THE SOUTHWARK EXPERIMENT: An outline of our bid for London Borough of Culture

We are delighted to be bidding to be a London Borough of Culture and are ready to deliver an unparalleled year of creative activity, engagement and local pride, for 2019 or 2020. 

Southwark is ambitious in all that it does.  Culture has always been a uniting force, bringing together our diverse communities through shared exploration and enjoyment. Starts-ups, migrants, activists – the pioneers of Southwark – have historically challenged the status quo and searched for a better way of life.  But both here and globally, growing cultural divides threaten the fabric of our communities.

Our residents have told us that they would like easier access to all the new and exciting opportunities that we are working hard for all to enjoy. From Elephant and Castle to Canada Water, and Old Kent Road to Peckham, we want to ensure that no one is left behind.

We want to use our year of culture to stimulate a ground-breaking experiment. We will forge new and unexpected collaborations, working together to create an open dialogue between grassroots, cultural and business communities. We will develop a local model for a global problem; how to build better communities and cities through culture.

From famous artists to internationally-renowned arts organisations and thriving community groups, we have a unique combination of world-class infrastructure and a vibrant local arts scene. We know that Southwark can deliver an outward-looking year of culture that connects locally, while reaching far beyond the borders of the borough.

In creating our bid we brought together local communities and over 60 pioneering artists, grassroots cultural organisations, big arts institutions and universities, to explore the needs and possibilities, together. This illustrated that today’s creatives and cultural leaders are no less creatively determined than our past pioneers.

Our bid has been backed by thousands of people who live work and study in Southwark, along with Sir Mark Rylance and Jenny Éclair, Frances Morris, Director at Tate Modern, Nick Starr, Executive Director at The Bridge Theatre, the Central School of Ballet, Dulwich Picture Gallery and many more.

Together, we created the idea for The Southwark Experiment, which will inspire celebration and creativity across the borough, making space – physical, mental and emotional – for exchange and shared understanding between groups.  We plan to bring together a broad coalition across cultures, industries, generations and across the borough, that will instigate real change.  We will do this by making connections, platforming pioneers, investing in grassroots organisations, and sharing our discoveries through the ‘Southwark Model’ (more on this later).

We See What We Want

Our bold opening weekend will stimulate and inspire, bringing communities together through We See What We Want.  We will recruit hundreds of local residents to prepare for an epic art clash across Burgess Park. Imagine a night of chunky sounds and painted light, in a genre-busting sound and light clash, enthralling an audience of thousands from Southwark and beyond.  We will commission high-profile musicians and light artists to work with residents and develop a show that is responsive to the heritage of the local area and themes of connection, respect and self-expression.


Southern exposure

A circus spectacular where the five boroughs meet, looking south to where the five boroughs of Southwark, Lewisham, Bromley, Croydon and Lambeth meet, a new troupe, including refugees, disabled and differently-abled people, and young and old people, will form. Together with Dulwich Picture Gallery and Extraordinary Bodies, a disability-led circus company, they will gather in Kingswood House. Participants will learn, train, create and choreograph a finale event, exploring themes of human value and worth.

What Unites Us Is Stronger Than What Divides Us


Southwark is defined by the diversity of its communities, many whom look to faith for strong connections and a sense of identity.

We will bring together theatre companies and faith groups to explore where we fit in the universe through What Unites Us Is Stronger Than What Divides Us, led by Cervantes Theatre.  This will culminate in huge promenade performances of five different origin stories along the banks of the River Thames. These will look to bring about a better understanding of different faiths and cultures through innovation and creativity.

Bermondsey Joy Slide

Ada Salter and the Joy Slide. St James Churchyard, 1922.

We are very proud of our heritage; over the centuries the borough has hosted hundreds of cultural pioneers, who shared radical ideas that improved people’s lives.  None more so than Alfred and Ada Salter, who were both councillors and then an MP and Mayor respectively. Together they formed a Beautification Committee that planted trees and flowers and developed public gardens and playgrounds.

We will connect local residents from the Four Squares Estate and fans from Millwall Football Club, with internationally acclaimed local artist John Walter. Together, their challenge will be to recreate a contemporary version of the radically pioneering Bermondsey Joy Slide, first created in 1921 for the free enjoyment of Southwark’s poorest families. These residents and fans will look to “fill the air with uncontrolled delight” just as the first slide did.

Next Stop Culture

Everyone loves buses south of the river, they connect people and help us get about, and yet, along the routes are many hidden cultural gems that we want everyone to discover.  Next Stop Culture will take over and transform a number of buses into dynamic, creative, travelling centres, curated by the cultural organisations and artists along the route. Everyone who hops on, will be entertained and learn something new about their usual route.  The buses will spill out beyond Southwark as they continue their journeys, sharing Southwark’s diverse culture with other London boroughs.

The Southwark Exchange

Throughout the year we want to recognise and support new and emerging artists and groups to grow and develop across the borough. We have thousands of creative organisations and cultural partners that can help small organisations and emerging creatives. They can offer support with funding, space and expertise. This will enable an alternative Southwark Fringe to emerge, led by grass roots performers.

Southwark Pioneers

Giving equal access to opportunites is central to our year of culture, many cultural organisations use volunteers across the borough, but during our year we aim to put volunteering at the heart of culture through Southwark Pioneers, we will create 3,000 volunteering opportunties across Southwark and beyond.

We are not alone in experiencing the effects of cultural fragmentation and searching for strategies to counteract them. Our investigation will result in the ‘Southwark Model’, a local solution to a global problem. We will engage with cities across the world, sharing the results of our experiment through the ‘Southwark Model’. We will raise the profile of Southwark as a place for resilient cultural communities that contribute to the progression of urban strategies.

When Southwark becomes the London Borough of Culture we will use our dynamism, pioneering talent, and creativity to be a catalyst for change – to build stronger, more resilient communities. We will work together to invest in new, long–term partnerships supporting the growth of a shared cultural economy, that is economically sustainable and open to all our communities, and both emerging and established talent.

Southwark is ready to do something big: a collective experiment in how culture can create better cities for everyone.

With thanks to the incredible support of the Southwark London Borough of Culture Bid Advisory Group, and the huge number of residents, organisations, businesses, and artists who have contributed to our bid.

Please continue to back the bid using the hashtag #Southwarkpioneers and check out the bid film here.

Southwark Presents