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.

Art and the post-industrial community in Detroit and Chicago

MOCAD, Detroit

By Kenn Taylor

In 2016, I was awarded an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant. This enabled me to undertake research visits to several organisations in Detroit and Chicago who are on socially-engaged art practice in post-industrial communities.

I’m originally from an industrial town in Merseyside and lived in Liverpool ahead of and during its year as Capital of Culture in 2008. Because of this, the relationship between art, artists and art organisations in areas struggling with industrial decline has always been important to me. This has very much informed the approach I’ve taken to programming throughout my career in museums and galleries. Having followed closely many socially-engaged artists and projects in the UK, I also became interested in examples of this practice in America.

The Heidelberg Project in Detroit was the longest-established initiative I visited. Begun by artist Tyree Guyton in 1986, he decided to create ‘something beautiful’ in the run-down Heidelberg Street by painting bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for generations. Soon Guyton began to decorate and modify abandoned houses in the area and then the street itself using reclaimed materials. Thirty years later the project is a world-renowned ‘total work of art’ and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit

MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, meanwhile, is an arts institution established 10 years ago in a formerly abandoned car dealership. Notably, it’s also the base of Mike Kelly’s work Mobile Homestead.

Mobile Homestead was unveiled in 2010 and funded by the UK’s Artangel. A recreation of Detroit-born Kelly’s childhood home (which is still standing and occupied) made as a pre-fabricated building with a detachable trailer section. Kelly’s idea was that this could be transported around the city with the ground floor being a flexible community space and the basement a place for artists. Based behind MOCAD, the Homestead functions as a dedicated space to host community content exhibitions and events; everything from local craft groups to, recently, lively election debate parties.

Mike Kelly’s Mobile Homestead, MOCAD

Over in Chicago, around 10 years ago artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he’d moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 financial crash, he also bought the neighbouring property. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and filling it with cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events. By 2010, he’d established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation and had rehabilitated a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects.

Dorchester Projects, Rebuild

A few years later, Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just a dollar, providing he got the money to restore it. Amongst other things the bank now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. Rebuild’s most recent initiative is Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists and sells products and services to help sustain the foundation’s work.

While all of these organisations are distinct, they are united by having a focus on the re-use of previously abandoned or underused urban space, involving communities in their activities and demonstrating a complex relationship between artist, artwork and art organisation. In the case of MOCAD, an art institution occupied an old building and with Mobile Homestead, ended up creating a semi-permanent new building as an ongoing social practice artwork. In contrast, the Heidelberg Project started out as the creation of an artwork out of buildings and has morphed into also being partially an institution. Rebuild Foundation started out as a project based around art activity in run down properties using reclaimed materials, before growing into a full-scale neighbourhood renewal project, but one that is also an ongoing artistic experiment.

Johnson Publishing Archive, Rebuild

The projects are not only re-purposing and re-imagining buildings and areas in a very different way to traditional urban redevelopment schemes; they’re also highlighting the continued life, activity, creativity and culture in areas often more associated in art terms with the genre of ‘ruin porn’, that seeks to portray them as empty, tragic ruins.

Art projects like the ones I visited may be partially a product of decline, but they speak as much of the potential future of these areas as their past. They may be led by complex theories and an emotional desire for continued community life, but they create outcomes that are very much concrete: housing, artspace, crafts to sell, community facilities, training opportunities.

Vital to the success of these initiatives has been a close and long term relationship to the areas in which they’re situated. Connected to this is the fact that for all the genuine community involvement in such projects, the figure of the individual artist, pursuing their vision against the odds: Tyree Guyton, Theaster Gates, Mike Kelly, remains central in a very traditional art historical sense. This raises the question of what happens to these projects when their founder moves, or indeed, passes on.

Stony Island Arts Bank, Rebuild

While at Rebuild, I attended one of the weekly ‘Tea, Coffee and a Chat’ meetings led by local residents and they spoke about the positive impact the foundation has had on their neighbourhood. While artefacts from such initiatives could be kept in collections or even whole districts be preserved, the people who benefit from them are perhaps their most important legacy. Can the power of this social action also be retained by these projects in the longer-term?

How the founder-artist plans for posterity will be key to this. Mike Kelly, for example, setting in stone the community use for Mobile Homestead as being part of the artwork itself has ensured the preservation of such space for ‘social sculpture’. The power in projects like this is both social and artistic, and if they can retain each aspect in the long term, they will be important parts of both future art and urban history.

This piece was published by the Art Fund in April 2017.

Beauty as a Basic Service

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit


By Kenn Taylor

In the wake of Brexit and the US election, there has been renewed attention given to post-industrial areas and the issues faced by such communities. For some parts of the US and the UK, problems caused by industrial decline have been around for 40 or 50 years, long before the rise of China, the EU or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And, as anyone who spends time seriously with the subject will tell you, there are no easy answers or single solutions to such challenges.

So to art. Despite the breathless proclamations of some, art is not a panacea for the post-industrial town, but neither is it a total irrelevance. The creative industries remain a growing sector and a sensible solution to reuse many former industrial spaces that will never see mass production again.

Meanwhile, in some of the residential areas that once drew their lifeblood from such industrial zones, artists, or local communities working with artists, have been using creativity to demonstrate, even make, a future potentially different from top down regeneration or abandonment to decline. The now well-known Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool is one example of this in the UK.

Between Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory I had the opportunity to spend some time at some similar projects in the US. In 1986, in the Black Bottom area of Detroit – a city which perhaps more than any other felt the crushing pressure of industrial decline early on – art student Tyree Guyton decided to paint large bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for decades on Heidelberg Street.

The area had declined rapidly during his lifetime and he wanted to create “something beautiful” in the street. Soon Guyton began to decorate some of the abandoned houses in the street, using reclaimed materials from the neighbourhood. Thirty years later, despite being demolished by the authorities, twice, and suffering arson more than once, the Heidelberg Project is a world-renowned “total work of art”, and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.


Part of the Heidelberg Project.

It’s not so much a celebration of beauty in decay like the infamous “ruin porn” from Detroit, but a sign that there is life and people still here, creativity, culture, even growth.

Chicago coped better than Detroit with the transition to a service economy. At least, some of it. In Grand Crossing in South Chicago, more than half the residents live below the poverty line. Here, around 10 years ago, artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he had moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 property crash he also bought the neighbouring house. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events in the houses. Gates had seen the West Side Chicago neighbourhood he grew up in demolished and wanted to stop such destruction from happening again in Grand Crossing.

By 2010, Gates had established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation, and had worked with the Chicago Housing Authority to rehabilitate a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects. A few years later Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just one dollar, providing he got the money to restore it.


Dorchester Projects, Rebuild Foundation

Amongst other things, the bank, now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. More recently the organisation has set up Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists. The Rebuild Foundation places art firmly in the hierarchy of needs of a deprived community. To quote Gates: “Beauty is a basic service.”

There’s a long tradition in art of highlighting urban social problems. Projects such as these differ in using the urban fabric as a medium in itself and working on the regeneration not just of buildings, but of social, cultural and economic life in these areas. Crucial is how these projects have been led by people based in these communities, albeit interacting with international art networks. Such initiatives may have only impacted on relatively small areas – but it is possible they have done more to change life in and perceptions of them than many bigger and more expensive top-down urban redevelopment programmes.


The Stony Island Arts Bank, a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center.

Part of the power of art is its capacity to highlight where we’re going wrong, to tell us things have value that we didn’t realise and point out different ways of looking at the world. Even if projects such as these can’t be reproduced like-for-like elsewhere, they’re not just a reminder to avoid writing off such communities, but more so of their potential – if energy, attention and money are given to them – to create their own future.

This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in December 2016. Funding for this research in Detroit and Chicago was provided by The Art Fund

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?

Green
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.

Residential Dreams

By Kenn Taylor

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep our lost Elysium alive – rural
Middlesex again.1

So wrote John Betjeman in ‘Middlesex’, one of his poems that celebrated the suburbs north of London, suburbs which he further eulogised in his famous 1973 documentary, Metro-land.

The Metro-land he wrote of was created and branded as such by the Metropolitan Railway as it built its route out of London in the first half of the 20th century. The company famously promoted Metro-land aggressively and creatively, even having songs written that extolled the virtue of the new housing estates it built along the route of the line. A private precursor to today’s Stagecoach or FirstGroup, the Metropolitan Railway didn’t build Metro-land to inspire poets though, but to make money by selling the dream of country living to those who could afford it.

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It was Metro-land I thought of as I explored the very different environment of Battersea Power Station. This monolithic exercise in brick by Giles Gilbert Scott is, after years of decay and dereliction, being turned into a new residential development with both Normal Foster and Richard Rogers working on elements of it. I was privileged to see it close up before its transformation and pleased that it would find a new use other than to decay into dust. Yet what struck me most as I wandered through, were the slogans on the brightly coloured construction hoardings around it, like those that accompany almost every major, high-density urban development these days:

A PLACE OF VISION AND MAJESTY; A THRIVING. DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY; AN ICONIC RIVERFRONT ADDRESS; A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE

Just as the songs and pamphlets advertising Metro-land once promised, the hoardings around the Battersea Power Station development promote a lifestyle keenly desired by much of the aspirational middle class. It’s marketing of course and whether it’s a fridge, a car or a home, they long ago realised that if they sell you an idea, a dream and a lifestyle rather than just a product, you’re more likely to spend. What struck me in relation to housing though, was how ultimately those seeking a particular lifestyle via where they live often unthinkingly contribute to the very destruction of what it is they cherish most about it.

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In reality the creation of Metro-land saw fields torn up and replaced with row upon row of near identical housing. As Ross Clark notes:
“It was, of course, largely a con. The creation of Metro-land destroyed the very thing – open countryside – which was used to advertise it. The speculative homes thrown up around the new stations bore few resemblances to the Tudor cottages depicted in the advertising materials: most were dreary semis, constructed at great haste.”2

Rural ways of life were replaced by the thousands of commuters Betjeman references in ‘Middlesex’, leaving every morning to their work in the city via a concrete tube station and returning later to live out an image of the country idyll. For many, this is still the dream, a dream which year on year sees ever more green space turned into housing, driven by the desire of so many of us to have our own personal ‘lost Elysium’.

The tear between the respective lures of the country and the city is a long-held one. Yet in the decades since Betjeman wrote about the romance of certain suburbs, we have seen the emergence of a more contemporary dream of attaining a lifestyle via where you live. A new concept of Elysium that, just as 100 years ago, property developers are only to keen to sell to those with the means. That is the lifestyle of living in a THRIVING, DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY and a CULTURAL POWERHOUSE such as is now promised at Battersea. One of the key things to open up Battersea to new residential development is its new tube station. Just as 100 years ago connectivity drives forward the residential property market, only now it is inward rather than outward expansion, driven by the growth in desire for ‘inner city living’.

This desire for a certain kind of urban living that has ‘cultural authenticity’ dates perhaps from the same 1960s when John Betjeman was writing of his distaste for the demolition of Victorian and Georgian buildings for new developments influenced by Modernism.

Many of the people who backed Betjeman’s cause were amongst the first ‘gentrifiers’. A section of society identified by sociologist Ruth Glass who coined the term in 1964. Just a couple of years in fact before Betjeman led the way in saving from demolition the Neo-Gothic Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras designed by George Gilbert Scott – father of Battersea Power Station designer, Giles. In this era Glass noted the changing demographic of the urban environment in North London not far from St Pancras: “One by one, many of the working class neighbourhoods of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences…Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”3

The suburban dream of Metro-land began to be less desirable for some by the 1960s, while the inner-city, where, in the earlier 20th century at least, people only generally lived if they could not manage to live elsewhere, began to be seen as more attractive.
The inner city did physically change around this time and became more ‘liveable’. For example, the thick pollution of central London was significantly reduced by the likes of the decline of manufacturing and the Clean Air Act.4 Yet, the kind of ‘culture’ offered by inner city living remained key to this shift.

In the essay ‘The Birth of Gentrification’, Lees, Slater and Wyly note it was the likes of Betjeman himself that began this trend:
“In both the United States and in Britain, post-war urban renewal meant the bulldozing of old neighborhoods to be replaced by modern housing and highways. As the destruction spread, so did the rebellion against it. In the beginning the protesters were mainly historians and architecture buffs, but slowly these were joined by young, middle-class families who bought and lovingly reconditioned beat-up, turn-of-the-century houses in ‘bad’ neighborhoods.”5

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As I have discussed previously here, ‘creatives’ play a key role in increasing the societal desire for such lifestyles. For years artists, critics and the like left the ‘comfortable’ suburbs in search of the ‘truth’ and the ‘real’ in the inner city, most of all what they perceived as CULTURE, especially for the mega cities of London and New York. Or rather, they headed for the ‘outer’ inner city, away from actual centres of business, tourism and authority, but not so far out as to live in the middle-class suburbs. They moved to areas by and large populated by people who could not afford to live either in the centre or the suburbs.

It was these fringe places that were seen as the ultimate reality, the edge of capitalism, aside from the bourgeois self-satisfaction and complacency of the suburbs and the glitzy but false centre. In these locations, artists could live cheaply and relatively free, with plenty of space for venues, studios, galleries, parties, etc. Such locations became the home of a class of people who came from all over to take up what they saw as ‘authentic’ urban lifestyles. This process expanded as continued post-war industrial decline made such locations even less economically viable and desirable to many than they already where.

As young artists mature though, they usually begin to have changing priorities; they pair off, have children, and settle. Some move out to Metro-land or its equivalents, but others stay and frequently end up transforming the area around them into something quasi-suburban. This has led to a strange phenomenon, where, in many respects, the city centre fringe has in fact become the new suburbs. Locations which are then sold as the ideal spot to live for those who wish, and have the means, to buy straight in to a ‘culturally developed’ area. This was noted by Ruth Glass: “Urban, suburban and rural areas have thus become encouraged to merge into one another; and they have lost some of their differentiating features.”6

After successive waves of people seeking such a lifestyle from the 1960s onwards, year by year the urban cultural authentic dream has become more and more removed from reality. Gentrifiers made such areas more desirable and thus eventually more expensive, leading to the displacement of poorer residents. This prevented new ‘creative pioneers’ from settling and so forced them to seek new places to occupy. Focusing on London, the areas identified by Glass in the 1960s, such as Islington, were fairly quickly transformed out of the reach of new would-be urban authentics. So soon they moved onto other areas of North London, then later East London, now on even further out to the likes of Peckham and Camberwell in South London. This phenomenon was predicted by Bruce London and John Palen back in 1984: “Current urban neighbourhoods are generally sited favourably within the city, having good transport access to the central business district…The future of the renovation movement, and in fact the ultimate future of the city as a place of residential choice, will depend to the extent to which restoration and renovation become increasingly widespread.”7 And so it did.

Where the artists lead, the capitalists capitalise, selling the opportunity to live in A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE to those who can afford it, albeit perhaps one with security gates between the property and the DIVERSE COMMUNITY. The term ‘village’ is often bandied about in such developments, for those who wish to combine the security and order of a ‘village’ with just enough of an ‘urban cultural’ feel, just enough of a ‘village’ feel, just enough of an ‘urban cultural’ feel, and so and so forth, with New York’s Greenwich Village as the archetype.

Yet such areas are neither villages nor urban cultural powerhouses. These new ‘suburbs’ are literally Metroland, the city as fantasy consumer product. Gradually, the ‘authenticity’ and ‘edginess’ that generated the desire for many to live in such locations declines and, more often than not, they become home to a wealthy monoculture, living in generic apartment blocks with, if you have the means to afford it, ‘heritage features’. A carefully managed version of the city, created for those who wish to embody a particular lifestyle by those with an interest in profiting from land. The expensive done-up terraces of East London, previously occupied by the industrial working classes, are now nearly as desired in the property market as Cotswold thatched cottages were forty years ago by those seeking a country idyll in somewhere previously occupied by the rural poor.

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Indeed the strong relationship in ‘authentic culture seeking’ between the desire for a rural Elysium of a previous generation and the newer search for an urban Elysium was noted by Irving Allen in the 1980s:
“If the older generation looked to the suburbs for romantic middle-class communities that represented a new way of life, some members of the young generation may well be looking to cities for romantic middle-class communities that represent an alternative to the suburbs…it is safe to assume that many of the new settlers are seeking a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with the social diversity of city life. Their parents sought a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with small-town and ‘rural’ life.”8

This desire to attain authenticity through your residential location is always tempered by the fact that this desire is in itself pretty inauthentic. As chronicler of the gentrification of New York’s old warehouses into ‘artists’ lofts’, Sharon Zukin, pointed out, “Only people who do not know the steam and sweat of a real factory can find industrial space romantic or interesting.”9 As someone whose grandfather, an agricultural labourer, died short of his 65th birthday, the same could be said for the idea of the rural idyll.

Metro-land cut Mock Tudor furrows through rural Middlesex and sold former city dwellers the country dream to the point that what they liked about that countryside largely disappeared. So to the developers of the late 20th century sold the urban dream to those who fled the Metro-land suburbs, to the point were these new residents ended up helping to drive away what it was they perceived to be authentic about the city. Replacing it with non other than a more high-density version of suburbia, packaged, just as Metro-land was, with slogans promising a life that has already disappeared, if it ever even existed.

An interesting shift in the path of urban gentrification in recent years however is the type of property that fuels such dreams. With many of those Georgian and Victorian buildings so beloved in the 1960s now out of the reach of would-be gentrifiers, not to mention this generation rejecting as ever the fashions and social mores of the previous, a new gentrifier generation has emerged that now embraces rather than is repulsed by Modernism. To these rebellious aesthetes, the Brutalist architectural works by the likes of Erno Goldfinger and Alison and Peter Smithson, once reviled by gentrifiers for their role in the destruction of old neighbourhoods, are the new objects of residential desire. To be just as strongly defended from the ‘cretins’ who care not for the architecture of the immediate past and its association with poverty as Georgian and Victorian properties once were.

As Ruth Glass noted 18th and 19th century housing once occupied by working class people becoming home to wealthy residents, so today former concrete social housing like Trellick Tower in West London and Sheffield’s Park Hill, the latter renovated by trendy property firm Urban Splash, become home to new creative pioneers keen on a new type of character property. That is of course once they have been ‘done up’, just as the former ‘slums’ were, and filled with graphic-designed Brutalist tribute mugs and, if you can afford it, original 60s brightly coloured Hygena Formica kitchen cabinets. Such fashions no doubt inspired in part by the likes of Owen Hatherley writing of the poetry of curving, rain-stained concrete car parks just as John Betjeman writing of the soot-covered Gothic Revival spires of the Midland Grand helped inspire the ‘Victoriana’ of a previous generation.

As a past generation saw new possibilities and a sense of nostalgia for the 19th century city as a reaction against collapsing Modernist ideology, so this generation is filled with nostalgia for the Modernist vision of utopia as Neo-Liberalism crumbles. Connected to this is a lament by many artists and critics for the ‘lost nobility’ of industrial communities. A community and culture increasingly of the past as the people who embodied it have often left the inner city with the decline of the industries that they once relied on, while many of those who stayed are now often being pushed out by gentrification. An idealised vision of industrial communities looms large in the work of those who, as ever, find distaste with contemporary culture and people they see as ‘corrupted’ by consumerism, having left their ‘authentic’ lives connected to industry.

Of course, it is ironic that an earlier generation of artists and critics felt that same sort of nobility and authenticity was to be found outside of the city. In the 1800s the likes of William Morris, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood promoted the authenticity of the rural over the rapidly developing and industrialising cities, even of course as they often sold their expensive works of art to wealthy industrialists. They lionised their imagined experience of ‘peasant’ life in the countryside and despaired of those who left for better pay in urban areas and became ‘corrupted’ by industrialisation. These creatives of the past promoted a romantic nostalgia for a more rural past they usually had little direct experience of just as today’s generation of artists often romanticise the industrial inner-urban era without really knowing it.

Many artists in Victorian times headed out of the cities to embody a certain type of lifestyle they held up as the ideal and thousands followed them. With the market demand that they helped to create fulfilled by developers like those behind Metro-land. To the point that ‘rural Middlesex’ literally no longer existed, the county being absorbed by Greater London in 1965. In reality, agricultural workers were often only too keen to leave the country for better pay as industry and urban life grew and, generations later, many inner-city industrial workers were only too keen to leave those Victorian dwellings, if not their neighbourhoods so much, for better housing. Thus as people try to live out their own version of a perceived past authenticity in these vacated spaces, in both cases, the original occupiers were, in general, moving on to better opportunities.

Scott Greer considered the ideology which rejects the contemporary for an imagined better past, whether urban or rural, labelling it as ‘conservative utopian’: “At one time they believed the rural life to be the only one fit for man, the city evil. Today they remain fixated on the past, but it is now the dense, polyethnic, centralized city of the railroad age.”10 As the Romantics inadvertently brought urbanism to the country and the first gentrifiers the suburbs to the city, so now the Modernist urban fringe is the new frontier. Yet this generation’s dreams will likely have as similar unintended consequences as previous ones as they look back to a supposed better past without the knowledge of what was wrong with it.

So while those with the means pursue their urban and rural residential dreams, those keen as ever to be seen to be on ‘the edge’ and reject society’s current conventions, look for new marginal spaces. The latest move it seems is to find fascination with the liminal space beyond the suburbs; the new towns, isolated estates and small, post-industrial towns that remain resolutely unfashionable and ‘off the grid’. Literally in some cases in relation to transport: Metro-land is yet to arrive there. Some of these locations, in particular some ex-seaside towns, show signs of the same gentrifying change, but many others, often a long way from work and central cities, have become the only places that retain a perceived authenticity. Witness London chronicler Iain Sinclair’s growing interest in the outer fringes of the capital documented in his book London Orbital. Especially so now that the Hackney area he lives in that had formed the basis for much of his work has long succumb to gentrification due to the likes of, well, people like Iain Sinclair moving there.

Sinclair moved to Hackney from his native Wales after study at Trinity College Dublin, Courtauld Institute and London Film School. His criticisms of the development of the Olympic Park in East London and the loss of ‘fringe space’ around the Lea Valley were dissected somewhat on Channel 4 News by Paralympian Basketball player Ade Adepitan, who grew up in Newham, having been born in Nigeria. One gentrifier’s ‘exciting edge’ is of course another resident’s reason to fear for their family and the following exchange reveals a great deal about dreams and realities in gentrification:

Ade Adepitan: “I lived on Carpenters Road, did you see all those dodgy garages, cut and shut?”
Iain Sinclair: “I loved all those dodgy garages!”
Ade Adepitan “Well I was worried about my mum walking home at night on that dark street.”11

Authenticity is always greener on the other side and the more people try to embody a particular lifestyle through property and escape what they perceive as contemporary corruption, the more they corrupt what it is they try to inhabit. As John Betjeman once wrote of the loss of rural idyll and Victorian wonders so today the press is littered with tomes on the loss of inner city culture and authenticity, almost inevitably penned by the same people who began such changes.

The urban life those billboards in Battersea promise is just a much a fantasy as that sold in the songs of Metro-land nearly 100 years ago and just as alluring. One selling the dream of open air, health, greenery, space and peace, the other of connectivity, currentness, vibrancy and culture. As Tristan Hunt notes, “From the beginning, suburbia was more a state of mind than geographical location.”12 ‘Inner city living’ is just as much of an escapist fantasy as the suburbs. The difference perhaps, is that Metro-land’s housing was quite a bit more accessible than many of the inner-city flats now being sold. As Ross Clark notes, a Metro-land home could be “sold for as little as £400 each. Modern first-time buyers can only dream: that is equivalent to just £20,000 in today’s money.”13 Far less that what you’ll have to pay to live in Rogers or Foster’s CULTURAL POWERHOUSE in Battersea.

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Of course, some do protest at all of this. Foxtons, the high-end estate agent associated with gentrification, has had its branches vandalised while Country Life magazine seems keen on extolling the virtues of country life, that is as long as not too many other people have access to it and ruin it for them. Yet since Ruth Glass first noted gentrification, save for some successful islands of resistance and peaks and troughs cause by recession, the market forces of Britain continue to drag development in both directions to sell everyone who can afford it the country dream or the city dream, or, if you have enough capital, both, however diluted dreams both have become.

The more it turns the more London in particular is transformed into a total fantasy. An urban playground for those with the means, Metroland now attracts wealthy people now from as far afield as Russia, Dubai, France and Australia. Just as it span outwards to the original London ‘outer suburbs’ of St John’s Wood and Hampstead on to Ruislip Gardens, Milton Keynes and Basildon, then back inward from Islington to Camden to Shoreditch to Peckham to Barking to wherever next, maybe even out again to Birmingham if HS2 gets built. Everyone keeps on chasing, hoping that, if they try hard enough, they will get their own little residential dream, whatever happens to anyone else. And those who paint pictures of our perfect lifestyle remain only too keen to sell us the ticket to our dream and tell us, Elysium is still waiting.

An abridged version of this eassy was published on Thinking City in March 2015.

References
1. Betjeman, J., 1954. Middlesex. In: Hunt, T., 2009. The suburbs are derided by snobs, yet they offer hope for our future [Online]. London: The Guardian. Available at: <URL:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/19/suburbs-snobbery&gt; [Accessed 6th November 2014].
2. Clark, R., 2006. Betjeman’s metro-land revisited [Online]. London: The Daily Telegraph. Available at: <URL:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3353156/Betjemans-metro-land-revisited.html > [Accessed 6th November 2014].
3. Glass, R., 1964. London: aspects of change. In: Lees, L. Slater, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.4.
4. WIKIMEDIA FOUNDATION INC, 2014. Clear Air Act 1956 [Online]. San Francisco: WIKIMEDIA. Available at: [Accessed 6th November 2014].
5. Lees, L. Salter, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.5.
6. Glass, R., 1989. Cliches of Urban Doom. In: Lees, L. Slater, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.130.
7. London, B. and Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p.11.
8. Allen, I.L., 1984. The Ideology of Dense Neighbourhood Redevelopment. In: London, B. and 9. Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p.35.
10. Zukin, S., 1989. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. In: Lees, L., Salter, S., and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.121.
11. Greer, S., 1972. The Urbane View: Life and Politics in Metropolitan America. In: London, B., and Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p. 28.
12. INDEPENDENT TELEVISION NEWS, 2012. What next for the Olympic Park? [Online]. London: ITN. Available at: [Accessed 4th November 2014].
13. Hunt, T., 2009. The suburbs are derided by snobs, yet they offer hope for our future [Online]. London: The Guardian. Available at: <URL:http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/19/suburbs-snobbery&gt; [Accessed 6th November 2014].
14. Clark, R., 2006. Betjeman’s metro-land revisited [Online]. London: The Daily Telegraph. Available at: <URL:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3353156/Betjemans-metro-land-revisited.html > [Accessed 6th November 2014].

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