We must build ‘creative city’ reputation

How does a city become renowned for its creative output?

The glittering sprawl of the Bullring is heralded as a pinnacle of urban regeneration, and the role it’s played in challenging nationwide prejudice can’t be downplayed. But for those small, fiercely independent creative businesses operating within the city, there’s only so much a blue-and-silver hump can do to represent them. On a national scale, if that’s all that’s held up to counterbalance the stories of factory closure and gang violence, there’s a danger of those silver discs being perceived as a shiny covering for an empty shell.

The real question is whether – at this stage – widespread public perception should be our primary concern. Trying too hard can have a detrimental effect, and a top-down blanket marketing drive to assert that ‘Birmingham is creative – honest’ screams of desperation. The truth is, within individual creative niches – such as jewellery and bhangra music – the city’s reputation is already second to none. Our design community is flourishing, winning tenders for influential clients ahead of London rivals. Quality of work is speaking for itself where it matters.

Achieving an all-encompassing reputation for ‘creativity’ overnight is unrealistic. Step one is for creative industries to achieve recognition and respect within the city boundaries: first and foremost, to be seen as industries in the true, economically beneficial sense of the word.

It’s already started. This year’s Birmingham Young Professional of the Year – Ruth Ward, Director of Neon Communications – caters to the growing demand for championing creative businesses and activities. Neon has flourished, clients ranging from FILM Birmingham to New Art Birmingham – respectively heralding the ignition of a feature film industry and a major international modern art festival to start putting the second city on the map.

This is also the second year running that the overall BYPY Award winner has been a ‘creative’. In 2005 it was Stef Lewandowski of 3Form, who represents both the design community and the music industry through his international record label, Type. For Ruth and Stef to receive an award associated in the past with Birmingham’s more conventional business strengths – IT, Law and Accountancy – marks a significant turning point.

Crucially, it acknowledges that young creativity can go hand-in-hand with professionalism: a viable new resource to be tapped, taking the baton from manufacturing as a core strength for the city. Both of them sit on the recently-formed Creative Birmingham Businesses panel, tasked with addressing the problem of rich substance stifled beneath a ‘brand’ that simply doesn’t do it justice. Step one, both agree, is to encourage local companies to commission each other where possible, pulling together to build a critical mass.

Legitimisation from the wider business community helps. But before the rest of the UK will perceive Birmingham as a creative hub, Birmingham itself must believe it – at ground level. Manchester isn’t seen as a hotspot because faceless powers that be told us so – largely on the back of the heady Hacienda-fueled ‘90s and the swaggering pride of groups like Oasis, it pulsed out those vibes of its own accord. As Ruth points out, Birmingham has lacked such outspoken cultural figureheads to shout its potential from the rooftops.

But now the city’s making noises from its core – and they’re getting louder. Vibrant and diverse programmes from the likes of Fierce! and ArtsFest play their part in taking creativity out of the offices and into the streets, Supersonic goes from strength to strength on the back of its growing international profile, and it’s now joined by last weekend’s Soundstation and the upcoming BASS Festival in June. More4’s asylum-seeker drama Almost Adult was shot entirely in the city earlier this year – and with FILM Birmingham keen to create a film-friendly environment, it promises to be the first of many.

There’s a long way to go before ‘Birmingham’ becomes a buzzword for young, creative dynamism in the way that ‘Milan’ – its industrial Italian counterpart – has become synonymous with design. But for a catch-all term like ‘creative city’ to mean anything, it should be a gradual accumulation of reputations on various levels – from design to music to film and beyond – and not an empty moniker slapped onto us from above.

This article was published in The Birmingham Post, Monday June 12th 2006

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