A Rich Mix of politics in East London

February 20, 2010

It seemed like such a good idea: an arts centre in the heart of vibrantly multicultural East London. But two years after its doors opened, Rich Mix in Bethnal Green still awaits its official opening, its short history tainted by infighting and financial problems. This week, Patience Wheatcroft, the former Business Editor of The Times and more recently Editor of The Sunday Telegraph, will present a report to the London Assembly which is expected to be highly critical of the way the London Development Agency (LDA) selected, funded and oversaw flagship projects championed by the former Mayor, Ken Livingstone. Those projects include Rich Mix, the Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham and Caribbean Showcase, which is the subject of a police investigation into the management of its funds.

The Rich Mix Cultural Centre has cost in excess of £27 million of public money – nearly £13 million over budget, according to the LDA. Supporters of Rich Mix believe it is a unique opportunity to bring together the white working class and Bangladeshi communities in the area, but critics claim that it has amounted to little more than a potent stew of political wrangling.

Wheatcroft’s report is likely to view Rich Mix more favourably than other projects but, speaking to the London Assembly Budget Committee last month, she criticised the London Development Agency for a general culture of “endemic spending” and founding projects such as Caribbean Showcase “on a whim”. The arrival of Boris Johnson as London Mayor coincides with a broader change of direction in national arts funding. Katriona Macrae-Gibson of the London office of the Arts Council confirms that there are no plans for any further capital building projects of the Rich Mix type. Alan Davey, the new chief executive of the Arts Council, has said that an emphasis on artistic “excellence” could mean funding more successful projects while cutting money for underperformers.

According to Anwar Akhtar, a former director of Rich Mix, the centre was originally envisaged as a meeting point for “City boys, Bangladeshi grandmothers and dungaree-clad students”. But a recent visit on a Saturday afternoon revealed an empty building and a café without food. A local Bengali women’s group appeared not to have heard of the project. “What is Rich Mix?” asked one woman. “It’s that big fat building up the road that no one ever goes to,” her friend informed her.

Rich Mix will continue to rely on a combination of commercial enterprise and the public sector for both programming and funding – its annual budget is £1.8 million. Arts Council England has committed to the project for three years, and most of the workshop space in the building has now been leased to local creative industries. The BBC has built a studio on the ground floor, alongside a bar and café and a three-screen cinema. Rich Mix admits the café and bar are underused, and a new food franchise is under consideration. The cinema, though, attracts 6,000 customers a month, up on 4,000 a year ago. With Hollywood – and Bollywood – a key source of income, Michael Keith, a member of the Rich Mix board, rejects the criticism that the centre has used public money to fund the screening of blockbusters already available at commercial cinemas. “It was always going to be a cinema that mixed commercial films and art films,” Keith says. “We want people to see Sex and the City and then bump into another exhibit on the way out.”

A typical week at Rich Mix involves an Arts Council conference, a local tenants’ meeting, Jazz on Sunday, a popular mainstream movie and a children’s educational workshop. Some claim that this programme promotes worthiness at the expense of artistic integrity (Rich Mix does not have a dedicated gallery space). The Rich Mix model has led some to question the value of arts and culture centres at all. “An arts centre is ghastly,” says the design critic Stephen Bayley. “It’s the relic of a culture that has no contemporary relevance. When did anyone ever say, ’I’ve got a free afternoon, let’s go to the arts centre’?”

Rich Mix was dreamed up in the early 1990s as an “arts market” by a group including Labour councillors Denise Jones and Michael Keith. “It’s a who’s who of the East London Labour Party,” says Ted Jeory of the East London Advertiser. Oona King, the former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and now Downing Street adviser, is chairman of the centre’s board. “Rich Mix was a political idea, in the best sense,” Denise Jones says. “This is the most deprived borough in the country and we wanted to bring together – through art – the white working class from the Isle of Dogs and the Bengali boys from the Boundary Estate. Whatever you think of us, we had that vision.”

The organisation is confident it can bridge communities, but the former Liberal Democrat councillor John Griffiths has long opposed the project. “The only people who go there are white Shoreditch artist types. It does not appeal to other communities in any way.”

After years on the drawing board, the very existence of Rich Mix was still in doubt up to 18 months ago, with spiralling costs and arguments about the leadership of Keith Khan, now the Head of Culture for London 2012. According to Jeory, “Keith was not a natural cost controller, but the board was also weak.” Overstaffing, disputes between builders and architects, and specially commissioned wallpaper showing a black gangster pointing a gun at a white woman’s head all added to the expense, with some funders temporarily witholding revenue in 2007 until a new business plan could be agreed. Khan did not want to comment on Rich Mix for this article.

Rich Mix is now run by Pawlet Brookes, formerly the artistic director of the Peepul Centre in Leicester, and Katriona Macrae-Gibson of the Arts Council says that, after a difficult period, she is confident the project is on track. But Stephen Bayley questions any cultural or artistic project driven by a political concept. He says politicians are “philistines without vision” and adds that the problems at Rich Mix “smack of the dead hand of the Arts Council, which should have been abolished 60 years ago”.

John Kampfner, the chairman of Turner Modern, a £17 million gallery due for construction in Margate, says there is a new emphasis within funding bodies and central government on excellence and quality. “Art has to lead, otherwise it feels like social engineering, and that never works. Its good for society to widen access to art, but we can’t sacrifice excellence in pursuit of that.”

After an initial opening in February 2006, and more than two years in operation, Rich Mix is finally ready for a full “official” opening this autumn. With the building almost complete, tenant occupancy is at more than 90 percent and the project has created 50 front-of-house and administrative jobs for local people. It seems certain that Rich Mix will be allowed space to grow: Boris Johnson is reserving comment until after the Wheatcroft report but claims to be “committed to supporting and nurturing high-quality cultural projects that contribute to London’s status as a world-class city”. Privately Johnson’s cultural advisers are thought to be sympathetic to Rich Mix, wanting to support ethnic groups that have suffered discrimination without being boxed into the identity politics they believe was redolent of Ken Livingstone.

John Pandit of the band Asian Dub Foundation has been involved with Rich Mix since its founding and takes a more belligerent view of the centre’s critics. “There used to be absolutely nothing for people around here, and if it was up to some there’d still be nothing.”

The unlucky ones: failed and flagging arts institutions

Arc Centre, Stockton-on-Tees

Opened in 1999, but was forced to close again two years later because of debt and disappointing ticket sales. Arc (above) has since re-opened under new management.

Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton

Shut down in 2007. After Brighton and Hove City Council’s withdrawal of the Gardner’s annual £30,000 grant, it was unable to meet criteria for Arts Council funding.

National Centre for Popular Music, Sheffield

The £15 million NCPM opened in March 1999, only to close in July the following year. After confident predictions of 300,000 visitors per annum, the centre failed to reach half that in its first year.

Centre for the Visual Arts, Cardiff

Lasted just 14 months after opening in September 1999, when it became clear that estimates for visitor numbers were rather optimistic, and the Arts Council of Wales rejected a rescue package.

The Left Bank, Edinburgh

The Fringe venue closed in July 2006, after reports of two years of unpaid rent. Previously, as Cowgate Central, it had been blacklisted by the Fringe when performers claimed non-payment.

Comments (0)

Add your comment:


Recent Posts


Welcome to my website. I hope these pages give you a flavour of some of my work in books, print, onl…

Recent News

Istanbul Arrival

Last week I was in Istanbul attending a Youth Forum for teenagers from around the world. But not eve…

Nelson Mandela Dies - Grazia

When Nelson Mandela retired after serving one five-year term as President of South Africa in 1999 he…

China Debates....

I’ve just returned from China, after a gap of about 16 years, and I met these undergraduates – comin…

Top Ten Articles

Polio's Last Stand

Eradicating the Last 1% of Polio Is Deadly But Essential

When 40-year-old Liberian civil servan…

Life and Love with 'The Greatest': Muhammad Ali

When Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams was six years old she looked out of her front door in Louisville,…

Momma D: Dionne Warwick, the Grande Dame of Divas

She learnt her stagecraft from Marlene Dietrich; 50 years on, she’s mentor to Whitney Houston and …

India's Barefoot Revolution

What would it be like if women ran the world? In some parts of India, it’s already happening


How one man gave Congo’s women hope

*Life is hell for women caught up in the conflict in the Congo. But one remarkable doctor helps surv…

‘If they gave me a house, I’d take it tomorrow’

All I want is to die under this mountain.” Noor Ebrahim, a slightly-built former messenger for Rea…

It’s murder on your mobile, says The Killing’s Sarah Lund

Hit crime drama The Killing is back for a second series, and Karen Bartlett talks mobile phone foren…

Skateistan: How skateboarding took off with Afghan kids

It’s no surprise that in a world full of rules most kids want to do something with no organisation…

Growing Up X

Fifty years after he was killed, the daughter of Malcolm X wants to make sure her father isn’t writt…

Bringing Anne Frank Home – to Germany

Like many people in their seventies and eighties, Buddy Elias and his wife Gertie are downsizing –…

©2011 Karen Bartlett | Goodcleanfunk