How cultural activity can fuel Scotland's Covid recovery - John Alexander

It’s not just the looming New Year that makes us all want to look to the future. The past two years have seen more uncertainty in our lives than I can remember. So for that reason we are all allowed to dream a little, to imagine a brighter future.
The Eden Project's arrival in Dundee is estimated to be worth £27 million a year to the local economy.The Eden Project's arrival in Dundee is estimated to be worth £27 million a year to the local economy.
The Eden Project's arrival in Dundee is estimated to be worth £27 million a year to the local economy.

In my role as Leader of Dundee City Council I am constantly balancing the need for a far reaching vision whilst at the same time dealing effectively with what the city needs right now. Reacting to events as they unfold whilst also keeping the future in focus.

Recent headlines around Eden Projects ambitious plans in the city are the perfect example of this. As an international network of leading centres is unveiled and Dundee is name checked alongside sites in New Zealand, China, the US and most recently Colombia it may seem that big initiatives like Eden are parachuted into the city but the reality is very different.

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Reading Dundee’s first Cultural Recovery Report which was launched this week, what’s become apparent is something I and many Dundonians have known for a long time, that the city’s strength is our local cultural ecosystem and it is that which provides the platform for landmark cultural initiatives like Eden Project, V&A Dundee and others.

In short what that means is the city’s creative output is central to everything here. Like a stick of rock culture runs through everything the city does and is about. Whether it is the essential services provided by after school music groups, or the trips to DCA or Dundee Rep Theatre on the weekends, culture is part of the fabric of the city. The work of groups like Hot Chocolate Trust based in the Steeple Church in the city centre, the Aspire programme in all of Dundee’s primary schools or Generator Projects gallery space remind us that culture is not a privilege or for the few but an essential part of everyday life here in Dundee. It creates a sense of vibrancy, an atmosphere of hope, vision, experimentation and ambition. In addition the benefits for health and well being, social interaction and more have been brought into sharp focus as a result of the pandemic. That’s the thing about culture, it’s invisible. Everybody calls it something else, my night classes, our Tuesday morning get together, my family day out, my boy’s Wednesday practice, my catch up with gran. Make no mistake though culture is everywhere and here in Dundee it’s that ecosystem which Eden Project recognised when it came to choosing to site here.

The Cultural Recovery Report highlighted the importance of these activities to life in Scotland’s cities, not just Dundee. We’re rightly proud to have hosted almost 1.7m venue visits and almost 8,000 cultural, outreach and engagement events in 2019 where cultural activity went and met people where they were in the city. In many cases these outreach activities were focused on intervention issues including poverty and deprivation, a further reminder that culture plays many roles. Seeing the stark impact of these numbers fall by 80% as a result of the pandemic highlights the need to support grassroots cultural activity in all its forms. We ignore culture at our peril. I’ve seen first hand the impact culture can have on people’s lives and the way artists and others working in culture bring their skills to bear on challenges we face everyday.

I think this report just underpins the importance of culture, as a vehicle for driving change. So whether it is educational or outreach, which is so important with the impact of COVID on learning, or whether it's economic and the figures speak for themselves, in terms of direct employment and indirect employment. Dundee is defining itself on the back of its cultural success. That’s only possible as a result of an investment in activity and experimentation. If we turn our back on this then it will be of huge cost to the city because it will have a negative impact on education, on social issues on the economics, but also in terms of progression and leadership within the city. In Dundee the cultural sector showcases that leadership tremendously well. They are all about aspiration, ambition, and bold, innovative ideas and challenging things head on. We need to be doing much more of that. As Chairman of the Scottish Cities Alliance I know other cities in Scotland look to see what is happening Dundee and what they can learn from what’s happening here.

I’m biased of course but I believe we live in a Goldilocks city, not too big, not too small, just perfect. It’s more than just size though. The cultural ecosystem that Eden Project were attracted to and that supports so much good work in the city will also be key to addressing the findings within the Cultural Recovery Report. While Dundee specific they are likely to reflect the impact of COVID-19 on cultural activity across Scotland. As we look to the immediate future and emerge from the pandemic, let's not ignore sustaining and enhancing the grassroot activity that is integral to our quality of life, not just in Dundee but nationwide.

How each of us defines culture might be different but what is not in doubt is how important it is to our lives. Over the festive period let’s try and see the invisible and celebrate the importance and impact culture has. Recovery for 2022 begins with addressing what’s needed and I welcome the findings of the Dundee Culture Recovery Report not just for highlighting how culture is woven into daily life but for mapping out a route to meeting the challenges posed by the pandemic head on."

John Alexander is leader of Dundee City Council and Chair of Scottish Cities Alliance

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