Why did SohoCreate matter?

SohoCreate, the festival of creativity is no more. Not only is this a sad loss to the creative industries, argues its ex-CEO, but also for London as the city centre needs a much wider set of creative skills applied to its development

SohoCreate 2016's pop-up venues in Soho Square
SohoCreate 2016’s pop-up venues in Soho Square

So another arts event bites the dust, who cares, really? Most people reading this will probably never have heard of SohoCreate and if they have, they are unlikely to have attended.

For the uninitiated, SohoCreate was a festival of creativity. During it’s three years it ran over 150 different talks, presentations, open house events and workshops about creative people, ideas and companies. In 2016 it won the Best Small Event at the National Outdoor Event Association’s annual awards. Hundreds of creative people came to Soho to talk about what they do and why they do it. Most of the sessions were cross sectoral, directors talking with architects and writers, designers with actors, cinematographers and artists. There was no puff and no spin, no one promoting their latest film or book, just conversations about creativity; quiet, considered, funny, warm and profound. The whole thing was set deliberately in Soho, with 46,000 creative workers and a turnover of £7.5billion, Soho remains one of the greatest creative clusters in the world.

SohoCreate

SohoCreate was supported by a unique blend of public and private equity investment. The public money was invested by Westminster City Council and matched by the private sector. It relied on sponsorship and ticket sales for its revenues. These grew by 20% a year, not bad, but not good enough…

The event was forced into liquidation, partly by Westminster City Council’s fickle approach to management. One minute SohoCreate was flavour of the month, a beneficiary of investment, mentioned in speeches and strategies, the next minute, and with no warning, there were suddenly ‘other priorities’ for the money. One of Ronald Reagan’s great one liners was “the most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”.

The various failings that led to the demise would fill this whole website and are probably only of interest to management consultants. What’s more important is to look at why the closure matters.

SohoCreate began as an event for the creative industries, an opportunity to share stories, working practice and craft, for younger people wanting creative careers to hear how it’s done, and not done, and to meet the people doing it. This is a complex conversation and a vital conversation if we are to understand and appreciate creativity itself.

The loss of SohoCreate as a platform for a complex discussion on creativity is important.

The loss of an event that championed creativity in Soho is also important. It’s been a creative square mile for hundreds of years, dating back to the first Huguenot craftspeople exiled from France and welcomed into London. There are more creative workers crammed into Soho than any other square mile in the world. It’s a welcoming and diverse mash up of companies and people, with phenomenal output of global significance.

Like many of our inner cities the engine for the development strategy sits with property developers and large retail chains. Local authorities are left with little resource to engage and only the power to say yes or no to planning and licensing applications, which is a clumsy and blunt strategic instrument.

As part of my job running SohoCreate I sat in many meetings debating the future of Soho and the West End. The most engaging were at the Soho Society made up mostly of people who lived and worked in Soho for years, the Neighbourhood Forum, made up of people who cared deeply about Soho as a creative place and the many gatherings SohoCreate held for creative workers in the area. Also the passionate Save Soho Campaign run by Stephen Fry and Tim Arnold. There’s a huge groundswell of love and support for Soho as a creative place, not always focused and not always even sensible, but heartfelt.

I also sat for a days on end listening to the planners talking about pedestrianizing Oxford Street, expanding the experiential retail offering and accommodating the exponential growth in footfall expected from Cross Rail and HS2. The planners seldom talked about ‘people’ and what they might want. It’s as though there is a plan to parachute Westfield into the West End, minus the parking.

Traditionally Soho has been full of live work spaces, cheap offices, small walk up flats and a wonderful collection of diverse performance spaces for live music, comedy, burlesque, drag and all manner of eclectic and edgy activity.

With the exception of Soho Estates and to a large extent Shaftesbury PLC, the developers and landlords seem to care little for Soho’s history or its future.

We are losing our historic creative city centre to tourism and retail. Whilst the quirky Soho buildings are unlikely to ever become large retail spaces, Soho itself will be dwarfed by the retail developments taking place along Oxford Street, Regent Street and Charing Cross Road. It’s all very well retaining lots of quirky buildings but of no use at all if no one can afford to rent them or live in them. Anyone who doubts the dangers of the current trajectory need only look to New York, where most of the creative life has moved out of Manhattan across the river to Brooklyn.

One of SohoCreate’s successes was to bring hundreds of artists together for a collective conversation. What impressed me most was the creative intelligence brought to all the conversations. Playwrights can offer as much insight into the life of a new building as an architect, and a designer can talk eloquently and innovatively about the structure of a movie.

We should not leave the development of the centre of London to the planners alone, the creative community has to be part of the conversation if we are to have any chance of keeping the West End entertaining, eclectic, exciting and real.

SohoCreate was a tiny festival, celebrating all things creative in Soho, the centre of London, and the most creative square mile in the world. It’s demise should be seen as the canary in the cage, a warning that much more needs to be done to protect our city centres and keep them places for people, not just brands.

Soho has a unique ability to reinvent itself time and again. As one valued initiative, club or restaurant closes, so another opens. People fight to stay there, when they lose their grip and tumble out to other parts of London, they always say that Soho is over, unaffordable or dead. It is the perennial Phoenix rising up from the ashes to be glorious again. Let’s hope the poor old bird manages it one more time.

Photo of SohoCreate CEO Tom Harvey and chair Sir John Hegarty
SohoCreate CEO Tom Harvey (on left) and chair Sir John Hegarty. Photo: Dom Salmon, dom@cfkane.com

Tom Harvey was the CEO of SohoCreate. CR interviewed Harvey and Sir John Hegarty about the festival here

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