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.

21 comments for “Why Birmingham needs a Creative Director – the problem they could solve

  1. 2 December 2008 at 8:39 pm

    I absolutely agree. In fact I think I might adopt “that’s not good enough for Birmingham” as a mantra.

  2. 2 December 2008 at 9:03 pm

    For the ‘second city’ it seems to me like Birmingham has a very ‘small town’ attitude.

    We should be competing with London, Manchester and the UK’s other big (and yes ‘cool’) cities. At the moment, we can’t really complain if the best of our young talent feels they have to move out of the city to mix with their contemporaries and really challenge themselves.

    With Artsfest, for example, I get the impression that anyone can take part if only they ask. Sure, there should be a place where everyone gets to have a go, but not in the events we’re pushing nationally. They must only contain the absolute cream of what Birmingham has to offer, as well as bringing in the best from elsewhere to inspire us. By pushing the real talent, everyone else has something to aspire to, we can really raise the bar and not just settle for what we’ve got.

    We must set our sights much, much higher than we currently are.

  3. 2 December 2008 at 9:55 pm

    Here, here, Jon.

  4. 2 December 2008 at 10:49 pm


  5. Joanna Geary
    3 December 2008 at 12:04 am

    Thank you for writing this.

  6. 3 December 2008 at 3:29 am

    Thanks for the articulation of what I think many have been trying to say but keep getting caught up in nonsense. Spot on.

    The key part for me is: “And maybe the attitude would filter through the city.”

  7. 3 December 2008 at 7:48 am

    Good stuff.

    It always strikes me that Birmingham is trying too hard to justify itself alongside London, Manchester et al. Why?

    Birmingham should have the self-confidence to get on do whatever it thinks is right and the reaction of other people in other cities is largely irrelevant. Yes, it would be good to attract people from all over the UK to see just how far Birmingham has come and what it is capable of doing, but the “Look at us! Look at us!” pleading gets in the way of making sure the city is the best it can be. I used to think Birmingham had this self-confidence, but it seems to have slipped away badly over the last 5 years or so. Attracting people to Birmingham is important, but being the best the city can be is essential.

    The irony is, of course, that the creative people in and around the city who do make things happen every day of every week have this self-confidence to get on with it and make a big impact locally, nationally and internationally in abundance. Alas, their voice is rarely (if ever) heard and the so the scenario we are left with is the one you describe.

  8. 3 December 2008 at 9:51 am

    Your sentiments are echoed around the city – I’m pleased you’ve come out and said in public what everyone whispers. It’s about time the decision makers in Birmingham (UK, not Alabama, obviously) grew up and thought about how the city can progress over the next 20, 50 years, and not be constantly worried about whether or not Manchester is taking over as the second city.
    The answer to that, of course, is in many ways it is because it has had the foresight to think about what will work for its city and strike out as an innovator, not follower.
    Birmingham needs to be more pro active (the comments about websites etc are just a tiny bit of it) and have the confidence to shout about what it is brilliant at and not be apologetic about what it was 20 years ago.
    There are so many creative people and talented innovators in the city who are not being used to their full capacity. Hopefully the council will get its head out of the sand and use them if they want to the city to have an international reputation as a place to go and see the best in creative talent, the innovations and the support it gives to organisations. God forbid, there should even be a “joined up approach” (apologies for such an ugly phrase): too often things are done in isolation. Critical mass is key.
    Great, piece, Jon.

  9. Jack Kirby
    3 December 2008 at 6:04 pm

    Right on Jon. I have no idea from the title what ‘Creative City Awards’ means. Awards have their place, but they have to be meaningful and relevant outside their immediate sphere if people are to take them seriously. It might be better to encourage and support creative businesses to enter relevant national awards.

    The Birmingham brand is still not strong enough.

  10. 4 December 2008 at 12:38 am

    BCC contract a company to deliver marketing projects – Marketing Birmingham. They are based at Millennium Point, and every time I have had contact with them I have walked away shaking my head.

    Worst contact I had was ta the NEC.

    The Manchester marketing team had they own space, videos, posters, plenty of swag to give away, and the staff were full of knowledge about their city. I had a good chat with them, and I learnt a lot about their city, and what I could do if I was to visit for a couple of days.

    However, when I went to the Marketing Birmingham stand, it was the total opposite. They couldn’t think of good things to do in Birmingham. The answers were “Errr… Umm… [pause for 3 seconds with a blank stare while they think] You can go shopping!”. Not the answer I wanted. I felt totally embarrassed being near to these people because I’m from the West Midlands too.

    I never know why the council wont terminate Marketing Birmingham’s contract. If I was a tourist I don’t want to know about conference facilities, which seems to be the only thing they are good at shouting about.

  11. 4 December 2008 at 7:27 am

    @simon It isn’t imediately obvious, but Marketing Birmingham are only charged with the responsibility of promoting Birmingham to people outside the city. Sometimes their campaigns are cringeworthy, but the conference figures suggest that they know that section of the Market at least. A creative lead might change that and attempt to get some coherance with how the city presents itself. To be honest, I don’t really care what people from outside Brum hear – it’s a much bigger problem that events in Birmingham seem to be attended only by the same people over and over again and that they don’t seem to be able to widen that.

    Like Paul says it’s time we stoping looking at other places and just got on with doing good stuff.

  12. 4 December 2008 at 8:48 pm

    Jon, this post is fantastic. We need to raise the standards and expectations for Birmingham. Applauding the success of stuff that falls short of these just lets our city down

  13. 4 December 2008 at 9:48 pm

    Well said Jon, its incredibly frustrating to watch from a distance and feel helpless when BCC gets it so wrong time and time again, it negates all the good work so many of us do. Its time that we stop making stuff happen in spite of the city but have some genuine investment and support. Imagine what Supersonic could achieve if we got some support from the council – we currently get nothing from them, even have to pay to get Gibb Street shut down. Learn from those that do it well and have a track record.

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