Art and Culture in Overheated and Under Resourced Cities

By Kenn Taylor

Over the last 30 years, the once fringe interest in the role and impact of art and culture in cities has become a huge area of mainstream focus. In particular its relationship to gentrification occupies the thoughts of many columnists and policy makers, artists and activists.

Gentrification has been most apparent in the cities that ‘succeeded’ most in the transition to a post-industrial urban world. Especially London and New York which have seen once deprived areas become enclaves of the wealthy at an ever-increasing rate. While this is down to a complex combination of factors, the not insignificant role arts and culture can play in gentrification been well documented. Such has been the expansion of gentrification processes that both London and New York risk eating themselves, as they become increasingly difficult to live in for anyone but the extremely well off.

The gentrification of these cities has been examined intensely because of its scale, but perhaps even more so because of the huge concentration of those in media, academia and the arts in London and New York and the impact it has had on the lifestyle of people in these sectors. What this has perhaps masked though, are the equally important issues around arts and culture in places that are the flipside to such overheated cities, the far greater number of under-resourced cities.

When industrial decline in the West really kicked in from the 70s onwards, it impacted most on certain specific areas in an extreme way, such as my native Merseyside, or Glasgow. These could be written off by many at the heart of power as ‘localised failures’ whose decline was their ‘own fault’ for ‘failing to adapt’.

40 years later, what is clear is that places like Liverpool and Glasgow and Detroit were the canaries in the mine, as post-industrialisation and its impacts have spread across more and more places. In the UK, outside of the increasingly island-like South East, economic stagnation in the norm, save for odd spots often relying heavily on success in specific industries such as Bristol (defence) and Aberdeen (energy) which themselves may well slump and impact such places.

Outside of London, gentrification connected to the arts has had a less dramatic effect. One impact being that residential areas which have traditionally been popular with artists, public administrators, lecturers and the like, such as Didsbury, Jesmond, Stokes Croft, Aigburth and Chapel Allerton, are no longer affordable to them. So this section of society has started to move into neighbouring often more deprived areas and house prices have begun to rise in therm. This effect though has been largely localised to very specific areas. New suburban housing built on the edges of cities is still more popular with the majority of the middle class in regional cities than most inner urban areas, nothing like the changes in London.

There has also been some impact on space for artists’ studios; music venues etc, being priced out of once abandoned industrial space for apartments, a recent example being Manchester’s Rouge Studios. Long term leases for such buildings are also harder to come by than they once were. However, in general, artists finding space, either residential or for the creation and display of the arts, is much less of an issue in the regions than in big and capital flushed cities. The far greater challenge that remains and in some ways grows for artists in the regions is being able to sustain a creative practice or organisation in such under-resourced areas.

While never easy, with the focus and the money always being on London, the ever-declining local authority funding for arts and culture, coupled with the closure of publicly-supported venues such as theatres, museums and arts centres, as well as the reduction in the number of traditional ‘second jobs’ for creative practitioners such as FE college lecturers, threatens far more the future of the arts and those practicing them in the regions than issues with the property market. With these local economies long having lost the core engines that gave them money to invest in culture now followed by the government cutting off support, this is not likely to get any easier.

There has slowly, after much campaigning, been a recognition of the imbalance in central government arts and media funding and resources and this is changing, but not nearly on the scale, reach or depth needed to make a significant lasting difference. There has been a focus on one or two government-favoured cities and investment often sporadic and patchy.

Of course, my focus on the arts is just one part of a much bigger issue – the huge regional economic and power imbalance in the UK, but it is a useful exemplar and something that could help create change in under-resourced areas.

In a different era in the 1950s and 1960s, when areas like Wales, Scotland and Merseyside faced economic challenge, a decade’s long programme of investment was directed towards them, with companies effectively forced to invest in less prosperous areas. While this was imperfect, it did in many respects create economic drivers which are still powering these areas to this day, such as the hugely successful Jaguar Land Rover factory in Halewood on the edge of Liverpool. A relentless focus on regional development on the scale seen in that era is what is needed to change the crippling imbalance in the UK, which has now started to eat away at London through its overheating as much as it has done in the regions for years.

Coming back to the arts. In the regions, a lack of opportunities and finance is more of an issue than overpriced space. In London, there’s a plethora of opportunities and no space. The solution is as simple as it is obvious. Undertake a long term, large scale sustained investment in arts and culture in the regions. There’s likely to be resistance, such as recently highlighted around Channel 4’s suggested move out of London, but at this stage it should be a win-win. London is so economically overheated its arts and culture are being undermined, while in the regions, economic stagnation and cutbacks are undermining arts and culture there. The small scale shifts in cultural policy and funding allocations over the past year or so have been a start, but what’s needed is a much bigger and longer term plan to direct cultural investment and activity away from the capital. And indeed, what’s important for the creative sector is important for many other fields as well.

Would a government want to plan that far ahead and commit to that level of investment and change? Evidence from the last couple of decades would suggest no, but further back there is a precedent. In these turbulent times it’s increasingly accepted, even demanded that big change is needed across the country. Such a large scale regional cultural investment plan would be a good start.

This piece was published by New Statesman CityMetric in September 2017.

Art and Commerce

 

Creativity and how it’s paid for

By Kenn Taylor

Throughout history, art and money have always had something of an ambivalent relationship. The role of the professional artist is in itself a product of excess wealth in any given society. Unless there are surplus resources produced to sustain them, such a function cannot exist. In ancient societies, art and culture was produced by members of communities as merely part of their whole existence.

The creation of more intensive agriculture produced a surplus of food, which led to a freeing up of people and resources. This meant that some people could become dedicated to producing art in exchange for sustenance produced by others, paid for those with the power and the capital to commission it. The professional artist had been born.

Art of course is meant to be, and I do believe it is, something that is above the everyday banality of existence. Truly great art; music, films, sculpture, whatever can transcend cultural and political boundaries, language, and the lives of the individual people and cultures that produce it. The ancient Roman and Greek empires and the people who created them are long gone, but we still have all those armless statues to remind us of them.

Yet in the time that art is being created, the money needs to come from somewhere. Art may rise above such things, but artists themselves and institutions that support art do not, there are always resources to be got, bills to be paid. And, usually, those providing the money have had some say in the art, to a greater or lesser extent.

A cursory glance in any art gallery with a historical collection reveals the influence on art of wherever the centres of power and money lay at any given time in history. For centuries the Catholic Church held much of the power in the Western world and had something of a monopoly on commissioning most artistic production.

Later, royalty and the wider aristocracy called the tune. The Medici dynasty that ran the Republic of Florence funded much of the Italian Renaissance. Further on, the mercantile proto-capitalists in the wealthy Netherlands bankrolled the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, with their demand for secular imagery to adorn their homes.

In 19th century Britain, it was the new industrial barons who paid for much of the art. On Merseyside, the Tate, Walker and Lady Lever Art Galleries were originally paid for by Henry Tate, Andrew Barclay Walker and William Hesketh Lever, magnates in sugar, brewing and soap manufacture respectively. All those grand palaces of culture were paid for from the profits made from selling commodities to the new urban masses created by the Industrial Revolution. In Victorian Britain, sponsorship of the arts was a good way to improve your image as more than a businessman. It was an early example of ‘brand association’ that continues right through to today’s Unilever plc, the successor to William Lever’s firm, sponsoring Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall projects.

Later, New York became the post-WWII centre for arts, paid for by that city’s status as the centre of modern capitalism. And, as London took over and became the world centre of ‘casino banking’ after the ‘Big Bang’ that revolutionised the stock market in 1986, those that had grown rich in this brave new world bankrolled much of the ‘Young British Artists’ movement.

This was more of a blip really in the UK though. After WWII, the Government assumed the role of the principle patron of arts, in much the same way it did with health, coal and railways, with the foundation of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946. The Arts Council is widely regarded worldwide as a good model of support for the arts, neither directly state controlled and thus subject to adverse political interference, nor laissez-faire and thus entirely reliant on the whim of the market.

However, there is an inevitability of not being able to rely on the state consistently for funding, as the recent cuts in public expenditure has proven. These cuts have created much debate about what or who will pay for the arts in future. The current Coalition Government is keen on more corporate sponsorship for the arts and, in particular, philanthropy from rich individuals, something which has left many people aghast.

Many view state support as purer than corporate support or wealthy patronage, as if it taints the art less. Yet, state funding also has its own issues. It is certainly not ‘innocent’, being paid for of course through the taxation garnered through our capitalist system. Rising and falling with the whims of any given government and subject to the whims of individual Arts Council staff, state funding inevitably has its own agendas, strings and bureaucracy attached that can be very frustrating to creatives.

There is no one perfect system for funding of the arts, but artists and arts institutions must make terms with their role in the wider economy. Art is not, and never has been, totally ‘pure’, the money must come from somewhere, even if that creates distaste in the mouth of people who presumably aren’t struggling to feed themselves or keep an art gallery open and with free entry. Yet, engaging with economic reality doesn’t have to mean producing poorer work. Today, there is a greater variety of ways that ever to fund creative endeavours.

In terms of institutions, a mixture of funding sources is probably the healthiest, as influence from one source or the other is less likely to interfere with the integrity of programming and also leave it less vulnerable to one source of funding drying up. Something that the people running Britain’s wider economy, with its over reliance on financial services, could have taken heed of.

The Tate may be regarded by some as a corporate monolith, but it operates a good mixed model of funding, with Government money now accounting for less than 50% of its income, the rest a mixture of sales, memberships, donations and corporate and foundation sponsorship. Tate’s well off members and supporters help pay to keep its doors open for free and its outreach and education programmes running for the less advantaged.

Although many smaller and regional institutions couldn’t match Tate’s prowess, at the opposite end of the scale, in 2012, Shetland Arts will open Mareel, a cinema, performance and creative industries centre in Lerwick, one of the remotest parts of the UK. Mareel has no revenue funding to support its operation and activity. Instead, they plan to sustain themselves through the ownership and exploitation of intellectual property rights – by investing in the creation of arts projects and working to leverage the value of any content. It will also take advantage of digital communications with live music content captured and broadcast from the venue, giving it an audience stretching far beyond its isolated base. If this can be done in a remote Scottish island, surely some of the institutions in England’s regional cities could take inspiration.

What about individual artists? Again the internet is an invaluable tool for the upcoming creative that was not open to others in the past. The net has made self-promotion far easier. You can sell you e-book or artwork online and cut out the middle man. You can put music or film on YouTube for a potential global audience for free and make your own impressive website that you don’t need a degree in computing to build. Crowd funding, or ‘micro-philanthropy’, via the net is also a new option. WeDidThis.org.uk is a site that has helped individual creatives and groups to source funding from ordinary individuals to support everything from arts clubs for disadvantaged kids in Peckham to a travel journalism assignment across Europe.

Aside from working as an individual, there is indeed strength in unity, both in operating a more traditional business model such as a limited company, or any number of alternatives. The artists’ collective has appeared repeatedly through history, with mixed success. Many artists’ studios in Liverpool, such as The Royal Standard and Red Wire, operate on this basis of collective management, operation and funding, banding together to provide studio and gallery space, collectivise resources and bid for bigger funding from other sources.

It is also possible to find a balance between producing ‘pure’ work you want to pursue and commercial work that pays the bills. Again, there’s a long tradition of this, William Blake did commercial work as an engraver his whole life to support his own artistic endeavours. More contemporary, here in Liverpool we can see self-sustaining arts organisations like Mercy and the Kazimier who have found a balance between sustainable commercial success while maintaining their artistic integrity, producing work for corporate or state clients or paying patrons and re-investing that back into more ‘purely’ artistic work.

In these austere times, probably more than ever artists and arts institutions must stare their bank accounts in the face, but doing this doesn’t have to mean selling out. All the great art works in history had to, one way or another, make terms with the economic and political reality in which they were created. As Bob Dylan said, ‘you’re gonna have to serve somebody’ but, more than ever, it can be on your own terms.

This piece appeared in the December issue of Object of Dreams magazine.