Why Birmingham needs a Creative Director – the problem they could solve

Over on Created in Birmingham there’s a healthy discussion around the Creative City Awards, and it’s indicative of a growing disquiet that can be heard particularly in the ‘creative’ sector. But I don’t just think it’s “arty types not understanding the real issues” – it might just be because people whose work is creative have the vocabulary to express disappointment in the poor understanding of design, art and the living environment that the council seem to display.

There’s a problem with marketing, we live in an age where bullshit is sniffed ever more easily. Bloggers, press are much more capable of crying foul on the fluff that comes out of people’s mouths and PR departments. If you claim that “the Creative City Awards received over 40 submission entries, which is a great testament to the strength and depth of creative business in the city” then people are going to know and tell that there are 3,433 companies (2004 figures) and 25,925 creative workers city (2005 figure) and somehow “over 40” doesn’t sound so good.

The council, and other bodies that follow their lead, won’t hold off on their desire to paint the “everything is brilliant” picture. They extend the remit and scope of everything – a successful ‘Creative Business Awards’ would be much better received that a ‘Creative City Awards’ where people are left asking the question “Yes, you’d be tempted to think that awards called ‘Creative City’ would be based on creativity not on commercial success.”.

It afflicts things like ArtsFest too, in the desire to say that it’s the “biggest” it stretches the thin resources allocated to it. It stretches and breaks the ability to publicise it, it overwhelms those available to put it on the Internet, and it stretches the definition of ‘art’. People find it confusing, find a deal of the programme disappointing and come away less satisfied than they would be with a smaller, clearer event.

But then the councillors couldn’t say “biggest”.

Things I’ve heard said recently, by clever people who are well disposed to the city:

“I want to stop being embarrassed by Birmingham, like in the way you’re embarrassed by dad dancing.”, “it’s like it’s organised by the PTA”, “no-one wants to say anything because they [the organisers] are so nice”.

I think this stems from no-one being strong enough to point the problem out, and by strong I mean experienced in the correct areas. There have been discussions for years about Birmingham having a ‘Creative Director‘, and it’s time to realise that this would mean not just someone to oversee and reform the appalling design that almost all council work seems to have – but someone who would be strong enough to say “that’s not good enough for Birmingham”.

Someone from outside the traditional structures, who doesn’t care if bridges are burnt because they’ve made thier reputation, who would say:

“The ArtsFest leaflet and website is never available in time and lacking in structure – that’s not good enough for Birmingham.”

“The logo encrusted leaflets, posters and appalling promotional literature – that’s not good enough for Birmingham.”

X-Factor style contests to appear at award dinners – that’s not good enough for Birmingham.”

“The council website, the lack of any decent way of getting information out – that’s not good enough for Birmingham.”

Not admitting the mistake when you’ve put Birmingham, Alabama on a leaflet – come on guys, be honest”.

And maybe the attitude would filter through the city.

And we could live up to the great things – Blast, Supersonic, Stan’s Café, Moseley Folk and not just make do with what’s available. Sometimes it’s right to say no, to cut a bill or an event down to only the great stuff – great stuff that we wouldn’t even have to promote – people would be flocking to Brum.

It’s not a problem with the people on the ground, the council website teams, design teams, arts teams are filled with talented individuals who work hard and care – but they’re not given the inspiration,  encouragement and opportunity to meet the high standards Birmingham should be reaching.

Imagine Trevor Beattie wandering around the council buildings, allowing people to think creatively, hell, taking a few risks now and again. Think of someone with the authority to tell councillors with no relavant design or event experience to cede control to the professionals and the talented.

We should also allow things to fail when they do, not reporting on “great success” where there has only been partial success. Raise the standards by truly looking at what went right, what went wrong and what could be done better.

It seems so wearying to end this with “there’s so much great stuff in Birmingham, no-one knows about it” we hear it again and again, but it’s true.

Maybe it’s time to think that it’s not that people aren’t listening, but that we’re shouting the wrong things.