Friday, July 13, 2012

The Uses of Culture

An article on the B.B.C. website tries to summarise the impact of investments in arts venues on towns as diverse as Middlesbrough, Margate and of course, Gateshead. Was the money well spent and has it had an impact? The questions come as the first of these regional mega-schemes, the Baltic contemporary arts centre, marks its tenth anniversary this month. Read the full article here.

The correspondent seems convinced that for an ex-industrial town such as Gateshead (who made the effort that Newcastle has been happy to embrace across the Tyne following its own calamitous efforts in the public art arena) the investment has produced real benefits. Visually, I think there can be no question that this "Bilbao" effect has succeeded in changing, at least in part, the face of what is simply a brutally ugly 60s road scheme with a run down town centre. The message the article conveys about a similar attempt to 're-brand' Middlesbrough is less clear cut. Middlesbrough's MIMA has shown some very high quality work, but is hampered by its position. In contrast, on my visits to the Baltic, I've noticed how the often stunning views over the Tyne Gorge and river far below entrance visitors to the upper floors more than what's in the galleries. The nesting Kittiwakes on the building's narrow ledges at eye level and their tiny downy young were the focus of much interest on my last visit.

In truth, the arts were useful to developers. Attempts to lure commercial enterprises to take the place of jobs lost in heavy industry, engineering and the like were largely unsuccessful due to profound economic realities. Culture was a useful tool to help "transform perceptions", but only if the agencies were sincere and 'in it' for the right reasons. I believe this to be true of Gateshead; there is a consistent pattern to the investment focus. Others have seen the arts boom of the late 20th century as merely useful.

I found out for myself how shallow this could be when I spoke to the former head of the recently defunct government quango, One North East, Mr Jonathan Blackie. At a public forum Mr Blackie made it clear to myself and others present that he regarded the arts as an undesirable distraction from his true calling – retail. He may have been a promoted above his abilities estate agent – unkind as that is to consider – but the ambition to turn Newcastle into High Street U.K., a chic consumer-borrowing driver of economic prosperity, failed; some of the empty shops are now being let at 'peppercorn' rents to arts organisations and collectives rather than stand forlorn and empty shells ... Happily, Mr Blackie has gone off to higher things, hopefully where his enthusiasm for shopping will find its outlet.

Meanwhile ...

The Ouseburn Festival is coming.  21st & 22nd July. I hope the weather behaves itself.

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