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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’.

‘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: ‘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!’

John, director of the Culture Counts consultancy and whose CV includes positioning Manchester as a northern cultural powerhouse, said that to be successful the MK 2023 bid process must include honest conversations between stakeholders, 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 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.’

But 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.’

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