March 2017 Quarterly Dinner

Date: 09 Mar 2017

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Strategy guru delivers a culture shock to MK Business Leaders

‘You can’t put lipstick on a concrete cow and expect people to not notice that it is still a cow!

Cultural strategy guru John Knell did not mince his words when he gave Milton Keynes Business Leaders Partnership members, civic leaders and local arts and creative figures his frank view on the city’s ambitious bid to become a European Capital of Culture 2023.

John, who has an international reputation as a culture policy analyst, admitted that speaking at the recent MK Business Leaders’ Quarterly Dinner was like entering the lion’s den but said he was there as ‘a critical friend’.

He said: ‘The city’s cultural brand personality is, in my judgement, fine - as it goes. I don’t think there would be enough to create a flourishing and distinctive identity and the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.

‘MK is a thriving economic hub, but not yet a thriving cultural hub. It is not a world class cultural city like Paris or Rome,’ he said.

He said that even in its 50th year in 2017, Milton Keynes is an adolescent when it comes to culture. ‘The 2023 bid is your chance to raise the bar and raise your game. But you cannot put lipstick on a cow, even a concrete one, and expect people to not notice that it is still a cow!’

He said that MK Theatre’s boast that it enjoys large audiences might say more about supply and provision than the quality of the work shown, and admitted that, living in Cambridge, he had not heard of the successful biennial Milton Keynes International Festival. He said: ‘You can’t expect everyone to hear about something just because you put it on.’

But relaxing his agent provocateur role John, whose CV includes positioning Manchester as a northern cultural powerhouse, said that to be successful the MK 2023 bid process must include brutally honest conversations between all stakeholders. It should put culture at the centre of all decision making and recognise that culture is now a part of all successful places.

He said Milton Keynes had lofty ambitions but it would have to be more nimble, bold, brave and intellectual in output than those it will compete with. It needs more heart, soul and precision in defining its cultural offer and think about how it does culture differently and recognise its weaknesses, he said.

‘What are you going to do differently to make MK stand for something that nowhere else can, and in an authentic and inimitable way? You must be deadly serious about achieving this and work together embracing a new way of doing things, otherwise your cultural to do list will just remain a list of things to do.’

And in closing he said: ‘I look forward to visiting your European City of Culture programme in 2023.’

Dr Philip Smith MBE, chair MK Business Leaders Partnership, said John Knell had a deservedly high reputation as a speaker. ‘On this subject he has been there - done that, and I think he has been deliberately provocative tonight.

‘It is easy to come along and talk about all the good things we are doing in MK but instead he has been frank and tried to help us, to make us think and talk about some of the issues we should be facing up to in the Capital of Culture process.’

Ends    563 words


Notes for editors:

  • Milton Keynes Business Leaders Partnership (MKBLP) is a group of individuals from a broad cross section of backgrounds who utilise their skills and knowledge for the benefit of the wider business community.
  • As part of the vision for the continued growth and development of MK we are focusing on key areas identified as fundamental to the success of the city including: Transport and Communications; Smart Cities and High Technology; Sport, health and wellbeing; Economic Development; Education, Skills and Apprenticeships
  • As an independent organisation, funded through member subscriptions, MKBLP works to identify and develop interests that are specific to the business community in the city. The aim is to influence change as MK develops and grows by utilising proven senior leadership qualities from across the membership.  Member feedback provides a catalyst to enable us to work with other partners to help business thrive and prosper.


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