by Lee Peck Media

Culture and Change: a recap of the 2023 Southampton Forward Culture Conference

More than 350 delegates at a major conference in Southampton heard that the city had an “extraordinary opportunity” to make sure that culture and tourism were central to its growth and prosperity over the next decade.

This was the view of Bernard Donoghue OBE, the CEO of ALVA, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, who was speaking at Southampton Forward, a free conference at MAST Mayflower Studios organised by the Southampton Culture Trust.

The one-day event had a packed programme including inspirational speeches, Q&As, workshops, networking and entertainment. Renowned poet Issa Farrah received a huge round of applause at the start of the day when he recited his latest work, simply entitled “Southampton,” which was especially commissioned for the conference. He said: “As long as people in this room keep talking we can make anything happen.”

Mr Donaghue made his remarks in a session entitled Driving Change, chaired by Lady Sue Hollick OBE, a trustee of Southampton Culture Trust. He said that one of the biggest challenges was to encourage the two million people who went through the city every year on cruises, to stay in the city and enjoy what it had to offer rather than being bussed to tourist destinations further afield. “Some cities would give their eye teeth for numbers like that,” he said.

He told a packed auditorium of representatives from the local community, cultural, creative industries, tourism & destination sectors that Southampton had an “extraordinary opportunity” to deliver something great for the people of the city, not simply for their economic prosperity but their social prosperity too.

“Two factors are at play,” he said. “The legacy of Southampton’s bid to become UK City of Culture in 2025 has brought together the community like never before. You can see the enthusiasm here today and that has got to be harnessed to deliver something really special.

“The other factor is that, as tragic as its effects were, the pandemic made people realise how important it was to value things like community groups, museums, heritage sites and theatre.

“The interesting thing is that subscriptions to places like these increased over the two years of the pandemic even though people couldn’t actually go out.” He then compared culture and the arts to the NHS saying they healed the soul and made people feel happier about themselves.

John Newbigin OBE, the Mayor of London’s Ambassador for Creative Industries, said rather than invent assets, the city should build on what already exists such as expanding Southampton’s waterfront which was “crying out for redevelopment.”

Professor Fraser Stuart, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton, called for strong leadership locally to make sure things happened. And Carolyn Abel, Head of Culture and Tourism at Southampton City Council, said everyone had to pull together. “We have a wealth of knowledgeable and creative people in our city. We need to involve everyone, not simply tell people what to do. A holistic approach will work best. I think the three main factors driving a city forward are mission, mindset and mobilisation.”

In the session, ‘Spotlighting our Young People’, Leon Smith, the Participation Apprentice at Southampton City Council, said that his generation felt let down. He said they wanted to make their mark, but decision makers had to find new ways of engaging with them.

Alan Lane, the Artistic Director of Slung Low, spoke in the session Taking the Lead. He said: “The key to engaging local communities was giving away as much power as possible while still retaining responsibility.”

Meanwhile Professor Tom Shakespeare, CBE, from the London Scholl of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “There is real challenge around disabilities and the inclusion of people with visible and invisible disabilities as leaders is critical. “Invest in the right people, let them work out what they want and be willing to fail.”

The keynote speaker was Phil Gibby, South West Area Director for the Arts Council England (ACE). Last month Southampton’s Culture Trust secured a £1.57m grant, paid over three years, from ACE as part of its National Lottery Project Grants Place Partnerships Fund. It followed an announcement late last year from ACE of an additional £11.5m investment in the city’s culture and creativity to support the sector over the next three years.

Mr Gibby said his role was to radiate optimism about the city’s future. He said: “The city is a cultural powerhouse of 250,000 people with untapped potential.

“Local research showed that 8/10 people thought the City of Culture bid was very worthwhile and what you’ve managed to do is create networks that will last a generation. I sense the floodgates of talent are about to burst open.”

He added: “Southampton has a huge opportunity ahead of it so it’s vitally important to build on the work done so far. Most of all though remain authentic and seize the opportunity.”

Southampton Culture Trust’s CEO Claire Whitaker CBE said: “Today’s conference was a huge success and met with great enthusiasm. Crucially it was an important step forward in Southampton’s journey in transforming the city and region through a significant investment in culture, festivals, events and tourism.

“We were thrilled to see so many people from Southampton’s diverse and thriving cultural scene working together to explore how we can make huge changes through our cultural offerings.” She concluded by saying that the full text of Southampton’s City of Culture bid will be published on the Culture Trust’s website on Monday.

Welcoming delegates at the start of a full programme Satvir Kaur, the leader of Southampton  City Council, said: “People ask me if it was worth putting the City of Culture bid together. I say Yes, without doubt. It has brought the city together like never before and rightly put Southampton in the national spotlight.

“Now, more than ever, we need to support our city and allow local people and communities to benefit from its growth. This conference was the perfect way to ignite the spirit of Southampton and take us forward to a successful future.”