The Richmond Society responds to the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames Culture Review

The Richmond Society, a civic and amenity charity of nearly 1,300 members in North and South Richmond Wards and part of Ham, Petersham and Riverside Ward, held a forum on Thursday 15 October 2020 to discuss how the Arts could help to revive Richmond. Participants were leading figures in the Arts and business in Richmond as well as the Council’s spokesperson for the Arts.

The forum was in the context of the deleterious effect on mental health and wellbeing caused by the coronavirus pandemic and its adverse effects on public life. At that point, people had been deprived of cultural nourishment for more than six months, although the availability of abundant open spaces in the immediate area and across the borough had been important to the preservation of physical and mental health in the face of widespread challenges affecting all sections of the population.

Richmond is rightly celebrated for the diversity and richness of its cultural and leisure offerings. When post-pandemic life returns to normal it is unlikely to be as it was before COVID-19 began to infect people at the beginning of 2020. People will have adjusted to a pattern of less frequent commuting and increased working from home, with more time for cultural, social and other leisure pursuits which they will seek increasingly in their immediate or nearby neighbourhoods.

Hence the concept of the 15-minute city in which proximity permits minimal travel between homes, workplaces, restaurants, cultural venues, parks and sports facilities. Richmond is ideally placed to benefit from this behavioural change. In many ways, it is already a 10-minute town.

Our virtual forum recognised that the Arts have a part to play in restoring vibrancy to a town centre made desolate by the demise of many retail, entertainment and hospitality businesses. It also showed that business and the Arts can work together for mutual and public benefit. For example, businesses have employees who are potential daytime consumers of the Arts; they may also have funds to sponsor something that fits their objectives. Property developers and landlords, with the encouragement of the local authority, could be asked to do more to support the culture sector. Hoardings around development sites could be made more interesting with information about local history or old photos. Recently, Be Richmond (the Business Improvement District) has led the way on this by producing colourful vinyl coverings for the windows of vacant shops. They feature local places of cultural interest – an initiative that we applaud. Be Richmond has other initiatives in the pipeline.

Our Borough is blessed with an abundance of parks and open spaces – amenities that make it so attractive as a place in which to live, work or visit. The present consultation should usefully examine whether they provide adequate facilities and are kept safe for the enjoyment of residents of all ages and abilities in the face of increased incidents of anti-social behaviour, particularly since the start of the public health emergency.

Although the decline in the retail sector began with the trend towards online shopping – i.e. before the pandemic – it was exacerbated by the effects of government measures to deal with the spread of the disease. People have been obliged to learn new habits. So the revival of the High Street may not be possible on the same terms as before. Fresh thinking is needed to bring shoppers, who are contributors to the local economy, back to retail centres. People will need another reason beside the acquisition of things to be persuaded to return. The shopping experience will have to be raised to a higher level of engagement and retailers will need to offer more than artful window displays and enticingly stacked shelves. The Arts sector can be a partner to them and to the local authority in devising imaginative ways to make this happen.

Many ideas for restoring vitality to the town emerged at The Richmond Society forum. These included:

  • Creation of a new town square as a permanent outdoor performance space for cultural performances near the under-utilised Old Town Hall and the Riverside.
  • A street-level location for the Museum of Richmond, which is all but hidden in a remote, difficult- to-access part of the Old Town Hall.
  • Pop-up exhibitions of contemporary visual arts in static window displays in vacant shopfronts.
  • Use of hoardings around building works to depict local artists.
  • Creation of a vibrant, creative studio space – possibly one or more of the many empty shops – to host active artists and help them financially to develop their own ideas, engage the community and create work that animates the townscape.
  • Allocation of studio space in vacant buildings such as the former House of Fraser department site in George Street where artists can work and produce everything from fashion to sculpture to music.
  • Production of a performing arts, circus-style street festival.
  • Bring landlords and artisans together.
  • Engage young people in re-building the cultural scene.

The present review of cultural services flows naturally from this initiative.

The Richmond Society is pleased that the Council is looking towards a ten-year vision for the culture sector and we are keen to work with all stakeholders on how it can be implemented.

Our enthusiasm is tempered only by our conviction that the need is more pressing than a ten-year view would allow. Therefore we would encourage the Council to take more immediate, shorter- term steps to support the cultural community.