Local and Global – contemporary art centres in the UK regions

There were many booms in the years leading up to the Credit Crunch, but one of the most visible was undoubtedly in the arts. After years of chronic underfunding by the previous Conservative administration, New Labour’s victory in 1997 saw a massive increase in funding for arts and culture in the UK. Museums were made free again, large-scale public commissions like Gateshead’s Angel of the North became commonplace and every city scrambled to organise a range of cultural festivals and open new arts facilities.

The increase in funding was especially prevalent in more contemporary, avant-garde and esoteric avenues. Up until this point, ‘modern’ art, especially the conceptual, was a largely London-based phenomenon. Save for a few brave regional municipal galleries and usually poorly funded ‘alternative’ spaces.

As the money ramped up, a plethora of new contemporary arts spaces was opened across the UK. Such facilities were promoted as the catch-all solution to a host of problems in these areas; combating social exclusion and economic weakness, regenerating derelict land, increasing tourist revenue and re-branding downtrodden areas suffering from negative stereotypes. This belief was encouraged by many of those that had been operating with success in the ‘alternative’ sector in the preceding years and held sway with local authorities inspired by the oft-quoted ‘Bilbao factor’, after the regional city in Spain that saw visitor numbers soar after it became home to a branch of the Guggenheim.

This trend of using public art galleries as a regeneration tool in the UK can be seen to have started in Liverpool. With the Tate pushing for more exhibition space, the then Conservative government directed them to open a gallery in Liverpool’s redundant dockland warehouses in the aftermath of the 1981 Toxteth riots. Tate Liverpool, which opened in 1988, has since provided a model for not only Tate Modern at Bankside, but also abroad, including the regional Pompidou Centre in Metz, France and Moderna Museet in Malmö, Sweden amongst others.

Tate Liverpool also helped to provide the inspiration for similar schemes across the UK and, since 1997, contemporary arts centres have been opened in Middlesbrough, Gateshead, Walsall, Glasgow, Nottingham, West Bromwich, Manchester, Wakefield, Sheffield and Margate amongst others.

The opening of such institutions was a success in many ways, and helped increase access to, and interest in, contemporary art across the UK. Yet, as this expansion trundled on, the flaws in such cultural regeneration plans became more apparent and problems began to set in. As contemporary art emerged in the regions it began to face tensions it wouldn’t have done in London, with its guaranteed middle-class art-going audience.

Despite the well-meaning behind the new arts centres, many quickly became accused of not bringing the regeneration benefits they promised and of being elitist islands of art in places that otherwise remained unchanged. Such centres were derided for being unreflective of ‘local’ culture, and of ignoring audiences beyond the artistic elite. Many were also criticised for only employing small numbers of highly educated ‘outsiders’ and ignoring artists in their vicinity in favour of international ‘star’ names.

Having helped begin the trend for culture-led regeneration in the UK regions, Liverpool was also the place were these issues came to a head twenty years later. The city’s European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2008 prompted many to examine the conventional logic of such schemes and the tension between bought-in ‘international’ culture and the reality for those living in many of these deprived towns.

Directors, Curators and Programmers have had to increasingly face this tension and criticism, and it has only worsened since the Credit Crunch. With local authority and Arts Council funding being cut and private sponsorship hard to come by, such facilities have had to increasingly justify their own existence much harder than they had ever done before.

As such, those in charge of these institutions are now undergoing a rapid re-assessment of their role and future sustainability in these changed times. They face a tough challenge of finding a balance between local needs, sound financial footings and high-quality artistic integrity.

Although difficult, this can be achieved with skilful programming, much in the same way that regional theatres have operated for years. A mixture of ‘blockbuster’ shows, experimental and risk taking shows and something with a local focus can all be done in a year. This must be coupled with providing opportunities for local artists and a proper engagement programme for the wider community that is taken seriously and not treated as an ‘add-on’.

Operationally too, there has to be a happy medium between employing the best staff from wherever, and enough local people to, not only provide opportunities that they would have once had to move to London for, but to help shape programmes with knowledge of, and concern for, local audiences and their tastes and quirks.

Achieving such a balance is not an easy task, especially in an era when budgets are being cut to the bone. The fear is that some will panic and sway their centres into lame, crowd-pleasing parochialism or, equally bad, rampant naked commercialism. While it is important for such venues to have different income streams such as corporate hire, becoming a conference venue with some nice, unchallenging stuff on the walls would defeat the object of its existence as a public arts institution.

These are challenging times for cultural venues, but they also represent a real chance to do things differently, to take the opportunity that has been created by opening such centres in deprived areas and for them to really make a difference, in artistic, social and economic terms, to their locality. The cuts should prompt a new openness and new ways of working, forming links across the community to provide programming for all.

Those institutions that don’t adapt can’t complain if public sympathy for their cause is limited after so much money was spent, and now so much money is being cut back from all areas of public life. Now can be the time of real flourishing for cultural centres in the regions, for those that pursue their own identity with focus and openness and have one foot in the local, one foot in the global, not merely be regional franchises of the international art word.

This article appeared in the September edition of Object of Dreams magazine. An abridged version also appeared in Arts Professional.