‘Fear helps keep people in their place’: art, culture and class

By Kenn Taylor

Is wanting to be an artist of any kind, or otherwise work in the cultural sector, stupid? It’s often poorly paid, if at all, and achieving ‘success’ can be arbitrary, unfair. If you’re from a working-class background, it’s even harder. So why would you bother?

For me, art and culture are about ideas. If you control ideas, you control everything. If only a narrow stratum of society controls the ideas, only their views and experiences will be reflected in systems of communication and power. And a far worse society, especially for those with the least power, will result. Art is too important to be left to a privileged few. Yet year by year, it seems to get harder for people from working class backgrounds to find space in culture, media and the arts.

Working in the arts can be a risky option for anyone, but the risks are compounded for those without family money or connections to fall back on. For those who somehow must generate an income to support themselves and perhaps others. Those who’ve probably been told quite often in life not to dare to imagine other worlds they could enter because of the risks involved.

When architect of the NHS, Nye Bevan, wrote a book about the foundation of the welfare state he called it ‘In Place of Fear’. Over the last few decades, what has increased exponentially in this country is fear, and not accidentally. Fear helps keep people in their place and too overwhelmed and frightened to try and challenge the limited parameters forced upon them. Part of that, despite lip service to the contrary, is to return culture to a field dominated by a narrow circle.

It was difficult enough when I entered the cultural sector in the 2000s. The child of a railway fitter and a cleaner, I grew up on benefits when my dad got sick, in a deprived industrial town in Merseyside. I was the first in my family to go to university. In that era, I got help. I lived in one of the pilot areas for Education Maintenance Allowance. The Connexions service helped with university applications when I’d left education to work. There were waived university fees and top-up maintenance grants for those from poor backgrounds. After uni, paid entry-level arts jobs were available, like the one I got – albeit a low paid and zero hours one. Now, so much of that has gone, it’s unreal. I can’t imagine I’d have been able to get to where I am today without any of those opportunities – yet working class people in 2018 get none of this support.

The issues are not just economic. It’s important to talk about the invisible barriers that exist on entering the sector and remain even when you’re in. At its best, the cultural field can be a place that welcomes those from different backgrounds; creative, open-minded, full of ideas. However, sadly, at its worst it can be too convinced of its own radicalism that it can be blind to the prejudice and structural unfairness that exists within it. Despite some progress, too many cultural organisations suffer from the ‘groupthink’ that comes from being dominated by people with incredibly similar backgrounds and educations. It was recently revealed that the key art, music and drama schools in this country are more elitist in their student bodies than Oxford and Cambridge. This doesn’t surprise me, but it’s a damming indictment of inequalities in the sector.

Many people who have experienced an elite education from a young age are given constant reinforcements of their confidence, get taught how to network and how to ‘sell themselves’. Sadly, some of these things are more respected and important to success in parts of the cultural sector than talent and depth. I mentioned ‘imposter syndrome’ recently to a few people in the sector from a similar background. There was mutual acknowledgement of this and past experiences of being made to feel inadequate, talked over, or willfully ignored by those who think you can’t benefit them in their own ambitious trajectory in the arts.

This is, of course, not to privilege class over other forms of structural injustice within the arts. Intersectionality is vital when looking at diversity in the sector. However, class has been an area ignored for too long, especially as it cuts across other areas of inequality yet is not covered by the Equality Act 2010. Similarly, I don’t mean to privilege one class over the other. Working class cultures at their own worst can be oppressive, prejudiced, and suspicious of difference, but it’s clear that working class people are not well represented enough across the sector. In addition, while thankfully it’s a minority, the sector still has too many people from comfortable backgrounds ‘slumming it’. That is, adopting performative tropes of being working class in some strange grasp for authenticity, who then drown out the voices of people who have actually come from such backgrounds.

It’s important to note it’s not just big cultural institutions that have these issues. The artist-led grassroots sector is not immune. Often relying on tight, cliquey networks and people with huge amounts of free time, it can also be blind to its own unspoken exclusions and prejudices. The self-confidence of members from elite backgrounds often dominating groups despite their supposed ‘fluid’ or ‘no hierarchy’ structures.

Now I am the director of a small arts charity, part of the establishment, albeit at a low level. The air is even thinner in terms of those from working class backgrounds when it comes to leading organisations. Though as I’ve chosen to work regionally and in a socially-focused field, not as much as in some other areas of culture. I have achieved a modicum of ‘success’. What does sometimes keep me awake at night though, is, do I do enough to make a difference for others from disadvantaged backgrounds to be heard in the arts? Is it all just a waste of time when there are so many huge structural inequalities in society over and above that in the cultural sector? Especially now things are even harder than 15 years ago. This is perhaps again an anxiety that comes from being working class. You think that you can never do enough even as those leading some of the largest organisations pay lip service to diversity.

So, what can be done to make a difference? It’s not actually that complicated, but it would require change on a large scale beyond just the cultural sector itself. For example; free higher education at the point of access; arts schools reserving spaces for those from disadvantaged backgrounds; a stop to the stripping out of the arts from school curriculums; the Arts Council continuing to push organisations to diversify (while other areas of culture such journalism, film, publishing, games and heritage should do the same); ensuring volunteering is only supplementary support to paid jobs; serious government funding for multi-year creative apprenticeships and an end to the qualifications arms race in the sector – let’s have proper respect for on the ground experience and not raise the bar too high for entry level jobs.

Listen to people who are working class; employees, artists, fans, participants, visitors and especially those trying to enter the sector. What they have to say is crucial. It’s time to ensure people from all different backgrounds are given decent opportunities. It won’t just be better for individuals and society, it will be better for art.

These things might seem utopian now, but that’s how far we’ve fallen. I spoke to an older man once, who as a young working-class boy had applied to art school. He never heard back. So, he got a job, only getting into art after his retirement many years later, to his sadness. Only after his father had died did he find the letter of acceptance from the art school that his parents had hidden. Whose fault was this opportunity being denied him? His parents? Or this country, for creating the climate of fear that to work in the arts is to be destitute and especially dangerous if you’re working class? And here we are in those times again. Let’s start to say no more. Now.

This piece was published by The Double Negative as part of their #classisabigdeal series in October 2018.

Beyond Leadership in the Arts

By Kenn Taylor

My first regular job in the arts was as a zero-hours gallery attendant. Now I have the fancy job title of Creative Director, having done quite a few roles in between, including being a volunteer and a freelancer. Starting off around the peak of the ‘boom’ in the 2000s when money flowed into the sector, through the worst of austerity and to today’s mixed but still uncertain times. In my career, I’ve also seen many different types and styles of leadership and management. This mixture of experience, along with having had opportunities for various forms of training and development in my career, I think has made me better equipped for my current role.

During the same period, I’ve also witnessed a seemingly ever growing focus on leadership in the arts. This is something which I do think has been necessary. As the sector expanded and diversified and the operating environment became more complex, cultural leaders having training and skills beyond academic art form knowledge has become increasingly important. Especially given the challenges that many organisations have faced, high profile and otherwise. Speaking to older colleagues about their experiences in the 1970s and 80s in cultural organisations, challenges with management in the sector seems to have been an issue going back a long way and this new focus does seem to have improved things. In addition, programmes which seek to increase the diversity of leadership in the sector continue to be vital. As the first in my family to attend higher education and having spent my youth living on my father’s disability benefits, active work to ensure a diversity of voices is heard in the arts is something I am passionate about.

However I have also become concerned that the sector may now be placing too much faith in leaders and the chimerical concept of leadership as being able to solve all the challenges cultural organisations face. This is something I considered when researching whilst on the Arts Fundraising and Leadership programme. Good leadership is important and can help organisations through changes and challenges, but it isn’t a panacea. In a sector struggling to simultaneously deal with big funding cuts, education system changes, huge regional disparities, increasing societal deprivation, major cultural shifts and growing political turmoil, leadership alone will not solve all problems we face.

Individuals can only do so much, even with progressive styles of management, and this focus on leadership can create unrealistic expectations and encourage constant churn in the sector. Suitable financial support from different sources, actively working to increase diversity, collaborative working inside and outside the sector and, crucially, ensuring personal development opportunities are available at all levels are just as important. These things may need to be led, but we need to think beyond leadership if we want to create a vibrant and resilient artistic ecosystem that can deal with inevitable shocks and changes.

We need to continue to develop leadership and management in the arts, especially different styles and methods that suit different types of organisations. Yet this has to be part of much wider and long term support and development for the arts sector if it is to be sustainable and better reflect the diversity and talent of creative voices in this country.

This piece was published by the Arts Fundraising and Leadership Programme in December 2017.

Grammar schools are not the solution to our social mobility crisis

By Kenn Taylor

I’ve done reasonably well career wise so far in life. I’m the Creative Director of an arts organisation, I’ve written for national newspapers, given talks in universities and at national conferences, undertaken international research.

Yet at age 11 me and many of my friends were declared to be ‘unacademic’ by the education system.

The Metropolitan Borough of Wirral in the Liverpool City Region is one of a handful of local authority areas that always retained a grammar/secondary modern system and I went through it in the 1990s. Wirral is an area of extremes, containing some of the wealthiest and poorest areas in the UK just a few short miles from each other. Now, have a guess which parts of the borough the grammar schools are concentrated?

My parents took an active interest in my schooling and asked me if I wanted a tutor to help me with the 11 plus. As a quite shy, awkward child, I expressed disinterest. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. No one in my family had any real experience of anyone engaging in higher education. We’d mostly worked for the railway, so surely, I should do the same? The area we lived in was pretty solidly working class. Some parents did get tutors for their children as the 11 plus approached, many others though couldn’t have afforded it even if they wanted to.

Inequality isn’t always obvious when you’re a child, especially when you live somewhere that most people are in the same boat. I didn’t really know then that I lived in one of the poorest areas of the UK or understand that when we were taken by our primary school to see a submarine being launched at the local Cammell Laird shipyard, that as we waved the boat off, we were waving away the economy of our town, as it closed soon afterwards.

I could tell though that something was deeply unfair when our local swimming baths had to close due to cutbacks and a grammar school in a rich part of the borough ‘let’ our primary school use their own private swimming pool for lessons. How could an area of estates housing thousands and thousands of people and containing numerous schools lose its swimming pool, when a grammar school up the road bankrolled by the taxpayer up have one just to itself?

I have a vague memory of sitting the 11 plus. Later as an adult it was discovered that I am dyslexic, making the very narrow measure of ability that is this exam even harder. I failed like many others and we were divided up into sheep and goats. I went to a secondary modern in a slightly better off area to where I grew up. That’s right, what cheerleaders for grammar schools often forget to tell parents is that a return to a grammar system is also a return to a secondary modern system. Sure, they’ll be given a bullshit trendy updated name for this new era, but let’s translate it: the underfunded schools for the poor kids.

Paint flaked, windows were rotten, the heating didn’t work in parts, textbooks were shared as was computer equipment. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t cartoonishly Dickensian, just a bit crap, and after Labour got in, facilities and resources improved. Up the road though was the grand shining grammar and the feeling you just mattered less than those children was pervasive. Despite all this there were many children with talent, wit and intelligence in my school who were let down by the system.

Some teachers would tell me I was pretty sharp, but that I needed to work harder at things like spelling andgrammar (my dyslexia still not discovered) and that maybe I should go to university. I wondered though, what was the point? I was only good at things like English and History and I struggled with the writing even with them. And what jobs could you do with something like that? I knew I wanted to do something creative, but that was thin on the curriculum. University was loosely encouraged by the school, but Labour had just brought in tuition fees. I didn’t really understand it all, but by this point as a young teenager I was living off my father’s sickness benefit after he was thrown on the scrapheap after decades of working the railway, so anything involving debt was frightening and discouraging.

After school, I drifted into low-skilled manufacturing work and retail. Long, dull and hard work. Close to despair I started reading some books by local authors out of boredom. From a similar background to me, they had gone to university and done creative jobs. If they could do it, maybe could I do as well?

I was lucky in many respects. Wirral was one of the first places to get the now axed Education Maintenance Allowance which helped me. I was supported by the now decimated Connexions service into completing my UCAS application. A former teacher wrote a reference for me. In today’s merry-go-round schools, they’d probably already have moved on. My university fees were waived due to my parent’s poverty. I even got one of the short-lived maintenance grants for poor kids to top up my loan. I went to university and achieved a few things. God knows what I would have done without all the things that helped me get there. Now all long gone, taken by a government that says it believes in social mobility.

Years later I got a job in a big grand old cultural institution. One that my parents would take me to as a child and mention the important work the clever people did there. Walking up the huge steps on my first day at work I was intimidated, surely the clever people would find me out? Remember boy, you’re worth less. You don’t get to work in a grand building. It’s not for you. Clever people pass their exams….

Being labelled as inadequate at a young age stays with you. With the wisdom of confidence and age of course, I know this to be bollocks. There are geniuses on building sites and idiots teaching in universities as anyone with any sense knows. To put it more eloquently than I could as a child wondering about the injustice of that swimming pool, the difference is nearly always money and privilege, not intelligence or ability.

The other tragedy though, is it’s not just about the children who are cut off from the monied schools by a single poxy exam. Some might say my parents should have pushed me harder, but no, they did the right thing. Supported me to find my way. Despite the desperate earnestness, game playing and spending of parents who understandably want their children to do well, plenty of the kids who ‘get in’ because of parental obsession often don’t have any particular academic ability and don’t always do well once at university. This is when many young people step off the treadmill of one hoop jump exam after another and, without a parent shoving them, realise they don’t really want to be there and drop out or drift aimlessly. I’ve known just as many people who hated their grammar school they felt they didn’t really fit into or felt crushed by parental expectations they could never fulfil as who ‘did well’ from being in them. Ever more the traditionally academic, usually single sex and often monocultural grammars bear little resemblance to the outside world of work. Too many parents still haven’t yet grasped that Royal Insurance, ICI and Abbey National don’t have thousands of easy opportunities for graduates to be picked up from a ‘good’ university every year.

Yet we have this crass nostalgia from people who confuse the opportunities they were gifted having grown up in the biggest period of wealth redistribution in UK history with having been down to going to a grammar school. Given most of my family have been tradespeople, I deplore the state of technical and craft education in this country. A product of decades of indifference. Yet you rarely see the children of the politicians and journalists who say a grammar system is ‘best for all’ down the local college learning how to repair motorcycles do you? Funny that.

These cretins are threatening the future of the UK’s children not just because of their nostalgia, but beneath that, a clear, ruthless ideological mission to build new bastions of privilege for their offspring while they let everything outside rot. Don’t believe for moment in the lip service paid to ‘places reserved for poor kids’. Just like all the promises about no university fees for deprived young people, as soon as they get the legislation over the line, they’ll all quietly be axed.

No school system is perfectly fair, but some are fairer than others. The universally discredited grammar system has no place in modern Britain. Far from new ones opening, the remaining ones should be cracked open.

If there’s a reason I went through a system pretty much designed to ensure my voice was not heard in the corridors of power, it was to be able to say this: a country which does this to its children in its education system, is a country that’s more concerned with maintaining the stinking illusion of privileged superiority than with its children’s futures. And what the hell kind of country is that?

This article was published by Comprehenisve Future in May 2017.

Post-Industry, Art and Play

By Kenn Taylor 

An 1880 painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw, Leeds Bridge, depicts a view of the River Aire that is still recognisable today; the heavy-duty ironwork of the bridge, the substantial brick warehouses, the bend in the river towards the church in the distance. Yet today, the riverbank that was clearly a hive of dirty industry in 1880, is now bound by offices, bars, flats and hotels.

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Leeds Bridge (1880) by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Leeds Art Gallery.

Similarly, in Liverpool, on quaysides where ships once unloaded their cargoes, there are now restaurants, galleries and arenas. In Teesside, the modern stadium of Middlesbrough Football Club sits on the site of old chemical and oil tanks. In Castleford, West Yorkshire, a huge indoor ski-slope has been built over a former colliery. Such has been the well-worn path of the last 30 years. The manufacturing and heavy industry that dominated the landscape of the North of England being replaced by service industries and leisure sites – with art and culture related projects forming a key part of this.

What a contrast from the 19th century of Atkinson Grimshaw. In the Victorian era, the booming industrial cities of Northern England built their edifices of art and culture usually as far from the factories and wharfs that paid for them as possible. In Leeds, from the Art Gallery on the Headrow to the Parkinson Building of Leeds University, a cultural sphere was built that was firmly separated from the hive of industry down the hill around the River Aire and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

But with the rapid de-industrialisation in the UK from the 1970s onwards, a reversal took place which saw sites of industry turned into sites of culture. Sites expected not to just reflect the wealth and sophistication of localities as did the art galleries, museums and concert halls of the Victorian era, but rather to be the economy through generating tourism, attracting inward investment and encouraging the ‘creative’ industries. So from the Wales Millennium Centre in the old Cardiff Docks, to The Hepworth Wakefield adjacent to abandoned textile mills, Gateshead’s Baltic in a disused flour mill and London’s Tate Modern in the former Bankside Power Station, art occupies spaces once dominated by industry.

This has not been a wholly un-problematic shift though. Debates abound about the culture, leisure and service fields not providing the same number or same quality of jobs as the industries they have replaced; who can enjoy this new urban culture and who has to serve in it? Not to mention the thorny issue of gentrification; property developers frequently promote cultural activities to create buzz, increase demand and drive up prices, which inevitably pushes those with more limited means out of some areas. The question remains though, just what do you do with large areas of old industrial land once it is no longer required for its former purpose? ‘Post-industry’ a phrase though bandied around a lot is still a relatively new phenomenon. It took a long and difficult time for society to adjust to the industrial revolution and it’s likely to take just as long to adjust to the post-industrial one.

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Leeds Bridge, 2015

Back to Leeds, whose industrial base did not collapse in the 1980s like other cities, but which has seen a significant contraction since the end of the 1990s. One of the key closures was the Joshua Tetley Brewery, an important industrial site in the city for nearly 200 years until production ceased in 2011. The key development on the brewery site since its closure has been the opening in 2013 of The Tetley, a new centre for contemporary art and learning based in the brewery’s former Director’s Offices.

The re-development of the old brewery forms part of a much wider regeneration plan for the ‘south bank’ of the River Aire, where many other former industrial sites are in the process of being converted into new sites for education, offices, homes, and the like. Into all of this, plans are now afoot by The Tetley to bring art outside of its building onto Brewery Green, the new open space that sits on part of the former plant. The intention is that that Brewery Green will soon be home to a new major piece of public art that will be some form of ‘play sculpture’, an artwork that can be interacted with rather than merely appreciated at a distance.

I am presently Curator of Participation at The Tetley. This is the kind of job title that itself has only emerged in the post-industrial era, as not only the location and reasons for civic art and culture have changed in our contemporary urban world, how we expect citizens to engage with it has shifted as well. Once the rarefied artworks collected by diligent industrial philanthropists were guarded heavily in their grand public galleries, lest they be damaged by the citizens they had been ‘given’ to. Out of doors, bronzes of local dignitaries were maintained in public parks amongst manicured garden beds as a symbol of civic pride. Yet ‘Keep Off the Grass’ was a key part of the culture, these creations guarded just as in galleries by a diligent band of uniformed keepers. Culture of one form or another procured in theory for citizens, but often without their consent and only to be engaged with in a prescribed ‘correct’ way.

Later, in the Modernist era, despite the pretence of change, works such as Victor Passmore’s concrete Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee newtown, County Durham, despite ostensibly being more open and democratic works of art, were in practice usually just as imposed and distant from local people, with progressive ideologies falling through the cracks of patronising and bureaucratic structures. The Pavilion quickly, inadvertently, becoming an un-loved place where teenagers got drunk and vandalised, though more recently local views towards it have apparently softened.

In our contemporary era of public art there is increasingly a wider acceptance amongst the public and commissioning bodies of broader ideas, and of people’s engagement with art and culture being as important as an art object itself. From Luke Jerram’s Park and Slide turning a Bristol high street into a waterpark, Carsten Höller’s shimmering carousel works and the sheer variety of Anthony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth project in Trafalgar Square, to art collective Assemble creating a scrap playground at Baltic Street in Glasgow and people clambering around in the startlingly blue, copper sulphate environment of Roger Hiorns Seizure at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: a less precious approach to engagement with culture has developed in tandem with its relocation. Where once public artworks were made to be appreciated from afar, engaging and ‘playing with’ art in the urban environment is, in many cases, now encouraged. Just as the gallery has shifted from the pillars and marble of the past to the cleaned-up old industrial site, so to we have shifted from distanced appreciation to valuing a more robust and open-ended interaction with art in the public realm.

This shift is summed up well by Usman Haque, designer of the fountain and light installation in Bradford’s new City Park; a great shallow pool that is invaded by families on any given sunny day and that has been a key catalyst in re-imagining the centre of Bradford: “I’m interested in how the designer of a system can best support ordinary people’s creativity, by being neither too prescriptive, and therefore unable to accommodate the unplanned, nor too unspecified, and therefore giving no firm take-off points, for people to contribute meaningfully.”

Similarly, institutions like The Tetley are not merely about the display and enjoyment of art as were the civic galleries of old, but primarily focus on its creation and production. The lines between these have become blurred in the way that mirrors wider changes in urban society. Where once industry was in the centre of the city in dirty, noisy brick-built factories, today what remains has usually been sent outwards to the distant industrial zones on the edge of town. To ultramodern, clean plants sometimes deceptively quiet. Back in the city centre meanwhile, in buildings near to the old Leeds Bridge and The Tetley, restaurants and bars sit in old warehouses, people design computer games in former foundries, skateparks thrill in old engineering plants, data centres sit in redundant chapels, new colleges occupy old printworks. Yet in tandem, the growth in the likes of craft breweries, knitting groups, urban food growing and hi-tech ‘fab labs’ have seen people re-discovering the value, and fun, of making, and small scale, local production in urban centres, often led by artists.

Culture in today’s post-industrial, post credit-crunch cities is now often not only expected to be a catalyst for economic development, but to generate actual income. Yet there has been a move away from the Grands Projets of the early 2000s, of multi-million pound statement ‘starchitecture’ that was alone meant to transform areas, economies and people’s lives. Post-industrial cultural regeneration continues apace but, much as bold statements in concrete foundered as Modernism’s ideals collapsed, so too largely has the palaces of the Neo-Liberal regeneration agenda. Meanwhile an interest in smaller scale, more open-ended and people focused projects has grown alongside the previously mentioned trend back towards craft and local making. This was exemplified by the nomination for the 2015 Turner Prize of London-based collective Assemble, for their work to support the regeneration of empty homes in Liverpool with a local community group. In many ways such actions are a return to the original origins of culture in post-industrial space. That is, instead of clearing away the past in some brave new vision, artists restoring things themselves, thinking long term and low cost and working hard to re-use the base of the old in new ways. Yet we remain in a post-regeneration era, when no one can ignore that, however well-meant such initiatives are, they do tend to help drive up the value of former industrial land, with many waiting in the shadows for economic opportunities presented by such grassroots initiatives. Will this new sense of DIY, craft, smaller scale and community focus retain its innocence or become another gentrification tool?

In it is into this context that Think. Play. Do., The Tetley’s exhibition of proposals for a play sculpture on Brewery Green, emerges. On one level it is about fun and wild open ideas; what would some artists, with limited constraints, create if asked to design a play sculpture for this site? However the project also asks, what even is a play sculpture, who would it be for and how would you ‘play’ with it? What role will it play in the regeneration of this part of Leeds and how will it relate to the context of where it is located?

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Brewery Green, The Tetley, 2015

The way we engage with art has changed, and so too has the way is it commissioned and produced. As well as the exhibition itself, the project is also a series of events, workshops, talks, publications, interactions and interventions that will all feed into what is an exercise in asking questions and trying things out. Think. Play. Do. is as much about us playing with ideas and concepts of art, sculpture, urban redevelopment and social and cultural change and seeing what happens as it is about selecting a ‘winning’ idea. We want a play sculpture on our post-industrial site, but we’re as much interested in how we get there as what we have at the end. This is a path that we hope ultimately results in a more engaging piece of public art that really resonates with this site’s former, current, and future use. Along the way we want to probe what direction the continued shifts in the use of the former urban industrial landscape as a site for leisure and culture may take. And of course, have a bit of fun while we’re doing it.

This piece was published to accompany the Think.Play.Do exhibition at The Tetley, Leeds in summer 2015. 

What does culture mean to you?

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By Kenn Taylor

I happened to read that quote just before I met Leanne Buchan to talk about Leeds’ cultural strategy and its bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2023. The quote is from the cultural critic Raymond Williams who, like me, was the child of a railway worker and the first in his family to attend university.

Leanne asked if I wanted to write something for the development of the strategy and this quote remained ringing in my ears. I considered writing something quite formal, based on my professional experience, but I’d already kind of done that here. So instead I thought I’d do a more personal response to the very good question, what does culture mean to you?

It’s hard to remember when I first became aware of the word culture as it is used in this context. Though I do know one early point must have been when Liverpool, which I grew up on the fringe of, announced its bid around 1999 to be European Capital of Culture in 2008. As a teenager, my understanding of culture was very much based around films, music and magazines, to me the stuff that made life more interesting. Even if I didn’t really know what such a bid was all about, in an area much maligned by the rest of the country, it was exciting. It seemed like it might help change things, that there might be more to see and do and be part of.

Over subsequent years, what culture meant to me was a slow opening out of ideas and things, places and people and getting to grips with all of that. Sometimes however ‘culture’ seemed a remote and inaccessible world. One dominated by a small circle of people who lived in a different part of town or far away in London. It was exciting. And it was difficult.

In a deprived city like Liverpool in the 90s, the question was asked even more than now in our post Credit Crunch times, ‘Why focus on culture? What about other things in the hierarchy of needs like food and shelter?’ To me, because it opens up the potential to tell stories and to ask questions, to make and do and change, even sometimes in things like food and shelter. Culture is not a panacea, but it’s something that represents an opening out of possibilities in a way that few other things do.

Liverpool leading up to and being Capital of Culture was exciting. And it was difficult. Authority and grassroots, mainstream and alternative, local and international, labels we give each other and make ourselves. Each claiming to be the ‘real’ culture when, to me, exactly what is culture in a city is the tension, the dialogue, the call and response between all of these. Hosting the title was grist to this mill, acting as a powerful catalyst for creation and debate. In enabled me and others to ask what did it mean to us and how do we make sure we’re heard?

On January 1st 2008, we joked ‘Well, I guess we’re cultural now’. It was the process though, before, during and after that year, the ups and downs and the conversations which I remember most now and that were the most important. These were the things which made people think and change locally, nationally and internationally, more so than the big headline events and pictures which get pulled out for brochures, though they were fun too.

Culture became a very big part of my life, even now years later, here I am still thinking and writing about it and you know, it’s still exciting and it’s still difficult. Working with artists, making things happen, working out an idea and seeing it come off, from a workshop to an exhibition to a book to a major event or a piece of public art. Getting to these end points can be a challenge but, as often, it’s the doing it, not the finished thing, that is the most exhilarating aspect, even if it doesn’t seem so at the time.

As I see it, so much of culture in the end is about ideas and stories and in particular, about whose ideas and stories get told and to whom. If you control the ideas and the stories, you control everything. That’s why it’s important to me that people at all levels are given genuine opportunities, space and platforms to develop and express their voice. Otherwise the voice of culture risks becoming a stale echo.

If culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language, then writing a culture strategy is an unenviable task. It also means that this co-production process that has been set in motion by Leanne and her supporters is then perhaps the only thing to do to make one. Being open like this is a risk and a challenge. It could go in all sorts of directions. That’s why it’s cultural. The more people who take part, the more difficult it might be, but also the more exciting. More cities should do it. As to 2023, bidding for Capital of Culture is a lot more difficult than bidding for the Olympics because it’s much less clear what exactly as a city you are expected to deliver, but that’s also why it is more exciting.

I started this with a quote from a Welshman I admired and I’ll end it with another, from Nye Bevan, which sums up to me why culture is important and even more so why making sure that the voices we hear in culture are not narrow: ‘This is my truth, tell me yours.”

This piece was published by the Leeds Culture Strategy Initiative in May 2016.

“Culture for all”: So why is the UK government moving one of the north’s finest collections to London?

By Kenn Taylor

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‘There Will Be No Miracles Here’ by Turner Prize nominated artist Nathan Coley is viewed by visitors at Tate Liverpool in 2007. Image: Getty.

I can acutely remember my first visit to Tate Liverpool as a child. My mum, not a natural gallery goer, was looking for somewhere free to take me on a day out.

I knew little of famous artists – but one I had heard of was Andy Warhol, and I was deeply impressed to find that an actual thing made by this famous person was in the same room as me. Later I would realise that it was probably not made by him and indeed that was the point, but still, it left an impression.

It was not until much later, when I eventually found myself working in the arts, that I realised how lucky I’d been. Living in Merseyside after Tate Liverpool opened in 1988, I had relatively easy and free access to art works of international calibre. Not every regional city has a Tate.

I thought back to this when I heard that a big chunk of the National Photography Collection – around 400,000 items, currently held in Bradford at the National Media Museum – was to be merged with the V&A museum’s Art Photography Collection and transferred to the V&A’s West London site, thus forming what would be the world’s largest collection of the art of photography.

In the longer term, the merged collection will be transferred to a new “International Photography Resource Centre” at an as yet unidentified location – though the V&A’s planned vast new site in East London must be the most likely contender.

Meanwhile, the National Media Museum, a part of the Science Museum Group, will continue to shift its focus to “STEM” – science, technology, engineering and maths – and “concentrate on inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers in the fields of light and sound, as well as demonstrating the cultural impact of these subjects”. The Bradford site may even change its name, possibly to “Science Museum North”.

There is actually a logic in merging parts of the photography collections of the Science Museum Group and the V&A. The fact that the Science Museum holds the National Collection of Photography is largely down to the snobby historical anachronism amongst our national art museums: in the past, photography wasn’t seen as “real art”.
Cultural powerhouse

There is also a logic to the National Media Museum re-imagining itself. It opened in 1983 as the second National Museum outside London (the first was the National Railway Museum in York in 1975, also part of the Science Museum Group). Since then, though, the Bradford museum has been overtaken by rapid changes in culture and technology.

For most of its history the institution was the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. But it was renamed the National Media Museum in 2006, to reflect the rise in other forms of communication and image-making, and a new internet themed gallery was instituted.

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The National Media Museum, Bradford. Image: DuPont Circle/Wikimedia Commons.

Yet even these moves have barely kept up with the speed of change. So drawing out some of the more fundamental ideas and principles beneath such technologies, and investing in new galleries around these – a £1.5m light and sound gallery will open next year – is undoubtedly a good idea.

Important questions remain though. Why do such new developments have to be at the expense of celebrating the art that is made by these technologies, which remains for many the most engaging thing about them? Also, if these collections are to be merged – and no doubt quite a great deal of capital will have to be invested in creating an International Photography Resource Centre – why does it have to be situated in London?

Why not move the V&A’s photography collection to Bradford, where land is cheaper, and the cost of living for low-paid culture sector workers easier? Or if not Bradford, why not to Sheffield or Birmingham or Newcastle, which so far lack branches of National Museums?

This move doesn’t seem to fit with the noises coming out of the government and its agencies. Those are all about shifting public cultural investment from London to the regions – something that, in terms of museums at least, began with the opening of the Science Museum’s York and Bradford branches. As culture secretary John Whittingdale recently commented: “I do think there is a danger that too much is spent in London and obviously what we want to do is demonstrate that the UK has fantastic cultural offerings right across the country and not just in London.”

Of course, the V&A can point to its investment in the vast new V&A Museum of Design in Dundee as its commitment to displaying its collection of some 2.3m objects in the regions. Elsewhere, huge investment is going into the likes of Manchester’s £110m giant new arts complex “The Factory” and a £5m new South Asia gallery at Manchester Museum which will display collections from the British Museum.

At the same time as these developments, though, Bradford’s collections are moving in the opposite direction – and elsewhere, there is even worse going on. The Museum of Lancashire in Preston, the museum of an entire county, is currently threatened with closure. The Museums Association has estimated that 42 UK museums have closed in the last ten years: the vast majority of these since 2010, and in the regions.
Branch lines

Back in the day, Britain’s regional cities didn’t need London museums to open “branches”. Their industrial wealth, and the patronage and tax base that came from it, paid for museums and collections that once in many ways rivalled those held in London.

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Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. Image: Rept0n1x/Wikimedia Commons.

The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, for example, has one of the finest collections of art outside of the capital. Yet its ability to continue to buy new work in the later part of the 20th century was curtailed by industrial decline. The same went for other regional museums across the country – if they could stay open at all – hence the need for branches and partnerships with national collections.

Of course, such partnerships and collaborations should be encouraged. But with such severe local authority cuts, must regional cities merely hope to borrow what London can spare? Meanwhile, with the National Media Museum itself under threat of closure as recently as 2013, can even branches be sure to have a secure future?

The problem is cultural investment in the English regions has been sporadic and inconsistent. Vast new grands projets are happening in some places, while much loved institutions are shuttered elsewhere. Some cities are experiencing a cultural boom; others are approaching cutting it off completely.

The classic argument for locating the likes of an International Photography Resource Centre in London of course is that more people will visit it. Hard to argue with that, but it’s not hard to achieve either, when a city has a population of over 8.5m and an endless supply of tourists.

The counter-argument, from Conservative Bradford councillor Simon Cooke, is that it means more to have significant cultural facilities in the regions. “You could – had you had the guts and vision – have based this new resource centre in the north, in Bradford, where they would have been loved and cherished it in a way you in London can never understand.”

If the state funds culture through the taxation of the entire population and through the Lottery, which has a disproportionate number of players in the regions, then surely arts funding should be distributed in a way that ensures maximum benefit to the entire population? Even whilst accepting that a bigger city will generally always have more culture and thus deserve a fair chunk of funding, shouldn’t public funding look to support places where it is less easy to access and find other sources of funding?

No young person interested in photography or media in London will go short of places to find inspiration. In Yorkshire or elsewhere though, they might. As the only person from a family of engineers who works in the arts, I applaud the fact that the government seems finally to want to reverse decades of decline in this area – and indeed, there are many high-tech companies around Bradford who need a new generation of STEM students to be inspired.

But must only the technically inclined be inspired? Computer games, one of Britain’s biggest software sectors, needs artists as well as programmers. Or, is Bradford expected to supply the technicians and London the artists?

What Britain needs is a long-term plan of cultural investment across all of the regions. One that develops and sustains institutions that are geographically accessible to all, provides regular funding that develops and retains talent, and ensures that quality collections are shared across the whole country. Without such a plan, pet projects and grand statements from our leaders about “culture for all” will just be empty gestures.

Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen – but a good start might be locating the International Photography Resource Centre in Bradford. My gut tells me, though, that East London will likely win the day. Because in the end, London always wins.

This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in February 2016.

8 Years to Go

Preparations for the third UK city to hold the title of European Capital of Culture

By Kenn Taylor

In 2023, a UK city will hold the title of European Capital of Culture. This may seem a long way off, but the forward planning required by host cities means that for those who have decided to bid, preparations very much have to begin now.

The title has been held by two UK cities previously since it was first instigated in 1985, both times in very different contexts. When Glasgow hosted it in 1990 the EU was still the EEC and with what was then called the ‘City of Culture’ title originally conceived as a way of celebrating traditional ‘cultural centres’ like Amsterdam, Florence and Athens, there was a great deal of scepticism about a focus on culture in a city devastated by industrial decline.

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La Machine, a Liverpool Capital of Culture project

Fast forward to 2008 when Liverpool held the title after beating fierce competition from Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle-Gateshead, Brighton, Oxford, Belfast and Bradford amongst others. Back then the UK was in the midst of a ‘cultural boom’, with new arts facilities opening across the country, and in contrast to 1990, a staunch belief written into UK government policy of the regenerative power of culture for declined cities. This inspired in part by things such as the impact that the Guggenheim museum opening in Bilbao had on that declined port city and Richard Florida’s now much critiqued book The Rise of the Creative Class, which suggested that luring in ‘creative types’ could solve economically-deprived cities’ problems. Meanwhile, the Credit Crunch was just kicking in and beginning to shake the foundations of much ideology, including that of the EU.

Now in 2016 the UK is going through the bidding process again and we’re once again in a very different era. One were arts facilities are more often closing that opening and struggling to survive, when there’s been a shift in focus on development in our cities, allegedly, on science, technology and engineering, more clearly on generally harder economics, and on spending cuts in particular at a local authority level. In contrast to the last biding process this time only three UK cities have so far definitely thrown their hat into the ring, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Dundee. The spending cuts no doubt making many authorities shy away at the money required to be involved. The ‘European Project’ that saw the birth of the title meanwhile, has not seemed so precarious in decades.

I was born in Merseyside and was working in the arts in Liverpool during the build up, delivery and aftermath and that city’s title. I now work in Leeds as it ramps up its bid and, although much about the context is different, the sense of déjà vu is palpable.

I have often been asked by Leeds residents things such “What effect did it have on Liverpool?”, “Was it ‘good’?”, “Did it change the city?”, “Did it benefit the people?” These are big questions which, to me, do not have simple answers. I do think it was positive for Liverpool though and has had lasting effects. These have been various, but I believe at a fundamental level it helped transform the attitude of the city. Despite the terrible impact of spending cuts, in particular on some of the city’s poorest residents, seven years on Liverpool is still thrusting to develop in a way that was unthinkable in my youth in the 90s, when the area had been psychologically brought low by extremely rapid economic decline and the huge social effects of this. Merseyside lost 80,000 manufacturing and transport jobs between 1972 and 1982, a rate that, ironically, only really Glasgow could be compared to. By the 90s, there was almost an acceptance of failure and malaise, as demonstrated by the consistently thwarted attempts to build an arena for major events.

When the 2008 bid was won it was a ‘game-changer’ – the city had to up its ambition to deliver this huge project and has since managed to keep much of that momentum despite its spending power being hammered by central government cuts. There were of course other factors in the city beginning to turn itself around, such as increased private investment and government and EU Objective One funding, but 2008 provided a crucial focus and concentrator for change.

The development of the Capital of Culture programme for Liverpool was a bumpy road, with changes of management and direction, political point scoring and media cynicism to contend with, but in the end a large and diverse programme was delivered, which for the most part visitors and locals appreciated. The challenging thing about Capital of Culture bids are that it’s a lot harder than organising the Olympics, were you know, pretty much, exactly what’s expected of you. But what is ‘culture’? Museums, opera, architecture, okay. But what about pop music, poetry slams, graffiti, graphic design, comedy, sports, food, dialect, philosophy, ways of living…trying to please everyone is a real challenge and as with all forms of art, which is generally how the bid is interpreted, subjective.

Liverpool demonstrated its fair share of fine art collections, historic architecture and cutting-edge theatre, but the city was also canny enough to include the everyday and pop culture in its bid, even hiring Keith Carter, a local comedian playing his ‘Scouse character’ Nige, to meet the judges, rather than trying to gloss over the way that the city has been viewed. From pub singing to experimental eletronica, giant street theatre to community projects, Gustav Klimt to Bill Shankly, in 2008 it was part of it.

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Superlambananas, a Liverpool Capital of Culture project (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

In a way the process of developing and submitting the bid was almost as important as the win for Liverpool and this is something other cities would do well to remember. Liverpool began to examine what was already culturally great and significant about it, which was an important boost to local pride and confidence. Once prompted to think about it, Liverpool citizens realised it had a lot going for it culture-wise in many different respects, despite its negative national image at the time. And indeed post-2008, this negative image continues to be slowly chipped away at, for example the city was recently highlighted as a top 10 global destination by both Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveller.

Leeds context is different. It has a stronger economy, and in many respects a better image. Yet, by its own admission, it lacks a national cultural profile despite boasting one of the highest concentrations of dance companies in the UK, three art schools, the principle opera company in the north of England, being a centre for sculpture and having one of the biggest fields of learning disability arts in the UK, amongst other things. So what should Leeds’ bid be?

I would suggest the same thing to any place that is considering bidding. A city should ask itself exactly why it is bidding. What does it want to achieve with the title? Then when it has answered why, it should ask, ‘what is unique about our city and how do we want to celebrate it?’

It’s important for cities to learn from the successes and failures of others, but copying slavishly or trying to create a programme merely to appeal to bid judges is doomed to failure. By focusing on a city’s strengths and through talking to those across the wide spectrum of its arts and cultural community, from grassroots initiatives to international directors, the outline will begin to write itself.

One thing that urban authorities should have learned over the last few years as more and more places have competed to be ‘cultural cities’ is having the same things as everywhere else is not necessarily helpful. In the globalised art world, why would you travel far to look at a Jeff Koons work in Leeds, Dundee or Milton Keynes rather than Venice, New York or Miami? A point of difference and celebrating local ‘cultures’ in their many forms serves the tourists as much as the locals.

‘International’ culture is still important. Bringing in the best from around the world can inspire both citizens and visitors and give new perspectives to local artistic communities, but the focus should still be about the city itself: asking what does it want to achieve and develop? Then working with international artists and practice to enhance that, rather than slavishly following trends.

As well as celebrating what is already great in a city, the title can be brilliant as a catalyst for new initiatives. Often this has manifested itself in a big new cultural building. A new building can be great, but it can also be a burden and a folly if it is unneeded and unsustainable and the title can also be a spark for developing things in other ways. Again, look for ideas internationally, but use local needs as a basis. Is there an art form that is neglected in the city? A local talent from the past forgotten? A historic site in need of a new use? What are local creatives crying out for? Where there is low participation in the arts, what can be done to increase interest? What problems is the city facing that arts can maybe help contend with? Not merely using the arts to gloss over problems or demolish ‘problem’ areas for new venues, but using the arts to ask questions and involve people in conversations, looking for solutions at a more holistic as well as a large-scale level, as exemplified by projects in Liverpool such as Homebaked and Granby 4 Streets.

Indeed wider involvement is to me the other key. Every city of any size has a band of creative people toiling away to make interesting things happen. A city that wholly ignores its own talent pool for ‘better known’ or ‘international’ artists is doomed to issues and lack of legacy. Similarly though, the title should not just be about pleasing the agendas of local artists and arts organisations. Just as crucial is the enthusiasm and engagement of the wider populance of the city. Indeed in Liverpool the judges said that local enthusiasm for the bod helped swing the title in the city’s favour. So mass participation and large-scale events, yes, but also in-depth engagement opportunities should be made available in a more focused way for local people. Liverpool being European Capital of Culture and the boom in arts around it aided me, from a pretty humble background, to have a career in the arts, and it can for citizens of other cities too.

Similarly those leading bids should not be afraid of ‘fringe’ programmes, even if they question what’s going on in the ‘mainstream’ one. One of the best things about Capital of Culture in Liverpool was how the very concept was creatively questioned and scrutinised. Artists and activists in the city used the attention the title brought to create work which questioned UK-wide issues such as the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder and orthodoxies around culture and regeneration, which in turn helped shift the national conversation around them and open up paths to new views and ideas. If deconstructing the very idea of the title and its effects isn’t cultural, I don’t know what it.

Legacy is a word that comes from the lips of everyone involved in such titles and again, easier said than done. A big new building is a legacy, but only if it can be sustained. More grassroots spaces for arts might be another one, but not if there’s already plenty. More ephemeral things like committing to long term training programmes or youth arts initiatives can have more impact, including in the economic sense that all local authorities have an eye on. But more than that, they have the potential to genuinely inspire the next generation of artists in a city who’ll lead us who knows where.

I’m glad that despite the harsh climate that some UK cities are still bidding for European Capital of Culture and wish them well. Winning the title won’t solve all the problems of a city or, on its own, transform it socially or economically. It can though be an amazing celebration and a rewarding process, a catalyst for change, a training and testing ground for many and an inspiration for many more if done well.

Arts and culture can have a powerful effect on place and people, and if our cities are to grow and improve and adapt to the challenges of the 21st century, then, even in these strained times, that is something we need to not forget.

This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in December 2015.

Photos by Getty Images.

“It’s revolutionary” – The Art of Reconstruction in Granby

Granby Four Streets    Granby 4 Streets - 7 

By Kenn Taylor
Images Ronnie Hughes and Kenn Taylor

The Granby area of Liverpool recently became the centre of a brief flurry of international media interest when a project based there was nominated for the Turner Prize.

Assemble, a collective of eighteen London-based artists and architects, all aged under 30, have been working with the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust (CLT) on the re-development of ten terraced houses left derelict after the machinations of the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI) of the 2000s. Once refurbished, the land will remain held in trust to deliver permanently affordable housing.

But the CLT’s work with Assemble is only the latest stage in a spirited and creative campaign to save these homes – one that began many years ago.

“It’s been quite a messy process,” says Lewis Jones, one of Assemble’s members. “Lots of people have been involved, going back 20 years, and we’re just a small part of that. So when suddenly there has been this huge wave of interest when the Turner Prize nomination was announced, we were quite keen to divert more of that attention to the Community Land Trust, to give a more balanced view of the situation. I still think that’s really important.”

The Housing Market Renewal Initiative was a Labour scheme, started in 2002, which was intended to renew “failing housing markets” in economically struggling parts of England. When the Coalition government axed HMRI in 2011, it created a vacuum that left vast areas of housing in limbo.

But this also turned out to be an opportunity for the Four Streets campaigners. “As time had moved on,” says Ronnie Hughes, a housing activist and CLT member, “things had got tighter in the housing market. So the ideas we’d been having, of splitting the streets into smaller groupings and having different kinds of tenure and different kinds organisations working there – well, they turned out to be the only ideas left.”

Granby Four Streets

After beginning their own plans to regenerate these ten houses, the CLT decided it was time to work with some professional architects. “Assemble worked to turn all of the people’s ideas into sketch plans and real plans,” explains Hughes. “They helped to make the community and the Community Land Trust look like a real thing. As time went on, though, obviously they had to stop being volunteers and compete to be the architects for the CLT, which they now are.”

Hughes is keen to stress the CLT and Assemble are not regenerating Liverpool 8 alone, however. A complex web of organisations, alliances and initiatives is working to re-develop empty houses in the area, and the campaigners are keen to move on the from the “heroes and villains” narrative that’s dominated some of the press coverage.

“We couldn’t do any of this without the city’s support,” he says. “They gave us the houses, for free. The council also completely changed their policy in order to allow this to happen.”

The group is happy to work with specialist housing providers, too, he adds: 47 houses being worked on by Liverpool Mutual Homes is working on 47 homes, Plus Dan is working on 26. Other work is being undertaken by a social investor, and by the eco-based Terrace 21 housing co-op “I think it’s that mix which has worked, as there’s lots of different ideas going into the place,” Hughes adds.

Assemble themselves are a relatively recent arrival, for a group nominated for the art world’s most famous gong. “We started working together in 2010,” says Jones. “We came together as a group just to do one project, which became the Cinerolium.”

That was a glittering temporary cinema, created in a former petrol station in London’s Clerkenwell district. “We thought that would be a really great site to test ideas out on. So we brought together loads of friends to help build it and lots of other people to come and experience it. It was a really kind of fun process for us, just testing out ideas and building things ourselves. Lots of the ways of working we developed in that project have gradually been evolving over subsequent years.”

“A lot of us graduated in 2009,” Jones explains, “and were working for a year or so in different architecture practices. We wanted a way to be more hands on and test ideas out within the city, rather than being stuck behind a computer working on a small part of a very large project.” The point of the Cinerolium was to do something “on a small enough scale that we’d be able to have our hands in every different part of it. We’d have to find the funding, find the site, design it, build it, manage it, everything, and have a much more complete and holistic involvement.”

This was to be the first of several distinctive architectural projects around the UK, from a scrap playground at Baltic Street in Glasgow to a temporary arts venue in a motorway undercroft in Hackney. I ask Jones about themes he sees in the group’s work.

“We’re kind of really interested in the idea of resourcefulness and complexity and messiness in the city, as that what makes places interesting,” he says. “So the fact that there are places where there can be overlaps and intersections between historic building fabrics and something new and inserted and also between the different needs of different groups – that’s kind of a very exciting situation to be part of.”

Yardhouse/Sugarhouse Studios, Bow

This sort of ethos is visible when visiting the studio complex they occupy in Bow, east London, with several other creative practitioners. Sugarhouse Studios and the adjacent Yardhouse, with its striking polychromatic concrete tiles – designed and largely built by Assemble – are filled with well-used machine tools, packed storage racks and a busy, bustling office. It’s all a long way from the glass-coffee table minimalism of many architectural practices.

A sense of the practical and of innovative solutions pervades their work. But how does a collective of 18 people work in practice?

“Normally what happens is that if a project or invitation comes in to us,” Jones explains. “Then basically if two people in Assemble want to work on it and no one else has an issue with them working on it, then that’s enough for us to take on that project.”

Each project is managed by two people – “like a buddy system,” Jones says. There’s a group meeting every Monday morning, then a project review that evening. “That was just a way of us being able to take on more work, but also allow us a bit more independence in the way we do work, so that we’re not all trying to hold the same pen at the same time.”

Assemble are currently involved with a range of other projects, including designing a new art gallery for Goldsmiths College in a former Victorian bathhouse. They’re now going international, too. “We’re working on a project now in Berlin, with the House of World Cultures: they partnered four local Berlin based initiatives with four international architecture practices to each develop new models for housing.

“We’re working with this really amazing group called Stille Strasse who are a self-organised seniors group aged between their 70s and 90s who squatted and saved their local meeting house and they run it themselves. So we’ve been working with them to develop a model of self-determined living in housing in old age.”

Assemble and the Four Streets CLT will have to wait until December to find out if they have won the Turner Prize. In Granby however, the work goes on rebuilding regardless, bit by bit, day by day, not headline-grabbing, but with far more important long-lasting results.

Granby Four Streets

“The next thing in the big picture is the Four Corners project, which is the four corners of Granby Street and Cairns Street,” says Hughes. “There are three existing though derelict shop units there and one that sort of accidently fell in on itself. We’ve just completed a six-week community storytelling project that Writing on the Wall ran with us, to involve everybody in the wider Granby and Liverpool 8 in gathering together stories of Granby and out of them we want to start pulling together what people’s ideas are for the best things to do with the Four Corners.”

The Turner judges were keen to set the Granby project in an art historical context, linking back to the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Bauhaus. So, is what’s going on in Granby a new movement in art and ideas?

“Yesterday there were community members coming into their [Assemble’s] workshop,” says Ronnie Hughes, “and doing that proper kind of co-working; while you’re focusing on getting the hardcore into the moulds and pouring concrete on them, people are having deep and meaningful conversations about re-making the place.” It appeals to him, he adds, “in a way that sitting around having endless blue-sky visions no longer does”.

“Let’s make something and see what we come up with while we’re making it. It’s revolutionary.”

This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in September 2015.

Granby Four Streets CLT
Assemble

A Creative Alternative?

Photo of Bradford Odeon protest by P13 D
Photo of Bradford Odeon protest by P13 Digital Media

By Kenn Taylor

When I was a child, I was taken by my school to see a submarine launched at the Cammell Laird shipyard, a place that had been the raison d’être of my hometown, Birkenhead, for the last 200 years. I was given a flag to wave at the vast, metal object as it went down the slipway. My principle memory is of the scale of the place, as we stood dwarfed by the yard’s huge construction sheds and yellow cranes. What I didn’t quite understand at the time was that this was the end. This was the last ship that was to be built at the yard.

I would to come to realise this, though, and also that it was almost to mean the end of the town, reduced largely to decline and dependency on low-paid service-industry work, benefits and a small number of public-sector jobs. What happened to Birkenhead as a phenomenon has, if anything, increased elsewhere in my lifetime. The sort of decline that could once safely – for others – be said to be located in certain specific areas, has engulfed more and more places over the last twenty years in a rapidly shifting global world. What do you do with a place when its reason to exist has gone? Can it have a future? How can people suffering from the poverty generated by such situations have better lives and opportunities? These were the questions that plagued me as I grew up in a postindustrial area.

Economic decline is inextricably linked to population decline, both of which create surplus land and buildings. In the later part of the twentieth century, in certain urban areas such as New York, London and Berlin, this ‘free space’ was often occupied by artists and those seeking alternative lifestyles. Economically, this ultimately worked out for these cities, since while certain industries and the communities that had relied on them had been hollowed out, they had other industries to sustain them. In New York and London this was principally high-finance and in Berlin, principally government. So this occupation by ‘creatives’ actually helped re-animate what was, in the eyes of local authorities, ‘problem spaces’, bringing them back to economic use as they became fashionable and subsequently attracted new, wealthier residents. Such gentrification has been well documented.1 Writers like Richard Florida suggested that other postindustrial areas should adopt this model, becoming ‘creative cities’2  that attract the highly educated, highly mobile people who set up the likes of Google. This was seen by some civic leaders as a catch-all answer to stemming population decline, creating those lucrative ‘good jobs’ and so increasing the tax- and power-base of postindustrial areas. Based on these theories, many such localities spent big on arts venues, festivals etc aimed at regenerating disused space, attracting culture-seeking tourists and more importantly, those new ‘creative’ business-starting residents.

However, in many other cities, while empty buildings, declining populations and tax bases were also the problem, this solution was not so easy as in New York and London. In a place as large as a city, a ‘creative class’ generally needs a ‘real’ economy to feed off in order to enjoy a supporting infrastructure and audience. Shoreditch may emphasise its mental distance from The City of London, but without the latter’s finance industry paying for the likes of London’s advanced public transportation system via demand and taxation, along with everything from sponsoring theatres to buying artworks and commissioning designers, its ‘creative class’ would struggle. As any artist who has lived in a postindustrial city for any length of time will tell you, cheap rents and easily available space are important, but to lack easy access to a major market or audience (even in these internet days) is ultimately limiting.

While we may love them for their diversity, vibrancy and creativity, cities have since ancient times largely existed for strategic or economic reasons, formed out of convergences of power and money. This is why so many artists and creative people still move to New York and London despite the harsh costs and lifestyle. These cities offer potential for advancement that other localities do not, whether in terms of creative stimulation or more pragmatic personal opportunities. This is why economically successful cities are always centres of inward migration, people seeking their own piece of the growing pie, whether money or culture, which in turn helps gives birth to that diversity, vibrancy and creativity.

Throughout history, art and culture have generally emerged from economic centres that can afford them, rather than being expected to be the economy, or at least not solely. Some unique places such as Venice can, via tourism, achieve an economy based on their cultural histories. Yet even Venice has a shrinking population, which is causing it problems now that it is no longer a centre of manufacture, commerce and slavery. Indeed, despite all the new creative industries being talked about in postindustrial places like Detroit, such as the start-ups at the A. Alfred Taubman Centre,3  making cars is still actually the biggest part of the Detroit economy.4  Likewise, even as cultural-focused tourism does grow in Liverpool, its maritime and manufacturing trades are still bigger economic assets.5  Over in Birkenhead, even the old Cammell Laird shipyard has re-opened and is now booming.6  These most traditional of industries, which had declined for years, are still the main points of growth for such places as trade patterns shift, to a degree, back in their favour. Such growth remains vulnerable, but at least these localities are still playing a significant role in the global economic system, in fields, despite their reduction in staff numbers, that employ far more people than the arts are ever likely to.

In London and New York, the fight for space against the overwhelming power of capital is key, hence the constant shifting of ‘creative zones’ to the latest deprived area. In cities such as Liverpool, though, the fight is for capital or rather any way for the city (including its artists) to sustain itself without having to rely on cross-subsidy from elsewhere to pay for its services. The latter is a dangerous situation, leaving postindustrial areas vulnerable to the whims of the policies of often faraway governments.

Is there an alternative for cities other than to fight each other for a slice of global capital? To take part in a pact with the very ideology that brought down industrial cities? We should not forget that it was also this same ideology that gave birth to these cities and subsequently the culture that rose from them: be it Motown or The Beatles, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals or the metal sculptures made by Arthur Dooley, himself a former Cammell Laird welder.

Despite the continued economic reliance on transport and manufacture in Liverpool, cultural activity has played a big part in shifting both the perception and actuality of the city in the last fifteen years in a way that few residents would disagree has been an improvement, even if most would also agree there is still a long way to go. If, with the right cultural attractions and activities, a town can create a tourist business and transform external views of the place, creating a few jobs in the process, why would any poor locality not do so?

Are these cultural initiatives in postindustrial locations just window-dressing: a bit of art to cover over the economic cracks, encouraging higher-end tourism and providing something to do between inward investment meetings? A chance for globetrotting arty-types to ‘reanimate’ decayed spaces and help pave the way for developers? Or can they offer more?

I would argue that they can. Art’s real strength in this situation is how it can exist in a space between those at different ends of the scale of power and money. In this deeply imbalanced situation, real sway can be had, as Charles Bukowski once said, when ‘an artist says a hard thing in a simple way’. Art has the potential to cut though things, creating a channel through dysfunctional systems. Creative activism in the public arena can, by highlighting errors, showcasing alternatives and probing new solutions, make the prevailing forces of power, at best take a step back, or at least demonstrate to others the holes that exist within their plans and systems.

Such action in postindustrial areas can break the deadlock that can emerge from vested interests. Governments, local authorities, businesses, property developers, investors, even entrenched community groups, while often having plans that may be valid on one level, can, in the inevitable vastness of such organisations, end up letting neighbourhoods, even whole cities, fall down the cracks. As an example, we can look to Liverpool and how the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder initiative affected it and other areas with mass housing demolition. 7  This plan emerged, no doubt with good intentions, from a think-tank at Birmingham University and was adopted by the then government as a way of regenerating postindustrial communities. Dozens of journals, petitions and surveys eventually began to critique this extreme approach. While these achieved a cumulative effect, ultimately they held less power and sway in general public and political opinion than two actions in Liverpool. In Anfield, the 2up2down/Homebaked project,8  re-opening a bakery that many thought had gone for good, and in Liverpool 8, community groups painting bright images, planting flowers and hosting a local market outside abandoned homes. All the secret meetings, investment strategies and ten-year-plans rightly turned to dust in the face of such an obviously more positive use of empty property reduced to ruin by socio-economic policies. Such initiatives may have impacts that are more emotional than practical, but therein lies the ability of such creative action to compete against, or at least square up to, those who control the money and power. Those with their hands on the levers inevitably struggle to respond when they are faced with a public demonstration of obvious failure and positive alternatives.

The question from critics though, and it is a valid one, is what next? When folly or injustice has been demonstrated, what alternative is there? Can such initiatives represent long-term solutions? Creative perforations can open avenues to new situations, but for real change they have to then grow into something bigger. In becoming more established and practical, such projects may lose some of their initial outsider power, but this is essential if such action is to instigate actual change and shift the balance of ideas, power and control.

For an example of this we can shift from Liverpool to Bradford, where creative grassroots action helped not only to save a grand Art Deco cinema from demolition, but began a total re-imagining of the potential future of the building. After being closed for several years, the Odeon was facing destruction, to be replaced with a new office and retail development,9  the need for which was questionable. Slowly, local opposition built into a ‘Save the Odeon’ campaign, with activists often utilising artistic impulses such as covering the building with ‘Get Well Soon’ cards, decorating it at Christmas while a brass band played, and even turning up as a group to clean its exterior to demonstrate that, beneath a bit of dirt, a fine building was languishing. These actions slowly won over more local people and even gained celebrity support from the likes of Imelda Staunton, Terry Gilliam and David Hockney. After much pressure, the demolition was eventually cancelled, with the local authority agreeing that the building should be retained in future plans for the area. The campaigners have subsequently formed into an Industrial and Provident society named ‘Bradford One’ and are now bidding to be allowed to take over the building themselves.10

Meanwhile, over in Detroit, the apparently sensible policy of reducing the city’s size in relation to its shrunken population came up against The Heidelberg Project, begun in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton on the city’s east side. Initially, he painted a series of houses in Heidelberg Street with bright dots in many colours and attached salvaged items to the houses. He went on to develop the project into a constantly evolving work that transformed a semi-abandoned neighbourhood into a creative art centre.11  Twice it was faced with demolition by the Detroit authorities, and indeed some of it was destroyed. Yet, despite these setbacks, it is now a global tourist attraction with its own arts education programme for local schoolchildren, not to mention being one of fifteen projects that represented the US at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale.12

The question raised by those who wanted to see the demolition and removal of all these places was, ‘Well, what would you do with it?’ In answer, creativity was used against the overwhelming machines of business, media, government and prevailing orthodoxy, to open up alternative possibilities for these spaces. Such projects may not in themselves solve all the problems of a postindustrial city, but their operation in a more open-ended space outside of dominant ideologies can raise awareness, generate new solutions and galvanise people to action. After all, successful local regeneration is based on local enthusiasm for it, which, when people are already facing the multiple challenges of living in a deprived area, can be slow to start and quick to wane. Key to ongoing positive change stemming from such initiatives is the genuine involvement of local people in an in-depth way. The Bradford One and Heidelberg actions were both begun by people who already had a stake in the local area, while 2up2down/Homebaked in Anfield began as an external provocation from Liverpool Biennial. However, all of these projects ultimately took the time to win understandably sceptical people over from outside of their own circles and become rooted in local desires, rather than just agendas imposed from outside. Also vital though, is that such projects moved on from their initial creative perforations and formed organisations, sought funding, liaised with regulators, engaged wider publics and communicated with media and academia. Thus they created a momentum that became sustainable, even through inevitable setbacks and ups and downs.

So, having begun to develop initial provocations into projects with positive outcomes for communities, the question becomes, what next? How does the spark of an alternative become something sustainable or even a new way of doing things in postindustrial areas? The rights of the urban resident of the twentieth century were gained through practical action, engaging, even if aggressively, with the prevailing system and demanding a share, as well as through the development of solid alternatives that functioned effectively, even if these existed within a wider capitalist framework. Bodies from the Cooperative movement founded in Rochdale in 1844 to the early housing associations formed in 1960s Liverpool, determined that inner-city housing had a future, and so it remains today.

Having successfully fundraised via Kickstarter to open its bakery, 2up2down/Homebaked now seeks to establish a co-operative housing scheme13  as part of the wider redevelopment of Anfield, which is centred on a new stadium for Liverpool Football Club. In Bradford, the Save the Odeon campaign has formed into the constituted Bradford One organisation, which is developing proposals that, if successful, will see the historic structure transformed into a multi-purpose cultural venue and centre for creative enterprise. This will include an ‘asset lock’ ensuring that the Odeon’s future use will always benefit the people of Bradford.14  In Detroit meanwhile, the Heidelberg Project is planning to expand into neighbouring properties as part of a broader ‘cultural village’ concept for the area once the site has been secured from recent damage.15  The project’s development committee now includes senior staff from Detroit and Michigan local authorities, demonstrating quite a change from when Guyton spent much of his time fighting officials who wanted to shut down the project. His case was no doubt aided by the Heidelberg’s increasing popularity and global visibility.16

While global big business is probably here to stay, it seems that local control, whether it is of new business start-ups, arts centres, housing co-ops or bakeries, offers the best long-term sustainability for communities. Yet for this to happen, local people must be able to take control. The will must be there in the community for such initiatives, but provocations such as the above, by highlighting alternatives and breaking open new ideas, can have transformative effects, bringing people on board who never imagined they could ever have a voice or play a part in the future of their area.

However, controlling authorities also need to have the desire, or at least the will, to hand such power to communities. So will states grant such power to localities and will local authorities in turn divest power to their citizens? Even if this happens, will it descend into counter-productive factionalism? Perhaps in some cases, but as the examples above show, plenty of projects can exceed even the wildest hopes of their founders, if they are given the opportunity. It may be the case though, as projects such as these have demonstrated, that the only way to gain power is for such organisations to be formed, take the initiative and demand it, creating legitimacy though raising awareness and encouraging action. Equally vital is that the authorities provide the required financial support for such projects at the relevant time. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea of community solutions quickly fell on its face because of a lack of money, something even acknowledged by the academic who came up with the phrase.17  If you hand the levers of power over to people, but with no capital to be able to use them, positive effects will always be limited.

Creative perforations, such as those listed above, are in themselves valid, as a way to speak the truth to power, show an alternative and imagine new possibilities. However, if they are to have lasting effects, they need to change, morph and engage with the prevailing systems of power and money in order to achieve wider goals. This may require compromise, but such compromise will have much stronger social benefits in deprived areas than any academic treatise denouncing failures in the system from a faraway university.

Finally, can these projects be more than interesting perforations, a few gems standing out in otherwise troubled cities? Can they actually become new ways of organising postindustrial urban environments? If this is possible, such initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum. Power brokers need to be engaged and convinced that the system needs to shift and absorb these new ideas. In undertaking such engagement, projects like these may risk losing their outsider power, but they gain the potential to change many more lives and even of becoming new orthodoxies. That is, of course, until the need arises for the next perforation from outside of the prevailing order.

This piece was published in the Stages Journal #2 published by Liverpool Biennial in September 2014.

Footnotes

1  See, for example, S. Zurkin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982.

2  Richard Florida, ‘Cities and The Creative Class’, http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida/books… (accessed 24 April 2014).

3  M. Haber, ‘Meet The Makers: Rebuilding Detroit by Hand’, Fast Company (2013). Available at: http://www.fastcocreate.com/1682411/meet-the-maker… (accessed 20 April 2014).

4  T. Alberta, ‘Refueled: Domestic Automakers Poised to Lead Detroit’s Revival’, National Journal (2014). Available at: http://www.nationaljournal.com/next-economy/americ… (accessed 25 April 2014).

5  Liverpool Economic Briefing 2013, Liverpool City Council, 2013, p.9.

6  B. Gleeson, ‘John Syvret commits future to Cammell Laird’s’, Liverpool Echo (2014). Available at: http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/business/john-… (accessed 1 May 2014).

7  I Cole & B. Nevin, The road to renewal: the early development of the housing market renewal programme in England, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York, 2004, pp.9–17. Available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/system/files/1859352707.pdf# (accessed 22 Apr. 2014).

8  ‘2Up 2Down, a Community Land Trust and Co-operative Bakery for Anfield’ (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/ (accessed 25 April 2014).

9  I. Qureshi, ‘Why does Bradford care so much about a derelict cinema?’, The Guardian, (2012). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-northerner/2012/… (accessed 1 May 2014).

10  About Us, Bradford One (2014), http://www.bradfordone.com/faq/ (accessed 1 May 2014).

11  The Heidelberg Project – Great Public Space (2014), http://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/one?public_… (accessed 1 May 2014).

12  A. Goldbard, ‘Public Art as a Spiritual Path’ Forecast Public Art (2014). Available at: http://forecastpublicart.org/public-art-review/201… (accessed 1 May 2014).

13  Homebaked Community Land Trust, 2Up 2Down (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/about/egestas-elit/ (accessed 1 May 2014).

14  Our Plans, Bradford One (2014), http://www.bradfordone.com/bradfordone-news/our-pl… (accessed 1 May 2014).

15  S. Welch ‘In wake of fires, Heidelberg Project rethinks goals, halts capital campaign’, Crain’s Detroit Business (2014). Available at: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20140330/NEWS… (accessed 1 May 2014).

16  G. Anglebrandt, ‘Expansions in the works for Heidelberg, MOCAD’, Crain’s Detroit Business (2011). Available at: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20110421/DM01… (accessed 22 April 2014).

17  P. Blond, ‘David Cameron has lost his chance to redefine the Tories’, The Guardian (2012). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/… (accessed 24 April 2014).

A Design for Learning

By Kenn Taylor

Youth Studio in Wellcome Collection
Youth Studio in Wellcome Collection

The architecture of learning spaces within cultural institutions has followed a similar trajectory to learning as a whole within them. Even ten or fifteen years ago, education was frequently viewed as something marginal and add-on, to be fitted in wherever space was available, as long as it wasn’t intrusive and didn’t affect the ‘core’ work of the organisation. Inevitably, this meant that the spaces provided for education were equally marginal. If any dedicated facilities were available at all, it was often in unwanted rooms hidden far away from main areas and usually fitted out in an ad hoc way. Places unloved except perhaps by those who used them as participants or practitioners.

This really began to shift with the plethora of new cultural institutions that opened in the New Labour era. One of my previous employers, FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) has a renowned education and engagement programme. Yet when it opened its brand-new permanent site in Liverpool in 2003, arguably the first in the UK to have given deep consideration in its design for displaying media art, dedicated spaces for learning programmes were not envisaged. Consequently learning activity had to be creatively undertaken in whatever space was available, be it computer labs, reception areas or within gallery and foyer space. While this to an extent prevented the ‘ghettoisation’ of education, having to use such spaces around wider programming and commercial imperatives inevitably reduced the flexibility and scale of what could be achieved.

While FACT didn’t have a dedicated education area when it was built, it did however contain a flat for visiting international artists – since removed for office space. This highlights perhaps the shifting perception of what the priorities of a cultural institution should be in the relatively short period of the 2000s. As more and more arts centres of various forms opened during this time in more diverse and deprived areas, increasingly they had to prove their worth beyond narrow circles of existing interest and any potential impact from creating a new ‘signature’ building.

Now in an era of harsher scrutiny, there has been a shift in focus from supporting artists and their work to that of engaging the public with art. Today it would be largely unthinkable to open a new publicly-funded cultural facility without providing a learning programme and space allocated for it. In the current climate for funding, this space may be small and learning staff may have several other functions, but in most cases education and engagement is now part of the core mission statement the majority of public cultural institutions.

As this has occurred, so the space allocated to learning within the architectural fabric of institutions has shifted. A clear example of this is the Design Museum, currently in the process of leaving its home since its founding in the 1980s in Shad Thames and moving to the former Commonwealth Institute building in the heart of West London. The overall footprint of the museum is being expanded, but of particular note will be an increase in the space allocated to education from 90m sq to some 600m sq, including a dedicated design studio.1 This is a clear example of how far museum education has come in a short time in terms of the recognition of its importance and need for space.

There has been a change though not only in the amount of floor space given over to education, but in the design of learning spaces within the wider architecture of institutions. Education rooms have come a long way from the often-windowless magnolia spaces of old. Funders who are backing an institution at least in part on the basis of education want due attention paid to it in the buildings that they finance, and this has been reflected in many recent new builds and refurbishments. For example, BALTIC in Gateshead, which opened in 2002, has since added the Quay Learning Space, which hosts a range of activities and showcases work by schools and communities, at the heart of the gallery in full view of visitors. This was of course though, a post-opening retrofit.2

Now it is typical for heavily-designed, prestigious earning spaces to occupy some of the best spots within a cultural venue, elevating the status of education within the architectural hierarchy of institutions. For example, the Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011, is the largest new build museum in the UK since the V&A opened in 1909. The Museum of Liverpool has several education spaces, but its largest, Education Area 3, occupies one of the most dramatic locations in the building. Constructed out of almost floor-to-ceiling glass, it places learning activity in view of visitors on the inside and outside of the building as well as giving those taking part stunning views across the ever-changing skies and river of the Mersey estuary, with sun and distractions easily blocked when required by electric blinds. These changes in design also reflect the shifting uses of education spaces to a degree. Once, learning in cultural institutions was largely about formal sessions for school children, along with perhaps the odd lecture. Now, learning facilities can find themselves being used for everything from youth panels to family craft workshops,reminiscence sessions with older people and evening talks in British Sign Language.

This has seen an increase in the creation of dedicated spaces aimed at specific audiences in some organisations. For example, when the Wellcome Collection in London first opened its new public venue in 2007 the only learning space provided was a general performance and events area. Now, as part of a large expansion programme, they are developing a dedicated youth events studio. The new studio will be an activity space for people aged 14 to 19 to engage with the Wellcome Collection and produce work that contributes to the organisation’s programme. Consultation with both staff and young people who would use the space was carried out by external facilitators, with the young people visiting learning and youth spaces across London. The main outcome of these consultations was a set of reports which were used by architects involved in creating the space to refer back to at the design stage.3

This is wise. Despite this improving design, location and space allocation, not all new education spaces function as well as they might and so often this stems from a lack of serious consultation with end users – be they education staff or participants. In some cases it seems also that the prestige of spaces has started to become a little removed from the reality of a learning facility – inevitably a changeable, messy, ‘live’ space.

From my experience of cultural education facilities in numerous venues as a staff member, freelancer and participant, I have developed a few ideas around what goes into making a great learning space. The key concept for me is that of flexibility. Learning spaces will inevitably be used for a myriad of activities, often for things that they were never envisaged for, as priorities, programmes, technologies and audiences change. Designing a space for a specific audience or activity can be great, but care should be taken to future-proof things. How quickly has a suite of Macs come to seem a little antiquated in the face of tablet computers?

Sizeable open plan spaces are great and flexible. However, cavernous spaces can sometimes be overwhelming and distracting, so if a space is large, the ability to break it up, with sliding doors or moveable partitions, is invaluable. In this respect Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini had it right when they created the Pompidou Centre in Paris back in 1977.

Quay Space in Baltic
Quay Space in Baltic

Lighting is another vital and often over-looked component. Natural light wherever possible is desirable, especially if, for conservation or display purposes, other areas of an institution are dark most of the time. However, views outside windows and people peering in can also be distracting and unnerving for participants. Windows can also detract from showing videos, slides etc, so suitable and reliable blinds are a must. Strong lighting is also vital when working with disabled audiences, for example partially sighted people or visitors who lip-read or use sign language who rely on clear sightlines. When artificial lighting is used, the ability to raise and dim and split lighting into sections is easily achieved and really increases flexibility. Similarly the easy availability of points for power and data cables throughout a space is simple and vital but too often overlooked.

Soundproofing is another issue. I have witnessed in several venues the distracting sound bleed from audio-visual exhibits into education spaces, while the inability to cut off areas from public address systems can also be hugely undermining to activities. This is a wider issue in galleries in general, but has a particular effect on learning provision. It also highlights the wider challenges exhibition designers and architects face when trying to create new displays simultaneously as a building is being constructed or renovated.

The fittings and furniture of an education space are also important to its success. Flexible storage solutions and durable, lightweight, collapsible or stackable furniture is a must. While we have come a long way from piles of uncomfortable, ugly plastic chairs, unfortunately what has replaced them is too often fragile, easily marked, heavy and awkward. A piece of furniture may look great, but if it needs two people to move it, is impossible to get paint off and difficult to store when not needed, it is of little use in education spaces. A kitchen space with running water is also a big plus. A dishwasher and a dedicated separate sink for washing paint pots is great, but somewhere to at least fill a water jug and wash out a cup might not be glamorous but it is very useful.

A great learning space should also have some capacity to display things. Even something as simple as magnetic paint or a display board can be preferable to heavy cabinets and inflexible hanging systems, though these also have their uses if space and budget is available. Retractable screens and integrated projection units can also be good, similarly interactive whiteboards. However the flexibility of a white wall with hard-wearing paint should not be underestimated.

This leads us into interior decoration. While magnolia walls can be un-stimulating, too much going on in a design can be distracting from whatever activity happens to be taking place. A blank canvas to a degree allows creative activities to fill the space in their own way and for a future project to start the process all over again. Walls don’t have to be bare, but again, flexibility is the key to success, and the design of such spaces should respond to the overall design context, be that a radically shaped piece of ‘starchitecture’ or a refurbished older building. That said, the tendency for architects and those commissioning them to place education spaces into the ‘awkward corners’ of a building’s footprint once the ‘core spaces’ have been allocated has sadly not disappeared completely.

As learning within cultural institutions has moved towards the core, we have seen education and engagement programmes increasingly influencing or in some cases even becoming the ‘mainstream’ offer in certain sections of institutions or for dedicated periods of time. For example, the young people in Tate Collective and Student Ambassadors from University of the Arts London are involved in programming the June editions of the popular Late at Tate events for other Tate visitors to consume. Late at Tate has recently been moved into the overall Young People’s Programme and there are plans for Tate Collective to be involved in all such future events though to a lesser degree than the June sessions.4 It has become a norm for engagement teams and participants to influence or even create content for core exhibition and programmes, and displaying community produced work or curated objects in main galleries is now rarely questioned. As a phenomenon, this is to be welcomed, as it helps to validate the contribution made by those taking part as well as demonstrating their perspectives to other audiences and staff within an institution.

The recognition afforded by becoming part of the ‘core’ is undoubtedly valuable. However, such integration should not be at the expense of having dedicated space that is always for learning and engagement. Space away from public observation, precious objects and carefully laid-out displays is vital. Somewhere there can be a degree of freedom to experiment, where mess can be made and ideas, and lunch, can happen. Somewhere also that anyone who might be nervous about being in a cultural venue can have respite from often busy and stimulating galleries. Without this, the ability for learning and engagement projects to generate interesting new perspectives and new work will be reduced and what is contributed to the core will inevitably be diminished.

Even in institutions which now have plenty of well-designed, functional learning space, a potential new undermining of their use has emerged. Flexibility in such facilities may be the key to their success, but it can also be their undoing. In small institutions it can be vital that such spaces have uses beyond education, for everything from meetings to packing leaflets or temporarily storing objects. However education now often has to fight for space with revenue generating activity. This is to an extent inevitable in a time of reduced public funding and while a happy medium can be found, it could represent difficulties on the horizon. Larger institutions may have the luxury of dedicated spaces, but how long will such fine, purpose-built learning facilities keep education as their core function during the ever-increasing need to host commercial events, which themselves demand suitably ‘prestige’ spaces within institutions? We have come a long way in the architecture of spaces for learning within cultural institutions, but it is important that education programmes and the space they are afforded don’t slip back during these times. When it comes to allocating, designing and fitting out facilities for learning, it is crucial that education professionals are part of the conversation at the beginning. That way they can advocate at the highest level for the needs of both audiences and professionals and make sure that spaces are suitable, stimulating and practical. Active involvement of educationists is also perhaps the best way to ensure that once such facilities are created, they can continue to be used for their intended purpose and enable participants to continue to make interesting contributions and generate new perspectives in the organisations they are learning in.

This piece was published in engage journal 34: Experiencing Gallery Architecture in summer 2014.
Notes
1. Helen Charman, Head of Learning, Design
Museum, email interview, 3 February 2014
2. Wheeldon, I. (2012), ‘The Culture of Staff in &
the Contemporary Arts Centre’ in Thomas, E. (ed)
BALTIC Learning on the Frontline. Gateshead:
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, p.67
3. Clare Carlin, Youth Programme Manager: Public
Programmes, The Wellcome Trust, telephone
interview 11 February 2014
4. Laura Turner, Assistant Curator: Young People’s
Programmes, Tate Britain and Tate Modern