The cultural renaissance of Croydon was put in the spotlight as the first Royal Society of the Arts fellowship in the meeting attracted an audience of more than 400 people.
Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison, owner of the RISEgallery in St George’s Walk, was headline speaker at the event and urged the audience: “Croydon’s time is now, let’s build this new heritage."
The event also saw Croydon Council leader Tony Newman stress that culture was being placed at the heart of the borough’s vision while new cultural director Paula Murray outlined how she would be working to improve Croydon’s offer.
Mr Zuchowski-Morrison, who has attracted world-class exhibitions since opening his gallery in 2014, said: “We started out with a vision – I wanted to create a dynamic, world-leading place for visual arts and culture which I think Croydon should be and deserves to be.
“A place where arts and culture is truly inclusive to all and exclusive of none. Art is something that transcends every culture, age, race, gender – it speaks to everybody and has so much power.
“We’ve got an amazingly diverse population here and why don’t we celebrate that? Why don’t not just embrace but let the world know what an amazing melting pot of culture we’ve got around us.”
Having negotiated with the council and property owners to allow hoardings, flank walls, and shop shutters to become canvases for street artists to express themselves, Kevin is now looking to encourage others to build on this success.
RISE also plans to open 22 new studio spaces for emerging and established artists, and is advanced with proposals to create an iconic piece of public art which is being commissioned from a well-known street artist and that will be one of the largest such murals in the world.
Councillor Newman was bullish about the authority’s ambitions for Croydon, admitting there was still not enough for people to do in the town in the evenings and at weekends, and stressed its commitment to ensuring the people of Croydon benefit from the billions of pounds being invested in the town.
“We are absolutely committed to arts and culture being at the heart of the regeneration of Croydon,” he said.
“Croydon has had a tough reputation and image down the years, some of it outrageously unfair but some of it you can maybe see the point when they build a motorway through the middle and too many concrete buildings.
“But we’ve got a unique opportunity now to shape what is the seventh largest city in the country and actually a once-in-a-several-generations opportunity to actually shape the place differently, build upon the fantastic heritage that Croydon has, but very much looking to the future.
“When people kept telling me two years ago about the Fairfield Halls: did you know The Beatles used to play there? I used to say that’s really interesting but I’m interested in who’s going to be playing there for the next 30, 40 or 50 years.
“That’s why I’m proud lead the only council in London putting investment in arts and culture at the heart of what we do. We won’t talk to any developers in this town unless they are talking to us about two things: one working with us to provide some affordable housing for local people; and the other about how we can have culture and the arts running as a thread through everything that we do.”
Ms Murray was making her first major public speech ten days after taking up her role as cultural director – having fulfilled a similar brief in Brighton - but said she was already impressed by the levels of energy, talent and ideas and people’s willingness to be part of the transformation in Croydon.
“My role is to develop the cultural programme and cultural offer within the borough,” she said.
“Very specifically, the role is to create an operating model for Fairfield Halls, how it work, how it will run and how it will assume all of the things that everyone wants from it. It’s the mothership of Croydon in terms of culture.
“Fairfield Halls will be closed for two years as the transformation takes place and it’s important to work in the borough to keep audiences and to increase audiences, to engage people and to be really for when it opens.
“There is regeneration happening here on a quite amazing scale so the other big focus is to make sure there’s a cultural input into the public realm, opportunities for art, opportunities for event spaces, the creation of event spaces whether that’s formal or informal.
“It’s really important that Croydon doesn’t just become about shopping, about retail and about residential. It’s the cultural element that will make the difference and I absolutely know that from my experience in Brighton and a big impact of cultural is employment – both and indirect
“I do feel this immensely exciting alignment of different things happening in Croydon. Croydon is very fortunate to have some very interesting, exciting and energetic people with some great ideas.”
RSA London regional manager, Mark Hall, said: “When we first talked about coming to Croydon we were expecting maybe 30 people for a reception at RISE gallery.
“The response has been phenomenal. There is obviously a great deal of energy and enthusiasm around the role of culture and arts in the regeneration of Croydon.”
Updated plans for a £17.5million leisure and community centre in New Addington will be displayed to the public this Friday and Saturday.
A new multi-level facility with improved community space and facilities for a range of sports - including badminton and basketball plus a 25metre swimming pool - are planned for Central Parade.
A community centre with two multi-purpose halls, each with kitchen space, a café, meeting room, offices and dressing rooms plus a demountable stage for community shows and the annual pantomime are also part of the plans.
Residents will get the chance to have their say on Friday, April 22 (2-6pm) and Saturday, April 23 (11am-4pm).
Councillor Alison Butler, cabinet member for homes, regeneration and planning, said: “The feedback we’ve so far had from the people of New Addington has been really positive.
"They’re keen to see their area benefit from this sort of first-class regeneration, that they know will enhance and improve their lives.
“We’ve listened to the comments and suggestions made at the first presentations, and are confident that these revised plans will fulfil local needs.
“This scheme is set to transform both Central Parade and New Addington as a whole. I’d like to see as many people as possible get along to the exhibition to see how the plans have developed, to see that their views and opinions matter to us.”
For more information, email the senior regeneration manager at firstname.lastname@example.org