Thursday, November 29, 2012

Quietly flows the Ouseburn

Days of rain swell the tiny Ouseburn. No surprise there. I once saw the water up and over Ouseburn Road and the allotments beside the Burn flood so frequently the allotment holder's could try growing water cress.

Some recent images. I shouldn't say so, but I like this piece of nature with a mind of its own flowing along now with a slightly sinister gliding rustle rather than tinkling over stones as formerly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Nose, face, cut

The financial meltdown that followed global banking speculation has only just begun to impact on all our lives; that's correct – I wrote 'only just begun'. We haven't seen anything yet.

 Newcastle City Council faced with a massive cut in its annual budget have decided in its turn to cut all arts funding in a sweeping decision that will impact on every supported organisation in the North East from high profile venues to one person bands. Nobody escapes.

The following letter appeared in the "Newcastle Journal" last week. Written by a respected consultant, Bruce Reed, it sets out the well understood economic argument that spending on the arts benefits the wider economy. Well understood by anyone who has been paying attention that is.

 The letter*:

 "Last night an American friend in Vermont, USA, e-mailed me to say that her local paper was featuring a piece about two concerts of all-British music in which she was playing this weekend.

Next year she and her husband are coming to London, then the North East, to see, hear, and experience our culture.

 This morning I read in the Journal that Newcastle City Council are to axe spending on 10 cultural organisations in the city.

 When our company produced its report, two decades ago, on the economic importance of the arts in Tyne & Wear it kickstarted investment in the arts in the area - including the Arena, Sage and Baltic. The report had been entirely funded by the private sector (Sir John Hall, Tyne Tees TV and others) to help calculate which kinds of arts had what kinds of impacts on the economy, and their overall value.

From our surveys of users at arts venues, and interviews with businesses, arts organisations, and other research, we identified several different kinds of impacts including:

  • they often spent very little in the cinemas, art galleries and museums, but their indirect expenditures in shops during the day, and on meals, drinks, local travel and accommodation was almost £40 a day per person in 1990 prices (we found 'culture-driven' tourists spent more than the average)
  • executives in big organisations, and leaders in influential local and national jobs said that the quality of what was on offer from the arts (the reason for building the Sage, and supporting local theatre companies), the choice of different art forms for all the family (the economic rationale for investments in Seven Stories, the Arena, and Dance City), the liveliness of discussions about arts and our cultural heritage (which the Baltic, Laing Art Gallery and Discovery Museum, all stimulate) was what make it worthwhile for them to move to - and stay in - the North East.

The overwhelming conclusion from the study was that the range of direct and indirect economic impacts on local employment and spending induced by the arts dwarfed the costs of council spending on them.

 Our culture is precious, and the evidence shows that consumers value it highly - but only if the choice and quality available makes it worth being here to experience it.

 In the years to come, we hope that the culture on offer to our American friends and other visitors is sufficient to make them think it is worth coming North from London - and then coming back for more of it.

 Yours sincerely,

 Bruce S. Reed"

 This is the big business basis for arts spending founded on solid research into verified facts. The arts repay their grants and financial support. Quite apart from tourism, the arts provision of a city or region was long ago recognised as being of significance for inward investment; companies like high quality art provision and amenities that flow from them.

 This is what puzzled me about the dismissive reaction of sometime head of government agency One North East (defunct), Jonathan Blackie when I asked if his organisation accepted the role of arts in city regeneration. Surely, the case was made? Apparently not as far as he was concerned. Now it looks as though all that historic investment in excellence and diversity (not least by artists') is the latest in a growing line of victims of the credit fuelled retail culture One North East were so eager to encourage in its stead.

* This letter appears by kind permission of the author.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Life in Art

This weekend past the Ouseburn valley hummed to the sound of ... Well, wind and rain. But the weather did not hold back the crowds (yes, crowds) who came along to view the Cluny Open Studios event. The artist's and craftspeople who opened their workspaces cannot have been disappointed at the numbers coming through the doors.

The work of a constructivist artist took my eye. Some potters and a textile craftswoman who makes beautiful purses and small bags from re-cycled cloth and buttons. A Chinese artist who paints lovely images of jagged mountains and snow covered pines with the softest of brushes. Up and down the stairs of this wonderful old warehouse we slogged on three good legs.

We couldn't do more than a few things this year due to mobility difficulties; we managed the Biscuit Tin, more studio's in what was once an office block on nearby Warwick Street and itself another branch of the 'Biscuit Arts Empire', a subject for another post soon. Many of the studios in the 'Tin' were shut by the time we hobbled up but I did like the work of one artist in particular for his sincerity, an amiable anarchist who uses wood cuts and a graffiti style art to promote, um, ... anarchy I suppose. He showed some small ink drawings that chimed with me. I liked how he had found a direct way to see his surroundings, unacademic and true. We talked and I found myself once again marvelling at all the endeavour that artists bring to the scene on such slender means. But for a far sighted few, our lives in cities would be bleak indeed. Little of this has been centrally funded, or, even funded at all. Unless you count the artist's themselves.

Compare and contrast with the High Street. Here the lights are turning off and 'fire sales' are rife. The Christmas lights remind me of that famous scene in Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now', you recall, the one of the battle at night around a bridge that is hung with coloured lights. There is around us now, one feels, a similar sense of panic bordering on chaos.

It seemed only yesterday I was being lectured on the harm the presence of artist's do to the interests of the real saviours of our cities, retail. O, Jonathan, where art thou (now)?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Milking time

It begins.

Two leaflets through my door touting new accommodation at "Portland Green", the favoured name for the new student housing blocks on Portland Road, built by well known warehouse and storage facility builders, Metnor. It's essential to have the right name, a name that appeals to estate agents and their hangers on. Portland Road Halls of Residence might not do.

Rents are eye watering:

"Rooms from £97/week" with small print underneath (+£18 all inclusive weekly service charge).

Rooms £115/week then. From. If you are one of the lucky ones who get in early. Then there is the £200 deposit of which, sadly, £50 is non refundable.

The organisation responsible for managing this nice little earner goes by the name of 'DIGS', redolent of a long since vanished age of cheap rough and ready flats and rooms where generations of students 'dossed down' - literally on mattresses next to the floorboards in most cases.

Now, – and there is a lovely fresh faced chap on another plug, er, leaflet, who looks too young to be able to get into debt legally, complete with headphones and fashionable 'gear' in view – the room's will have WiFi and 'superfast' broadband, cable television and en suite showers plus "superb transport links" that are not apparent at time of writing. Fortunately for the rather slightly built young man on Leaflet No. 2 (entitled "This is my place" rather than "these 'ere are me digs, like") there are also 3/4 sized beds. Students, eh?


To the ambitious academics who began to think they might be rather good at playing business, caution! There is a cloud on the horizon and it presages much that will cause consternation in the boardroom as we now call the University chancellors office.

This from the B.B.C. brings potentially fatal news for those Strategic Earnings Plans.

Soon, very much sooner than it took Metnor to knock up these DIGS, those wily Orientals will add two and two together, see the gap in the market and put Newcastle University p.l.c. and, or, Northumbria Learning Experiences Inc. out of business.

What then will become of Portland Green? Plan B ...

Monday, November 12, 2012

Alphaville Revisited

News today of the 'new' Gateshead town centre. Scant details and the usual image can be viewed by following this link.

This kind of architecture is precisely what is swallowing chunks of our towns and cities and turning them into corporate spaces devoid of any sense of place, time or history. Something entirely similar is planned for Sunderland's old Vaux brewery site on a dominating position overlooking the River Wear.

The Gateshead scheme replaces this (infamous) car park below as previously covered on this blog. Follow link.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In praise of trees

Long ago in the last century, your humble correspondent briefly worked in a Parks Department of a London Borough. Fortunately, I was not asked to plant or tend anything. There were qualified people to undertake such tasks. While I was there I learned to admire these dedicated people and marvel at what they put up with from the public; more politely than I might have been!

A regular subject of complaint from local people was street trees.

The trees were variously alleged to be 'dangerous'; causing mischief with foundations; making a mess. The more subtle complainant optimistically opined that they were dead (this last in winter ...) Most of these complaints were gently batted away, or sometimes a manager was sent round to calm the troubled minds at the other end of the telephone.

In all my time in this city  I have never seen a better autumn display of turning foliage on the streets. It underlines a fact: While planners have knocked the city about those responsible for managing our parks and gardens and civic spaces have done a superb job. Many a faceless piece of 'urban renewal' is now slightly more bearable for having trees with which to soften it's bleakness.