Cultural Anchors: How can cultural institutions ‘anchor’ and facilitate growth in creative districts?

for Arts Professional
May 2022
By Natalia Vartapetova and Christie Lam

Senior Consultant Natalia Vartapetova and Research Analyst Christie Lam write in ArtsProfessional of their recent work with the Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre led by Nesta about how UK cultural institutions can ‘anchor’ and facilitate growth in creative districts.  

View the ArtsProfessional article


Cultural Anchors

How can cultural institutions ‘anchor’ and facilitate growth in creative districts? Natalia Vartapetova and Christie Lam have been investigating.

Our study* explored the relationship between ‘anchor’ cultural institutions and local creative industries. To capture and analyse the place-based dimensions of these relationships, the research used the framework of cultural districts.

A cultural district is an area with a high concentration of cultural facilities. While it may have similar attributes to ‘clusters’ of cultural activity, it’s different in that it is formally organised and tends to have defined boundaries. The ones we looked at were Culture Mile (City of London); Bankside (London); Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside; Dundee Waterfront; Bristol Harbourside; and Salford Quays. Each of the districts has large cultural institutions that act as anchors – engines generating positive economic and social impact locally – in their local creative community. Anchors are generally understood to have three major roles: to contribute to community revitalisation, to act as a catalyst for collaboration and economic growth, and/or to support placemaking and branding. 

Cultural anchors have an added dimension as important nodes within their cultural ecology. Adopting Roberta Comunian and Oliver Mould's categorisation, our research found that cultural anchors share three major types of relationships with their local creative communities: 1) area branding and placemaking; 2) knowledge exchange, skills development and networking; and 3) supply chain interactions.

Area branding and placemaking 

This was found to be the strongest type with cultural anchors frequently contributing to the attractiveness of an area for creative professionals living and working there, as well as for visitors. In the case of Culture Mile and its core cultural anchor institutions – Barbican Centre, London Symphony Orchestra, Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Museum of London – their presence increases the appeal and vibrancy of the area and its perception among the local creative community. 

Similarly, in MediaCity UK and Salford Quays, cultural programming led by The Lowry and Salford Culture and Place Partnership help shape the character of the place, adding vibrancy and attracting visitors. 

As cultural anchors have a tangible impact on local areas, funding that supports public programming led by them can contribute to area appeal and creative placemaking.

Knowledge exchange, collaboration, and networking

These were identified by research participants drawn from the creative sector and cultural institutions as an important growth area in which local cultural institutions could play an ‘anchoring’ role. Cultural organisations invest in their local creative economy, although ‘local’ is often defined by a wider local area rather than the cultural district boundaries. 

Unsurprisingly, cultural districts with strong, well-defined formal and informal networks see greater levels of collaboration and cross-sector activity. Dundee is one such place, where the £1 billion investment into Dundee Waterfront drew attention to pre-existing relationships between cultural leaders and networks such as Creative Dundee. It created an environment of collaboration between the city’s creative assets, helping to foster programmatic connections, cross-marketing of local events, and contribute to community engagement initiatives such as We Dundee, a platform for community feedback. 

Programmatic collaborations are more often seen in districts where all levels of the cultural ecology interact through formal networks, facilitated by oversight organisations. On the other hand, interactions involving knowledge and skills exchange are more prevalent in the districts where both cultural organisations and creative industries are strongly represented and well-established such as Bristol Harbourside. 

Having a dedicated initiative like Creative Dundee to facilitate networking and cooperation in the sector (along with advocacy and funding functions) has proved beneficial to both the creative sector and to cultural anchors who gain access to a centralised and coordinated network of local creatives.

With funding for place-based innovation, such as the Creative Fuse North East project, tools can be made available to organisations to collaborate across sectors and to spur exploration within their own unique areas of work. Sage Gateshead, for example, alongside Theatre Hullabaloo, Festival of Thrift, University of Sunderland and Teesside University, worked with locally based creative, design and IT companies to explore new ways of better procuring local creative and digital services. Investment directed towards research and development helps ensure that co-located organisations can innovate and experiment together, sharing the benefits within their sector and beyond.

Direct supply chain interactions

These were the least common of the observed types of relationship, partially due to the small size of the analysed districts and partially due to the absence of established policies across anchor cultural institutions to procure goods and services locally. So incentives to procure locally may benefit the growth of local creative economies and support a greater volume of supply chain interactions. These in turn may help form the basis of other kinds of interactions, such as programmatic collaborations, or research and experimentation. 

The research findings suggest that targeted funding may be amplified by serving local collaborative initiatives that support knowledge exchange, experimentation, research & development, and networking, especially those that involve an anchor cultural institution as well as local creative businesses. 

Skills development in particular – primarily that of the workforce employed by the anchor cultural institutions – could benefit from targeted funding to enable greater collaboration with local creative industries. This is especially true when considering technology and design-led collaborations as a skills gap (at cultural anchors) in these areas has been identified as a barrier to greater collaboration. 

When investing in cultural and heritage institutions, it is important to understand and prioritise the range of spillover impacts, recognising that some knowledge and information-based spillover effects, namely knowledge exchange, innovation, and cross-sector collaboration have the most potential to generate wider benefits to the broader creative industries.

*This article is based on new research ‘The relationships between cultural organisations and local creative industries in the context of a cultural district’. It was commissioned by the AHRC-funded Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) and delivered by AEA Consulting, in partnership with Professor Geoffrey Crossick, Culture Mile (the core case study district alongside five others across the UK), and the Global Cultural Districts Network (GCDN).

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