The reopening of London’s historic African Center in a new location south of the Thames is good news for those who remember its glorious days at Covent Garden, when it was home to political dissidents such as Desmond Tutu and Thabo Mbeki. But times are changing and generations are moving on. The design and decor of the new center aptly challenges the idea of monolithic Africa, with a nod to Tanzania, Ghana and Italian Eritrean culture from its architect, Jonathan Hagos.
Whether it will thrive in its new location, only time will tell. The part of Southwark in which it stands is not a center, like Covent Garden, nor is it a community center, like Brixton or Tottenham, both of which have their own, black-led, cultural centres, which are not very conspicuous. 198 Contemporary Art and Learning Brixton – located on Railton Road, a forefront of the 1981 riots, and today featuring the art of a hero of the time, Pearl Alcock – was founded in 1988. Tottenham’s Bernie Grant arts center was purpose-built in 2007 as a home multidisciplinary for the Black arts.
For such established places, struggling to make up for the losses of the pandemic, this is a worrying time, coming at a point in the Arts Council’s funding cycle as the sector waits to hear which body has been accepted as a national portfolio organization (NPO). ), giving them financial security for the next three years. The Bernie Grant center has not yet achieved NPO status, while 198CAL will reapply as part of a consortium with local photography center Photofusion.
The problem for such places is twofold: while ticking all the boxes increasing diversity and working with youth, unemployed and disabled people, they now find themselves competing with newer and more eye-catching initiatives. Simultaneously, the Arts Council’s escalating agenda, which aims to spread money more widely outside the capital, has redefined the nature of diversity, putting them face to face with venues in other parts of the country.
While few would argue that it is in principle wrong to try to spread money outside the capital, in the cultural areas of ethnic minorities, the equation is complicated. Diverse communities tend to congregate in large cities, and there is no point in pumping money into initiatives in areas where there is no population to support them.
The scarcity of strong and empowered black and Asian leadership is another matter, with an Arts Council report last week revealing that across all NPO-funded organizations in 2020-21, 9% of managers came from black, Asian, and ethnically diverse backgrounds (compared to with 21% artists). Without this leadership, there is a danger of flash-in-the-pan initiatives, which never have a chance to grow in their roots, and build new visions of what a truly representative culture should look like in the 21st century.
The recent award of cultural city status to Coventry and Bradford – two cities with strong personalities and well-established diverse populations – is a positive step, but one year of extraordinary culture is not enough. The eight-year-old Asia-led literary festival in Bradford, which is ongoing now, is one organization waiting in the hope of news about whether they will win the NPO bid for a second time. Like many others, it has emerged battered but not subject to a pandemic and needs to be supported.