John Knell (pictured, right), a cultural strategy guru with an international reputation, said that Milton Keynes has some way to go before its cultural offer matches its commercial reputation.
“Milton Keynes is a thriving economic hub but not yet a thriving cultural hub,” he told guests at a Milton Keynes Business Leaders Partnership dinner. “It is not a world class cultural city like Paris or Rome.”
The city is already preparing its submission to become a European Capital of Culture in 2023. Mr Knell, whose CV includes positioning Manchester as a northern cultural powerhouse, admitted that speaking at the dinner was like entering the lion’s den.
But, he added, he was there as a “critical friend.”
Milton Keynes has lofty ambitions but it will have to be more nimble, bold, brave and intellectual in output than those it will compete with, Mr Knell said.
The city 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.
“‘The city’s cultural brand personality is, in my judgement, fine – as it goes. I do not think there would be enough to create a flourishing and distinctive identity and the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.”
Even in its 50th year in 2017, Milton Keynes is an adolescent when it comes to culture. Mr Knell said that Milton Keynes Theatre’s boast that it enjoys large audiences might say more about supply and provision than the quality of the work shown.
Living in Cambridge, he had not heard of the successful Milton Keynes International Festival.
“You cannot expect everyone to hear about something just because you put it on,” he said. “The 2023 bid is your chance to raise the bar and raise your game.”
To be successful the MK 2023 bid process must include “brutally honest” conversations between all stakeholders. Culture must be at the centre of all decision-making because culture is a part of all successful places.
MKBLP chair Dr Philip Smith (pictured with Mr Knell) welcomed Mr Knell’s ‘agent provocateur’ approach. “I think he has been deliberately provocative.
"It is easy to come along and talk about all the good things we are doing in Milton Keynes 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.”