A massive new arts district is emerging between some busy railway lines and the Waterworks River in East London. Dubbed the ‘East Bank’, some vigorous British cultural and educational institutions, including the V&A, the BBC and Sadler’s Wells, are anchoring the project.
The total budget for the entire site, which also includes residential elements, is around £1.1bn.
The idea behind East Bank arose from a desire to ensure that there was a lasting cultural ‘legacy’ from the 2012 Olympics for the surrounding communities. While the intentions are commendable, a growing awareness of the differences between London and the rest of the UK makes the underlying premise and execution seem increasingly questionable.
Conceived as a hybrid of South Ken and South Bank, East Bank could also be seen as a metaphorical two fingers to the rest of the country’s cultural sector. Just as government is waking up to the structural differences between the south-east of England and much of the rest of the UK, London is getting not one new prestigious cultural building, but an entire wannabe arts district.
This comes in a context where London has received the lion’s share of central government arts funding per capita for decades. As late as 2019, through certain measures, London received £24 per capita Art Council England funding, compared to £8 outside the capital.
That’s not to say East London doesn’t deserve investment. And Stratford deserves it as much as many other places in Britain. But most of the rest of the country isn’t already living within a short tube journey from the existing central London locations of these top arts and culture institutions.
The question is whether building costly outposts of the same institutions just a few miles east in London is an adequate response to the general demand for funding across the country.
This is not a new problem. The 2013 report, Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital, argued that “London’s undue dominance of national cultural life [is] unhealthy for the capital itself and for the nation”. One of the arguments underlying the report, which has been repeatedly advanced since at least the 1960s, is that the concentration of arts funding in London creates a destructive, London-centric gravity.
This self-perpetuating pattern – in which London-focused funding helps ensure those wanting to work in the arts are compelled to come to the capital – means other cities and regions are destined to have a permanent to experience drain of resources and talents . The London art world’s response was to pump money into the East Bank.
Meanwhile, a toxic mix of Covid-19 and Brexit has only exacerbated inequality between London and much of the rest of the UK. Far from leveling out, the UK is currently witnessing even greater signs of regional divergence.
Covid in particular has rocked the cultural sector across the country. Many grassroots arts organizations — those that are truly rooted in their local communities — struggle with the day-to-day funding they need to survive.
East Bank’s marketing and advertising is based on the idea that it provides opportunities and jobs for local people. This could well be true, although it remains to be seen whether this will apply to existing locals or to immigrants drawn to the new cultural jobs and opportunities.
Nearby Hackney has long been a hotbed of gentrification, with up-and-coming west Londoners looking to the east of the capital for more affordable accommodation.
It’s also hard to ignore that the East Bank looks like a ready-made cultural offering designed to attract the very same people who have already made this eastward shift over the past several decades. Is this, then, an example of east London valorization, or a fairly direct case of cultural gentrification with seemingly little or no relation to Stratford’s existing culture and community?
The topography and character of the East Bank—essentially an elongated “island” site nestled between the river and railroad—infuse the entire project with a physical seclusion that reinforces the sense that this is not something that has grown organically from the surrounding area.
It will be interesting to see if the idea of skydiving works as intended in these prestigious “global cultural brands” as outposts of elite cultural practice. Were there not existing institutions in east London that might have benefited from the investment now being squandered on this site? Is there actually anything about East Bank that comes from the local context or community?
At the very least, the replenishment agenda makes the East Bank look like a relic from a bygone era when cultural investment was no doubt channeled to the capital. The government seems to have recognized this and recently announced renewed efforts to bring more arts funding to other parts of the country.
But if the question ‘What does British art need?’ was ever asked before this project began, the answer seems to have been an emphatic ‘More of what London already has’.