Following the publication of the DCMS Select Committee report on Culture and Levelling Up, and Arts Council England’s announcement on National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs), Amy Finch explores the impact of major events in forging collaborations between local cultural organisations and breaking down persistent barriers to cultural participation such as travel costs.

The UK City of Culture programme is a hugely powerful means of cultural placemaking – and we can do more to extend the benefits of this approach beyond the winning city. The Select Committee report praises DCMS’s recent changes, which have allocated funding to shortlisted cities to help with their bidding costs, as well as money for the three runners-up to implement some of their ideas. At Spirit of 2012, we’re working with Neighbourly Lab and four applicants to the 2025 designation to learn more about how best to sustain the momentum from a bid. We’d love to hear from anyone who has completed research in this area.

Across the course of our 18-month Inquiry into the Power of Events, we have heard a lot from people about the events that make them feel proud of where they live. We heard about events that put a place ‘on the map’ – whether that is on the world stage, from the Open Golf tournament in Northern Ireland and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, or the fairs, shows and competitions that have helped established a reputation locally. We will be publishing the findings from the inquiry in January 2023.

The Select Committee report does not focus much on smaller events, which we have found have a huge role to play in cultural placemaking. In our focus groups we heard about events that successfully brought different sections of the community together: Diwali celebrations; Pride; Christmas lights shows. While these ‘nice-to-haves’, often supported or organised by the local authority, might be easy targets for council cutbacks, they really matter to people. In June, we published a report by British Future, Seizing the Moment, into how events could best bring people together.

Arts Council England’s NPO announcements on 4 November have split opinion and show just how challenging it is to achieve a fair distribution of funding geographically. In some analyses, money spent on events is pitched against money spent on cultural organisations, but this is a false dichotomy. Many of the NPOs will deliver events themselves. One of the most powerful roles that events can play is bringing together different organisations within a place, strengthening collaboration between cultural institutions of different scales, and partnerships with places outside the cultural sector. Events can also bring cultural experiences to spaces where there are lower barriers to entry, including streets, parks, and gardens, which all deliver increased levels of cultural participation.

As well as levelling up geographically, the report highlights the importance of thinking about barriers to participation within a place, pointing out the “even people who live on the relative doorstep of London’s venues are unable to access them”. There are significant financial obstacles to accessing cultural activity, even when tickets themselves are free. There are also physical and social barriers that reduce fair access, including for those on low incomes, migrants, carers and disabled people.  Polling we conducted over the summer shows that only 44% of disabled people felt that theatres and sports stadiums were usually accessible to disabled people, and only 47% of disabled people thought that public transport was usually accessible for disabled people. Spirit of 2012 is proud to fund work that explores what works effectively to reduce these barriers, including through the use of access pots, designed to fund travel and other expenses like carers, which simply allow people to show up.

For more information on how this has worked, check out our work on the Carers Music Fund, Open Ceremonies, Coventry UK City of Culture, and our research on inclusive volunteering, Volunteering Together.