The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham's turnaround from a place with a reputation for low engagement in the arts to one of the capital's cultural hotspots was demonstrated at this week's launch of the seventh issue of BOLD magazine, an arts and culture special.
On Monday 7 November, 120 delegates turned out at The Boathouse, a creative space for hire, which is part of the Ice House Quarter, an artistic hub on the banks of the River Roding.
As well as impromptu poetry readings from local residents and a performance from Barking and Dagenham’s resident opera singer Flora MacDonald, delegates heard from speakers including Liza Vallance, the artistic director of Studio 3 Arts, which put on an immersive performance of A Merchant of Venice this summer, set on various streets and buildings in Barking.
“We exist to reduce the barriers to arts participation,” said Vallance. “We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary next year and that is testament to the borough and its council, which has created a really sustainable environment for creative practice, industry and residency.”
Vallance pointed out that artistic participation in the borough saw 25,000 people turn out at festivals, projects, activities, shows and screenings in the last year alone – creative projects pitched and organised by local people.
“We’ve developed a network of 150 cultural connectors – local people who make all the decisions about all the arts projects in the borough,” she explained. “So far, they have been responsible for commissioning £500,000 of arts programmes.
“This is a place where regeneration becomes context for arts practice and where local people shape cultural policy. It’s a place where networks are made and sustained.”
The council leader, Darren Rodwell, spoke of the challenges the borough has faced in the last decade and how they have been overcome. “Barking and Dagenham can lead London,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for centuries, whether it be Mary Wollstonecraft saying that women’s rights should be equal to men’s or Lord Denman saying no one had the right to own another person when he got the slavery bill through parliament.
“A decade ago we had to stand together to say that the far right would not take this council. Not only did they not take it, but from the ashes of that bigotry and hatred, we had to grow. And we did it together.
"The aspiration of the working class to say we can do better than our forefathers is what we’re about as a borough. There are a lot of talented people here now and that’s really exciting.”
Barking and Dagenham's council leader, Darren Rodwell – picture by Sharron Wallace
Other speakers included Carole Pluckrose, artistic director of the Boathouse, who spoke about the success of the events space since it opened. “It is about engaging with the local community and artists working together; it’s about projects that we can dream about – an empty space in which anything can happen.”
Bow Arts Trust, which is a registered charity delivering arts and creative services, set up IceHouse Court at the quarter, which offers affordable workspace for artists.
Marcel Baettig, the director of Bow Arts Trust, said: “We want to work with Darren [Rodwell] to create more spaces like this, more opportunities across the borough and more support for talented young people to start their businesses, live here and make Barking an even greater arts hub.”
A celebrity guest also addressed the audience; footballer Bobby Zamora, one of three behind the Legacy Foundation – a regeneration charity with a plan to build a series of social and privately rentable housing schemes, backed by private investors. The foundation – which also includes Rio Ferdinand and Mark Noble, who have played for West Ham United, the team passionately supported by the council leader – is in discussions with the local authority.
Zamora said: “East London is massive to me – the mix of communities in the area is something special and we want to give something back by offering genuinely affordable housing and teaching young adults the skills to get what they need.
“Hopefully with the help of Darren we can do something for Barking and Dagenham.”
Footballer Bobby Zamora
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