 15 years but, as London mayor Ken Livingstone said at the launch in April, "most people, particularly in the arts community, haven't woken up to the scale of it". The £16 million centre, to be housed in two converted warehouses, includes three cinemas, an art gallery, performance venue, cafe, two floors of office space, a roof-top bar and a recording studio. Glass-bricked private businesses dominate neighbouring Hoxton and Old Street, but that kind of regeneration has not made its mark on Banglatown.
The core focus of Rich Mix is education, training and skills development and the publicity material boasts an impressive array of funders and partners including London Guildhall University, Whitechapel Gallery, Asian Dub Foundation Education and Community Music. The mission statements repeatedly invoke the currency of regeneration and widening participation.
However, regeneration and widening access is very heavy baggage. Regeneration carries associations of gentrification and infamous white elephants such as the Millennium Dome. And according to Michael Keith, professor of urban studies at Goldsmiths University and Rich Mix board member, a lot of what is being done in the name of widening participation, particularly in the public sector, "doesn't necessarily justify itself in those terms. There are a lot of initiatives that are dressed up as participation in order to rationalise access to public funds," he says.
Likewise, training in the cultural industries targeted at socially excluded groups, particularly ethnic minorities, has a troubled past. Independent community-based training organisations are often asked to deliver skills that might be provided more reliably by more secure further or higher education organisations. For instance, since 1998 at least two journalism training initiatives aimed at ethnic minorities have been established and gone awry in London alone.
I worked at the Black Media Institute in Hackney from 1999 until 2000, when it closed before issuing students with certificates for the one-year journalism diploma that had yet to be accredited. The intentions of all involved were honourable, but the project ultimately fell prey to in-fighting among the management board. The same summer saw the collapse of the Tower Hamlets journalism course, established to provide 20 places to Bangladeshi local residents. Funding was tied directly to student numbers. When a few students dropped out because attendance disqualified them from claiming benefit, the whole course became financially unsustainable.
These examples would suggest democratising access to the cultural industries is too onerous a task for fragile community-based groups, vulnerable to the vagaries of funding gaps and in-fighting. The solidity of university-based courses are seductive by comparison, and there have been some good examples. My mother attended one of the first journalism diploma courses for ethnic minorities at Central London Polytechnic (now Westminster University) as a mature student in 1984, and she went on to join the BBC.
However, the argument that all these initiatives should be mainstreamed and centralised is oversimplistic. Independent organisations keep skills and cultural capital within a community and are genuinely easy to access in a way universities cannot be. Furthermore, they are more flexible and so can respond organically to the needs of people using them. The Black Media Institute was not just a training centre, it was also an informal networking spot and a place where independent black cultural expression could thrive unfettered by the orthodoxies of white-dominated academe. Black and Asian cultural critics, artists, photographers, teachers and journalists learnt and thrived without feeling like minorities. It was fun, and that sense of fun fostered truly diverse perspectives.
John Pandit of Asian Dub Foundation Education stresses that widening participation "doesn't happen overnight. For us it's been seven years of hard work, and we've had to build up relationships with youth workers over that time. Historically, there has been a patchwork of initiatives in the area, but they haven't been sustainable enough to support the kind of long-term work we want to do." The educational arm of the band has evolved an understanding of the kind of structural change that needs to happen, such as fostering not just local music acts but also music producers.
Keith argues that Rich Mix is in a good position to address social exclusion because "the educational agenda is not just about 16-plus. It's for ages four to 64, it's for schoolkids as much as for the classic trainee, so it doesn't carry the pejorative connotations of widening access at age 16 when you've already got the problems of the previous 12 years to overcome."
Keith sees the relationship between Rich Mix and London Guildhall as an honest one. "There is a very straightforward negotiation about how both sides can get what they want out of the equation." The centre can presumably afford this honest negotiation because of its secure financial base. Keith cites the lessons learnt from the Lux Centre in nearby Hoxton, the avant-garde cinema that recently closed because it could no longer afford the inflated rent in the area it helped to gentrify. Rich Mix owns its buildings and is funded generously by the Millennium Commission and London's mayor, among others, and everyone associated with it is keen to stress its sustainability and sophisticated business plan centring on cross-subsidisation from commercially programmed cinema and performance space as well as income from rented office space.
"Rich Mix won't set itself up to be an answer to all the failures of funders of arts and cultural centres where access has not been delivered," Akhtar says. Nevertheless, there is a cultural void between interesting, fragile community-based centres and monolithic, safe universities, and Rich Mix seems like it may be able to fill that space, at least in Tower Hamlets.
Sara Wajid is a visiting research fellow in the cultural studies department at the University of East London.