Boiling over. The Boiler Room's white, elite colonial appropriation of Notting Hill Carnival

There’s been a lot written about Boiler Room’s involvement with Notting Hill Carnival and its future funding from Arts Council England’s Ambition For Excellence programme to produce a film about the event.  I do not intend to rehearse those discussions here.  There have been many valid points raised on both sides of the argument.  Rather, I want to address some serious issues that this fiasco raises about the role of public money in funding the arts in England.  My contention here is not only that Arts Council England’s funding of Boiler Room does not meet the goals of the Ambition For Excellence programme, but that it also does not support their Creative Case for Diversity objectives either.  Rather, it reinforces colonialism and white, upper and middle-class privilege.  Indeed, this funding represents the deeply neoliberal agenda of turning art into a globally-marketed consumer product.

This is a brief article which outlines my concerns.

Boiler Room is a private limited company.  A for-profit company with shareholders.  The shareholders are posh white boys Blaise Bellville and Caius Pawson, and US-based venture capitalist company Conegliano Ventures.  A previous shareholder was the publisher VICE UK.  Boiler Room also has a UK-based investment banker as another of its non-shareholding directors.  Caius Pawson is not a director.  For Arts Council England to provide funding, the company must prove that the “project” – i.e. the making of a documentary film about the Notting Hill Carnival – is not-profit making and solely of public benefit.  This is often difficult, although, of course, the project accounts will show that none of the money was converted to (immediate) profits.  Nevertheless, I argue that profit-making companies funded by Arts Council England can gain exposure to new markets, artistic valorisation and prestige that can easily be converted into future financial gain and, thereby, into profits.

This is not my main argument, however.  I’m more concerned about class, white colonialism and neoliberalism.  First, the simplest concern: neoliberalisation of the arts.  I suggest that Arts Council England funding seeks to “sell” Notting Hill Carnival to other parts of the UK and, indeed, globally.  Furthermore, Boiler Room are masters in brand promotion.  Their “underground” operation isn’t really underground.  It is cleverly subversive marketing.  Nothing wrong with that.  We live in a capitalist world and Boiler Room are most certainly capitalists.  I wonder whether it is right for Arts Council England to commercialise the arts and, in this case Notting Hill Carnival in particular, when it does not provide direct funding to the carnival itself.  It is not unusual for Arts Council England to indulge in the furtherance of neoliberal ideology, of course.  Indeed, it drives the neoliberalisation of arts, culture, museums and libraries under the sinister-sounding Creative Industries.

More worrying though is that Arts Council England can fund two posh white men to make a film about the Notting Hill Carnival.  Caius Pawson went to Eton and his father is a successful architect.  He owns Young Turks and several other record labels.  Blaise Bellville is the son of Hon. Lucinda Ruth Wallop and Patrick Anthony Ewen Belville – he’s a direct descendent of William the Conqueror!  Educated at the posh Marlborough College, he has previously organised “all-age” music events, published a magazine, etc.  So, the Boiler Room is owned by two celebrated, public school educated white entrepreneurs and a US firm of venture capitalists.  Why fund them to make a film about a cultural event that’s primarily about celebrating Caribbean Culture?  Isn’t the thought of upper-middle class white capitalists “documenting” and “promoting” Caribbean Culture a little distasteful at best?  We all know how Caribbean Culture was created: slavery and white colonisation.

How then does the Boiler Room meet with the aims of the Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity?  How does this company meet those aims?  Isn’t the thought of white posh entrepreneurs and venture capitalists making “art” about the Notting Hill Carnival about anything but diversity and equality (cultural or class)?  It would seem to me to be further “othering” people that has been systematically exploited and oppressed by British imperialism and have had to fight extremely hard to gain any form of rights and recognition in this, still extremely racist, country.

The Boiler Room project doesn’t sit well with the aims and objectives of Arts Council England’s Ambition for Excellence funding either.  The company will get almost £300,000 of public money from this programme for their work at the Notting Hill Carnival.  In recent tweets to me, Arts Council England claimed that this funding was for a “broadcast and development” project about “artistic quality”, an attempt to “secure a sustainable future for carnival”, a “great way for people to access events if they can’t make it in person … without increasing footfall”, and improving resilience of the “UK carnival arts sector”.  Fine, but again, why white entrepreneurs with extremely privileged backgrounds?  And why seek to use the project to limit the number of people attending the Notting Hill Carnival?  How does this make the carnival more “resilient” or “sustainable”?  For who?

Aims of Arts Council England's Ambition for Excellence funding

Aims of Arts Council England's Ambition for Excellence funding

And, in terms of the Ambition for Excellence funding, it is difficult to see how the Boiler Room project supports “significant ambition and excellence across the arts sector in England” which it specifically states should take place “particularly outside London”.  How does it “contribute to the development of place … in the regions”?  How does it “demonstrate the potential for significant impact on the development of talent and leadership, and the growth of an ambitious international-facing arts infrastructure, especially outside London”?  And how, as mentioned above, does it “make a strong contribution to the Creative Case for Diversity”?  I argue that it does none of these things, at least not particularly strongly.

The Boiler Room Notting Hill Carnival project, funded by Arts Council England, is, then, not about diversity and equality.  It is about white colonialism and capitalist exploitation.

Come on Arts Council England, please walk-the-walk not just talk-the-talk.  Start funding the people of Notting Hill to make their own films and stream their own footage of the carnival and, better still, start funding marginalised communities across the country to start making their own art without the intervention of privileged elites.

Oh and "boiler room" is also a common term for a sort of scam performed by venture capitalists:

"The classic image of a boiler room is that it has an undisclosed relationship with the companies it promotes, or an undisclosed profit motive for promoting those companies.  Once the insider investors are in place, a boiler room promotes (via telephone calls to brokerage clients or spam email) these thinly traded stocks where there is no actual market."

And then there was the 2000 film "Boiler Room".

I wonder where Blaise and Caius got the name from?