This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 24/03/2017.
South Croydon Community Association debates the future of the arts in Croydon
Thirty minutes of live entertainment preceded the debate. Alice Backstrom, a free spirit of a singer from the Brit School, two talented dancers from the Beeja Dance Company, and Thornton Heath’s Well-Versed creative poetry trio illustrated the richness and diversity of Croydon’s arts scene. In this world of online networking and chat, there is still a place for live public debate in a room full of people with experience, ideas and commitment, interested in effecting change. On Thursday 16th March, about ninety such people gathered at a Question Time event organised by South Croydon Community Association (SCCA) at Croydon College. The topic under discussion was ‘taking the arts forward in Croydon.’
They demonstrated that we live in a community where dance, music, theatre and film, galleries, street art, festivals, choirs, museums, book clubs and poetry groups constitute a spectrum of artistic activity without which we would all be much the poorer – culturally and economically. At the same time, far too many of us know far too little of what is on offer in our town, how we can become engaged and what it is that we can enjoy. Mapping and promoting the arts is not as advanced as it should be, although Croydon Council is looking at ways to chart the arts across the borough and What’s On in Croydon has introduced a monthly listings service.
Three of the five-person Question Time panel (ably chaired by Paul Macey from Croydon Voluntary Action) demonstrated the power of individuals and local communities to develop and promote their own activities. Anusha Subramanyam’s Beeja Dance company embraces the South Asian community in the north of Croydon. It offers performance, workshops, residencies and regular dance classes. It has national repute. Esther Sutton’s Oval Tavern is well-known as a place of music for all ages while – most recently – a self-taught artist, Elizabeth James, has opened her own gallery in South Norwood, an expression of cultural and economic renewal, in her home community.
Paula Murray (Croydon Council’s creative director) and Stuart Worden of the Brit School spoke from different bases but one out of equal commitment to the importance of the arts in Croydon’s future. A new Fairfield Halls offers a twofold opportunity. Firstly, it can become as a centre of artistic excellence that attracts people into Croydon, while encouraging those of us who head for the South Bank for entertainment to stay put. Secondly it can be the accessible venue of choice for our own artistic communities: a place where they can gather and display their artistic, musical and theatrical talents.
There is, however, a potential tension between these two objectives. The degree to which this tension will be resolved may become a little clearer when the new operator for Croydon’s cultural quarter is announced in May.
The Brit School is rightly known nationally. Alice Backstrom has come from Liverpool to be a Brit School pupil. It is a Performing Arts and Technology School (for fourteen to nineteen year olds) of which Croydon should be proud; the more so because it is so proactive in engaging in the Selhurst community where it is located. Unsurprisingly, Stuart spoke passionately about young people and the arts; in their education and in their broader life experience from a very young age.
Questions were asked about the place of the arts in a time of austerity, the safety of central Croydon in the evening, the better use of public spaces, the responsibility that planners and developers have for creating exciting, open air venues and the need for a more coherent, co-ordinated arts strategy with a clear vision.
Croydon has artistic vitality. It possesses an energy that comes primarily from those who have the passion and commitment to be involved. At the same, we live in a town that needs a vibrant, enviable cultural centre, with Fairfield at its symbolic heart, surrounded by smaller venues that attract diverse audiences and patrons from across the borough – and beyond. The centre of our town needs to live again.