The culture quotient

A global city’s arts scene is no longer just a tourist attraction but part of its economic power

Culture is big business. And in the world’s truly international cities, it plays a vital role in defining the character and attractiveness of the urban experience. “Culture is a city’s natural resource – it’s your own particular product,” says Paul Owens, Director of the World Cities Culture Forum. “If you don’t grow it and make it visible, then you’re throwing away a huge amount of value. It’s a missed opportunity.

Owens is not alone in recognising the economic benefits of a thriving cultural scene. Whether it’s New York, Paris, Zurich, Stockholm or Dubai, opportunities are being snapped up. “The reason that culture is so important now, as opposed to any other time, is because of the sheer speed and size of globalisation,” continues London-based Owens. “These cities are the places that global capital is looking to invest in, and it flows into them at an incredible pace and in very large volumes.”

Art Dubai is not only responding to the appetite for art in the region but driving it... There is no question that Art Dubai is now a global fair with a global footprint and relevance

Antonia Carver, Director, Art Dubai

A city’s cultural footprint, then, can play a crucial role in attracting that capital and also in countering some of the unwanted effects of investment, such as the homogenisation that international finance can create. In London, annual events such as the London Design Festival and Frieze Art Fair – both founded in 2003 – attract global attention while reflecting the city’s prowess in design and contemporary art.

In Dubai, local confidence and an international outlook are creating a rapidly expanding cultural agenda, from the Gulf Photo Plus photography festival and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, to the Dubai International Film Festival. In the future, Expo 2020 will be an important marker in the city’s evolution, but for now Dubai’s events calendar continues to grow.

Across the UAE, contemporary art is a growing part of the cultural mix. This year’s Art Dubai art fair was the biggest since its launch in 2007, attracting more than 25,000 visitors.

“Art Dubai is not only responding to the appetite for art in the region but driving it,” explains Art Dubai’s Director, Antonia Carver. “The growth of the fair echoes the development of the arts scene in the UAE and the region as a whole. There is no question that Art Dubai is now a global fair with a global footprint and relevance.”

Art Dubai is also good business, with sales in excess of US$45m this year. Yet as policy-makers around the world will tell you, culture is about more than money. In New York – a city renowned for its public and privately run museums, commercial art galleries, and wider arts and music scenes – new mayor Bill de Blasio recently appointed Tom Finkelpearl, formerly Executive Director of Queens Museum, as the city’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs.

“The big-picture economic argument has been made very well and is absolutely correct,” says Finkelpearl. “But there’s a social value on the community level and what happens with artists in all the neighbourhoods of New York City. That’s something extremely valuable.”

As New York shows, a city’s cultural identity is a complex mix, with public supporting private and vice versa. In 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art is moving downtown to the former meat- packing district. Its new home is next to The High Line, an area of disused freight line that members of the public turned into a park, and which has created a scenic new route through the city.

Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city, may be more commonly associated with its historic streets than electronic music but it has become renowned for its annual Street Parade techno and dance music festival. Founded in 1992, it now attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every August.

Tate Modern
The success of projects like Tate Modern have inspired politicians and developers all over the world to see museums as regenerators and cultural drivers

In recent years, Paris has also been working to show that it is a vibrant contemporary city and not just a heritage site. The annual Nuit Blanche (White Night), founded in 2002 sees the city literally light up with contemporary art and culture for one night in October.

For a smaller but similarly historic city such as Stockholm, the answer has in part been to focus on Sweden’s already well-established reputation for contemporary design. Launched in 2002, the annual Stockholm Design Week has established itself as an internationally recognised showcase for new ideas and products.

What connects all these different cities is a recognition of the need to articulate a strong cultural identity in a way that intrigues and excites visitors and investors alike. To do that requires clever thinking and clear, well-thought-out policy.

Or as the head of the World Cities Culture Forum puts it: “Culture is something you have to embed in all aspects of urban policy and what a city is doing. You have to think of it as a strategic resource.”