Changing Cultures Debate Summary

Key takeaways from the fourth Urban Age Debate



On the 13th October 2021 participants from around the world attended the fourth Urban Age Debate: Changing Cultures, organised by LSE Cities, the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft and the Global Cultural Districts Network.

The 60-minute virtual event featured thoughts and remarks from renowned cultural leaders and urbanists who discussed the impacts of a global pandemic, climate change and digialisation on urban cultural institutions. The debate was moderated by Adrian Ellis, Director of AEA Consulting and Chair of the Global Cultural Districts Network, who was joined by: Gabriella Gomez-Mont, Founder of Experimentalista, and former Director of Laboratorio Para la Ciudad; Elaine Bedell, Chief Executive of the South Bank Centre; and Andreas Gorgen, Chief head of the German Foreign Office’s Culture and Communication Department.

Key Takeaway 1: ‘Thursday is the new Friday’ (Elaine Bedell) – Covid 19 is reshaping social contact in city Centre

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about dramatic changes to when and how we live, work, and socialise. Remote work has become a real option for many, offering hybrid models and options for more localised living. Due to this transition, we are witnessing a fluctuation in the days and times urban residents are willing to access their cities' central culture venues. In addition, some cultural institution no longer operate seven days a week, and therefore have varied times of sociability and conviviality, which have an impact on night-time industries, dining venues and the overall life of the city.

“London is not as busy as it has been,” notes Elaine Bedell, director one of Europe's largest cultural venues. “We keep saying Thursday night is the new Friday night because many people are choosing to work from home now on Friday. So, we are finding the site lively on Thursday nights. We are hammering out what lasting effect this change in work patterns is going to have on us. In terms of our audiences, there is no question that deciding to go to an event after work, when to you work in central London is an easy hop and a step. If you’ve been working at home however, it involves a commute in.” Bedell notes how theatre venues are especially affected by this change, with some introducing Sunday performances. “Historically theatres never opened on Sundays here in the UK, but because of that shifting pattern we are all having to think about different ways of providing art and activity for people,” she says.

Tourism levels have decreased, and cities are observing changes in mobility patterns for specific demographic groups, such as the elderly who are reluctant to use public transport for fears of contracting the virus. This will also eventually impact centrally located cultural venues and their eco systems, as the majority thrive on national/ international tourism, and the consumption of specific content from those groups. Bedell explains: "I think is not a reluctance to come to the halls which I think people understand are incredibly covid safe..., but people are very nervous about travel. We are impacted by a reluctance to use public transport, particularly by the older demographic. In 2019, our visitors (to the South Bank) were in the region of 4.5 million but now we have 50, 000, we have seen a massive impact in terms of oversees and out of town tourism.”

To combat these changes museums and cultural institutions around the world are switching to digital platforms and offering hybrid solutions to consuming art, which enables a wider outreach. Despite that, there is still an appetite for urban residents to enjoy live experiences, and some venues are reverting to in person attendance only. 

Key Takeaway 2: Cultural institutions within cities are altering their DNA to ‘become infrastructures of imagination’ (Gabriella Gomez-Mont) 

Gabriella Gomez-Mont and Adrian Ellis note that while cultural organisations have sought to define themselves as community anchors and simultaneously hubs of artistic innovation over the last few decades, this aspiration has been realised and somewhat intensified in a number of cities during the pandemic. 

South American and European cultural institutions are restructuring their ethos and DNA by thinking of ways they may become “infrastructures for imagination says Gomez-Mont”. “There has been an expansiveness in experimentation that is happening in the civic realm,” she explains. “There is new thinking about civic space which is no longer about strangers but about building communities and networks that have specific meaning to the space.” 

Both Gomez-Mont and Bedell note how multiple cultural venues are engaging in the creation of makeshift spaces that work outside the normative functions of performance halls, or exhibition spaces, to become community kitchens, studios and ‘public living rooms. There is a temporal dimension to these cultural spaces, as they adapt to new uses determined by the shorter and longer term needs of the community. 

Gomez-Mont went on to say that there is a multiplicity of functions occurring within cultural spaces, “on one hand there is a multiplicity that has been happening as well as added experimentation,” she says. “Vis a vis this multiplicity is specificity, where many communities and many smaller projects are functioning as spaces where new civic typologies are possible. So nowadays we are seeing everything from a community kitchen that is also about tool sharing, or feminist communities gathering to teach skills.” 

Ultimately, a symbiotic approach to place making and the shift towards experiments expand the possibilities of imagination that alter our understanding of culture. 

Key Takeaway 3: Westernised models are changing 

The pandemic has challenged the resilience of cultural institutions and their ability to adapt. Adrian Ellis asked the speakers what role cultural institutions play in urban development and if the current westernised models remain useful over the next few decades. Andreas Görgen responded first with a reflection on the pandemic, stating: 

“My two lessons from the pandemic come from learning about vulnerabilities. A personal vulnerability and the vulnerability of our Society, which leads us to a more enhanced thinking of our communities. What we have seen in western Europe is a sharp decrease in attendances at museums in the public sector. There is a high amount of money spent just to maintain these infrastructures, which is good on the one hand, but on the other hand, we continue to sustain organisations which do not respond to the needs of a society.” 

According to Görgen, we need to rethink monolithic institutions and their tendency to be unworkable, not easily adaptable, and rigid. We need to observe and critique how they deal with diversity and sustainability in terms of consumption, as these have been pressing issues for decades. Institutions must be flexible and respond to change. 

"The effects of the pandemic will last,” says Görgen, “and we are trained in a model which will change.” Görgen mentions for example how our criteria of sustainability will be challenged and so, supporting big festivals like Biennale, or Cannes Film Festival might not be feasible in the near future. "What we are doing as government or cultural institution to try to export German culture by buying a ticket for an airplane and sending the film abroad will dramatically change." 

Görgen, however, remains hopeful for cities in the developing world that have more recently embarked on the ‘cultural infrastructure’ journey. “There is a still catch-up effect.” He says, “I am confident that the desire to build public and cultural spaces in those countries who just started will slightly differ from what has been built in Europe.”

Key Takeaway 4: The next billion dollars for innovation: Innovation should expand the repertoire of culture 

Innovation has been key to the success of cultural venues, allowing for disruptive ideas and unexpected moments to take place which have advanced creativity. However, many cultural institutions are caught in a restrictive loop between private investors that limit artistic freedom or underfunded public schemes that face budget cuts. 

Gabriella Gomez-Mont explained: “We are caught in a Catch 22, if you are publicly funded and a crisis comes, then suddenly the huge budget cuts put so many museums at odds, and then if you are privately funded you are strapped into a corporate agenda and lose your freedom.” 

Similarly, Adrian Ellis commented "in the private sector, there is a process of creative destruction in which established institutions are pushed aside by capital markets.” Ellis went on to ask the panel if they recognise a tension between the creativity that is taking place in publicly funded arts, and the large mostly privately funded institutions who are preoccupied with surviving the pandemic. 

According to Bedell both private and public organisations can thrive side by side, and the tensions can create an interesting environment where there is an overlap “The south bank is 37% publicly funded,” she states. This, however, raises questions about what other financial models should be in place to safeguard both large and small intuitions. 

Gomez-Mont argues that city planners and institutions can collaborate to provide creative financial models. “When a cultural institution comes into specific spaces within the city, what happens in terms of real estate? Why isn't there more thought about the surplus capture of the capital gains that are made by the cultural institution coming to make sure they are captured by the public and not by corporations and by private companies?” Similarly, Görgen, calls for an action to innovate this system saying, “You have to put into place incentives for innovation. There is still a need for more innovation." 

All members of the panel more or less agree that financial models should be expanded beyond the existing ones, into creative possibilities that address the city’s needs and therefore speak to citizens in unique ways. 

Gabriella Gomez-Mont concludes” Sometimes we come across certain ideas of what culture is and what culture does, that become monolithic in nature, but rather we need to keep the amplitude of all these ways culture add layers to society.” By adding to the growing repertoire of what culture is, we can thus reshape our understanding of culture, and redefine our relationships between cultural institutions and the city. 

Follow @LSECities on Twitter and subscribe to the LSE Cities newsletter to keep up-to-date about the Urban Age Debates as the event series continues in December with the next virtual debate: Rationalising Shopping.


Elaine Bedell is the Chief Executive of the Southbank Centre, the UK’s largest arts centre. She has worked for over 25-year in media, having senior roles at the BBC and ITV, where she produced some of the UK’s most popular entertainment titles. Elaine served previously as Executive Chair of the Edinburgh International TV Festival and was appointed a Trustee for the V&A Museum by the British Prime Minister in 2015.  

Gabriella Gomez-Mont  is the Founder of Experimentalista, a novel creative studio that specialises in cities, public imagination, and system change. She is the former Director of Laboratorio Para la Ciudad, the award-winning and experimental think tank of the Mexico City government. Gabriella is a documentary filmmaker, visual artist and journalist. She has worked as a creative advisor to several cities, and is a TED Senior Fellow, an MIT Director’s Fellow and a Yale World Fellow.  

Andreas Görgen is head of the German Foreign Office’s Culture and Communication Department. He began his professional career in 1996 at the Berliner Ensemble theatre before moving to the École Nationale D’Administration in France. He has worked in the public film finance sector and was a consultant to State and Federal management teams. Prior to joining the Foreign Office, Andreas held senior roles in the energy sector with Siemens south-west Europe.  

Adrian Ellis is the Director of AEA Consulting and Chair of the Global Cultural Districts Network, a network of over fifty cultural districts committed to improving the quality of urban life through knowledge-sharing in the arts and culture and creative industries. Adrian is a board member of New York's Poets House, and a past board member of the Getty Leadership Institute, and the National Museums and Galleries of Wales.  

Note: quotes have been edited for clarity and cohesion.