Greenwich Council gives £100,000 to Woolwich Frida Kahlo show

The Four Fridas

An outdoor theatre production celebrating the life of Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo has gained £100,000 in funding from Greenwich Council after backing from council leader Denise Hyland.

The Four Fridas is the headline show for this year’s Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, and will take place at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich from 1-4 July.

Greenwich has already committed £100,000 to GDIF, of which £20,000 was already earmarked for The Four Fridas.

Now the council is paying an extra £80,000 to festival bosses to secure the 45-minute long display of music, dance and flight, with a further £250,000 coming from Arts Council England and £60,000 from other sources.

Audiences will be able to stand and watch the show for free, with seats costing £16.

Kahlo, who died in 1954 aged 47, took up painting after being seriously injured by a trolleybus as a teenager. Her tempestuous personal life was explored in the 2002 film Frida, for which Salma Hayek was nominated for an Oscar.

An animated film will explore Kahlo’s “legacy as a disabled artist”, while the show “will feature a unique and powerful pre-hispanic Mexican cultural tradition by a group of young women from the village of Xochiapulcho in the Sierra Puebla, enacting the flight of the Voladores” – a ceremony that involving participants flying around a pole.

While the show is bound to pull in the crowds, the generous grant is likely to raise eyebrows at a time when the council is continuing to plead financial hardship. Over recent years, funding has been diverted away from smaller arts and cultural projects into larger, big-ticket events under the Royal Greenwich Festivals banner.

Smaller-scale grants have now been made available for community projects, and the council made a minor contribution to the Blackheath fireworks last year for the first time since 2009. But the Plumstead Make Merry festival is still struggling to survive while there remain fears for the future of Charlton’s Maryon Wilson Animal Park, an early victim of council cuts.

In any case, the funding decision continues a pattern of the council suddenly awarding extra funding to GDIF once programmes have been printed and press releases already sent out – the council found £100,000 at short notice in 2011.

“During a time of increasing financial pressures, Royal Greenwich is unique in making a significant investment in arts and culture to stimulate regeneration and access to the arts,” the council report says.

It adds the Four Fridas funding “strengthens Woolwich’s case as London’s newest cultural destination”, citing a decade of regeneration including new transport links, significant investment in residential, leisure and business development and evidence of grass roots arts-led development”.

How much this is actually apparent to the world beyond Woolwich Town Hall is worth questioning, though – an Evening Standard feature on the show describes Woolwich as “a part of London that is in desperate need of improvement”.

Other big arts events getting council funding – “developing awareness of ‘brand Greenwich'” – this summer include Greenwich Dance Festival (May-July £30,200), Greenwich International Book Festival (21-24 May, £12,000), Greenwich Children’s Theatre Festival (23-30 May, £17,000), Greenwich Music Festival (June 2015 – March 2016, £25,000), Parksfest (May – July, £26,400) and the one-day Greenwich World Cultural Festival (£20,800).

Second Floor Arts, 17 May 2015

Update, 7.50pm: After writing this, I took a trip down to the open studios at Woolwich’s amazing Second Floor Studios & Arts, a community of 400 artists tucked away by the river (next door to where Ed Miliband’s notorious pledge stone is being stored).. Having a wander around, I couldn’t help wonder why Greenwich Council doesn’t take advantage of this if it wants to turn Woolwich into a creative hub.

Instead of blowing £100,000 on marching people up to the barracks for a show that will be gone in four days, why not use that money to help artists actually set up shop in Woolwich town centre? Greenwich town centre isn’t a year-round cultural hub despite having had GDIF events for years – so why would Woolwich be any different? Amazing as The Four Fridas may be, will it really have any lasting effect once the last visitor has walked back down Grand Depot Road? Or is this just one big, ever so alluring, ego trip?

22 comments

  1. Janet Sweet

    How can our great and glorious Council justify this expense on a few days of GDIF when Maryon Wilson Animal Park is struggling? Some of the act venues are not even in Greenwich!

  2. Deborah

    The following are my opinions, and I am not speaking on behalf of the rest of the committee of the Plumstead Make Merry. As fundraiser, I am extremely grateful for the small Community Arts Fund grant the event has received from the Council this year. The committee could only apply for funds to support arts workshops (which are new and we are very excited about), but not to fund the festival itself. Without the festival, the workshops cannot happen. This is the first funding the festival has received from the Council for a few years. If I remember correctly, going back to my youth, the PMM formed part of the now-defunct Greenwich Festival. The committee did apply for Third Sector funding this year, on the grounds that community festivals were specifically included in the the criteria. However, the PMM could not proceed to the second stage of the application process, as only large organisations spending a very minimum of £20,000 each year, over four years, qualified. What message does this send to community groups organising cost-effective, local events. Surely, this attitude encourages profligacy amongst otherwise well-intentioned local groups and means that money flows out of the borough to arts businesses. The Plumstead Make Merry, which is organised by a small group of local volunteers on a shoe-string budget, attracted over 7,000 people last year and, according to an independent survey, compared more than favourably with a much, much larger and costlier event on our doorstep. The survey, and also feedback given to the organisers, demonstrated that participants view the event as, not just a fun, easily-affordable family day out, showcasing local groups, small businesses and talents but see it as playing an important role in community cohesion. What these surveys also revealed, though, is that people are unwilling to contribute financially due to the long-held belief that the PMM is organised (and therefore fully-funded) by the local authority. This year, we have been working hard to dispel that myth – but it is a hard nut to crack.

  3. Darryl Chamberlain

    I’ve added a little more and an opinion of my own to the post above.

    Deborah – I guess it’s that whole top-down attitude, isn’t it? If there was some kind of local funding that wasn’t dished out from some central arts budget – I’m thinking of Lewisham-style local assemblies – then it’d be simpler to get assistance in putting on community events. But if you’re competing with large groups, you’ve got a problem. What’s the priority here – brand-building or community building?

  4. Deborah

    Just a little extra comes to mind. I mentioned the Greenwich Festival. This used to be a huge affair that included organisations both large and small, every part of the borough and included a wide range of arts (dare I say even artists of an alternative nature at the beer festival).

  5. Darryl Chamberlain

    It was a very different beast, though, wasn’t it? When did it vanish – early 1990s? Maybe Parksfest is the nearest equivalent to that now.

    GDIF is much more consciously high-brow (and has covered both sides of the Thames, am sure it’s also had funding from Canary Wharf) – good at getting visitors in.

  6. Thudd

    Re: Unofficial Woolwich cultural hub

    As Hoxton, Spitalfields and Brixton have demonstrated, what makes a successful self-growing cultural hub is rents of £5 a square foot and being left alone by the Council ..

    One a Council decides officially to create a ‘cultural hub’ in a designated location it’s usually the kiss of death for any nascent creative quarters already emerging like seed pearls. Only when these reach critical mass, pulling in business and investment and raising land values, should Councils step forward and claim the credit for visionary planning.

  7. Shivanee

    Darryl, are brand building and community building exclusive of each other, especially in the case of Woolwich? We all know the hipster creative types didn’t just follow each other to Shoreditch and Hoxton because of cheap rents only.

    Though spending 100k on a niche theme is risky. Even if (f)arty, the money should have gone to some ‘ industrial chic blah’ type event which at least relates back to Woolwich and draws in the ‘mainstream’ (I include myself) or family crowd. Asking non-locals to venture out to zone 4 for a night about a Mexican painter is questionable. Can Woolwich compete with Deptford or New Cross in establishing itself as high arts? Maybe emphasis on docklands better (there is an event in Bethnal Green).

    However, we are lucky RBG is investing in culture, opening new libraries when other boroughs are closing etc. Festivals are free to everyone, from every part of the borough and bring civic pride as much as community events. Other councils don’t have ‘the assets’ or don’t know what to do. I visited Alexandra Palace a few weeks ago, 10 yrs on it’s still exactly the same. Nice but no ambience or reason to hang around. The best viewing spot has been cordoned off for a half-baked golf course and the crap pub is still crap with central London prices (£6.75 for pitta and hommous?). Wood Green has managed to get a lot worse – more litter, more drunks, more tat shops, whilst other places like Woolwich turn around. So be thankful RBG is not Haringay?!

  8. Shivanee

    Darryl, I also question your suggestion that Greenwich Town Centre is not a year round cultural hub. Greenwich market and the museums are busy year round even in winter, with big exhibitions and this year the student groups started arriving early before Easter. So perhaps RBG’s efforts are paying off. Sorry to nitpick, just that tourism is an interest of mine and have seen how it can work. On this, RBG is actually doing a great job. Community events are also important, the fireworks is publicised across London. Parksfest is very much a local affair so its not like the council is ignoring. Anyway, cheers for the festival summary!

  9. Darryl Chamberlain

    Greenwich isn’t opening new libraries – it’s moving one (East Greenwich). Ferrier Library was closed without plans for a replacement a few years back.

  10. Darryl Chamberlain

    I’m not really sure that hosting tourist attractions and markets is the same thing as being a cultural hub – Greenwich town centre has lost one of its two theatres in recent years (and the other is overshadowed by council meddling), has only one (tiny) regular venue for live music but does at least have a comedy club with a naff disco after.

    And, of course, Woolwich has just lost its fledgling Grand Theatre, while the days of regular gigs at the Tramshed are long, long gone. But I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  11. clogsilk

    A random selection of my thoughts on this:

    Deptford and New Cross aren’t high arts centres. Bethnal Green isn’t Docklands either. Also the idea people should be thankful because their area isn’t as shit as somewhere else is nonsense.

    Agree with Thudd that what creates cultural hubs isn’t the council trying too hard, it is precisely that combination of a light touch and cheap rents. Forcing people into council-run projects tends to get a concentration of council-run projects, eg in places like the Green Man hub in the very south of Catford. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but it isn’t a “cultural hub”.

    Greenwich is a tourist centre because of the museums and the park (and the fact that it feels like being by the seaside… 😉 ) not anything the council have done.

    I’ve got to say I’m now quite intrigued by the 4 Fridas – might well pop along. In the round £100k is pretty small beer, although I do wish Greenwich would pay their fair share towards Blackheath fireworks, an event enjoyed by as many Greenwich residents as Lewisham ones.

  12. Shivanee

    I guess it depends on what ‘cultural hub’ means, and maybe it’s meaning for different people? I suspect the council isn’t sure either. Though the term ‘cultural’ is quite broad and can encompass anything from libraries to arts to ethnicity and is both subjective and relative. For me, it is all related in regards to how local/non people perceive a place, now term that as ‘branding’ or ‘quality’ or ‘liveability’ whatever. New library buildings, local people and kids enjoying free arts festivals and celebrating historic points of interest are wrapped up with community/civic pride. It’s the vibe that makes a nice place a ‘destination’ to visit or most importantly, a nice place to live. Hence, RBG’s emphasis on local and tourist festivals.

    I cited Haringay because history and places of interest are everywhere around us, but too often are neglected or taken for granted. Councils may not take a visible leadership role but these things don’t just necessarily fall together and happen, and its certainly not led by the private sector.

  13. Deborah

    “RBG’s emphasis on local… festivals.” Shivanee, which local festivals does the Council fund?

    “Councils may not take a visible leadership role but these things don’t just necessarily fall together and happen, and it’s certainly not led by the private sector.” The Plumstead Make Merry is the borough’s longest-running community festival. It is, and always has been, led and organised by local volunteers – not the Council, visible or otherwise.

    The fortieth(!!!) event will take place on Plumstead Common on Saturday, 6th June. Anyone wishing to help safeguard the festival is welcome to contribute to the crowdfunding scheme, https://buzzbnk.org/plumsteadmakemerry and/or vote for Aviva to give a grant of £5,000 towards next year’s event https://community-fund.aviva.co.uk/voting/project/view/80/.

  14. Shivanee

    Deborah – I was referring to Parksfest, Greenwich Dance Festival, Greenwich World Cultural Festival and even Greenwich Childrens’ Theatre Festival, all of which will be aimed at and involve local people across the borough.

    I’m not saying RBG is perfect and that localised community festivals and gatherings shouldn’t be funded or less important. I honestly reckon its usually down to a bureacratic ‘computer says no’ mentality for any LA. I’m not familiar with Plumstead Make Merry as I’m relatively new to the area and I live on the other side of the borough. Similarly, your local neighbours may not (or may) be interested in my local community ‘Big Lunch’ get together on the Peninsula also on Sat 6th June, organised by the Greenwich Millennium Village Residents’ Association (which I’m Secretary of). Ours is quite small scale (mainly based around kids activities) and we haven’t even considered council funding. As volunteers, we’ll both probably agree the time and bureaucratic paperwork makes an unrealistic task and much depends on volunteers’ time (ours is mainly organised by one very committed household). Also, despite Greenwich Time, its not exactly straightforward to find out about how to bid for events community funding. RBG’s website appears to seek to hide rather than give information?

    I don’t know how RBG/LAs organise their teams and resources but GDIF and Plumstead Make Merry are two very different types of events – with different purpose. So should theoretically come from separate pots, managed by different council teams – ie. PMM the community fund and GDIF from the (larger) tourism/culture budget. That’s my experience working in a different government system in Australia which worked well. A problem here is that there’s lots of bureacratic orgs (state and NGO) but no one really wants to do street/neighbourhood level support. Though at the end of the day, I’m sure we’d agree on what makes our community events special and relevant is precisely that they are led by volunteers – coming together and giving back locally. In many respects, priceless?

  15. EssKay

    Clogsilk is spot on- Greenwich is attractive to tourists because of the historic assets in maritime greenwich and the town/market etc that grew around them over hundreds of years. Greenwich council had nothing to do with that.

    Infact, it sometimes feels like it does all it can to scupper our world class heritage with underinvestment in basic maintenance, crap street furniture and poor planning decisions (botched cutty sark renovation, nandos etc on the riverfront).

    The major “cultural investments” that it does make are increasingly concentrated around Woolwich and usually revolve around The private Royal Arsenal development with it’s close links to Greenwich Heritage Assets ltd (Darryl- did you ever get a chance to follow up on exactly what the deal is with them?).

    To be clear, I’m not saying funds for cultural development shouldn’t be spread around the whole borough, but why does it always seem to be questionable Woolwich/Royal Arsenal centred vanity projects that get the big bugs whilst small scale local, community driven projects get crumbs?

  16. Shivanee

    Esskay – Woolwich Arsenal is getting lots of projects because of regeneration. Fancy flats alone won’t do the job on giving the boost to the area. Knight Dragon is doing the same with the Peninsula.

    Being optimistic who knows Woolwich Grand may make a comeback in a few years? But you need to get people to want to perform and people to go there in the first place. There is actually pressure for authorities to demonstrate how much every £1 in marketing generates so they have to go for the big stuff. I reckon World Cultural Day is also about getting Eltham Palace on the map (eventually), though transport hampers that. In fact, I meet a lot of people who still have no idea Greenwich Maritime (or even the O2) is so near to central London. Why on this rare occasion, I will actually stick up for RBG!

  17. Darryl Chamberlain

    Shivanee – the events on the Knight Dragon-led Greenwich Peninsula are largely being paid for by Knight Dragon. The events puffing the Berkeley Homes-led Woolwich redevelopment are, in the main, being funded by Greenwich Council.

    Not really sure how an event called “Greenwich World Cultural Day” is meant to put Eltham on the map – on the contrary, I’d suggest it’s about erasing it and reinforcing “brand Greenwich”.

  18. Shivanee

    Darryl, yes I much agree there are questions about RGB giving so much financial weight to the Arsenal area when a big national developer is present. I would similarly ask why RBG is sending kids from Woolwich to school on the Peninsula and funding the building of such new school – instead of developers? Woolwich Arsenal is larger than GMV yet doesn’t have a new primary school included? Seeing the pramchairs everywhere at the Dial Arches on a Saturday afternoon, that may be an issue in the next few years. It appears that Berkeley’s Section 106 is all but limited to the cross rail box, mainly benefiting Berkeley to rack up it’s prices ready for 2018. Greenwich council’s great negotiation skills on display again.

    As for Eltham, I’m being kind to RBG in suggesting they are attempting a ‘across borough’ approach to festivities and attempting to eventually galvanise support for TFL transport focus on Eltham through greater local public awareness. I reckon Eltham Palace, Charlton House (?) and Severn Droog are part of heritage plans but transport will remain an issue for a long time. Though if Kew and Hampton Court Palace are popular, nothing to say you can’t entice (domestic and continental) weekend breakers flying into City and spending a weekend in Greenwich (borough). Eventually is the key. There are a lot worse places to spend a weekend (with less historical places) and there are enough hotels springing up to sustain it. I’m being kind and very optimistic that RBG has the capacity to think strategically and ambitiously.

  19. fromthemurkydepths

    What would improve Eltham, Greenwich, Woolwich et al is to get them on the tube map with a TfL takeover but that’s gone. Too many people think they’re miles away from central sadly. The answer for now is to advertise the quick (ish) southeastern routes from central London. Southeastern, if they had a real interest in long term off-peak passenger growth (which they don’t due to the mess that is franchising) would advertise heavily that Greenwich is less than 10 minutes on a train from central London.

    Agree fully about second floor by the way. What an asset it is, and severely under-utilised locally.

  20. The Hebridean

    Yes indeedy folks. Another waste of scarce resources when things we really like, such as the SMALL ANIMAL PARK are struggling for funds. It’s our parks and museums that bring people here not some artificial festival.

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