By Kenn Taylor Images by Robin Clewley and Graham Smillie
Growing up in an overspill estate of Birkenhead, with Liverpool being a short bus ride away, the city always seemed to be the nearest place where things happened. Where those posters and flyers led to. Where independent shops and venues existed which gave further glimpses of a world of art and culture. One that seemed fascinating but also closed off. Later, when I did enter that world, I found that while it did open up so much for me, some of the cultural scene was indeed elitist and exclusionary. Remote from how many people in Merseyside lived their lives. Trying to navigate a way into the creative industries when you had no family connections or real understanding of how it all worked was not easy, and there seemed to be nothing to help you to figure it out. It was experiences such as these that later led me to spending much of my career doing community cultural projects.
Birkenhead itself did have its own cultural gems, including the brilliant, long-established Skeleton Record Exchange, where I would visit regularly to part-ex CDs so I could buy new ones. Trying to get the best deal so I could hear enough new music in a time when there were few other options. Skelos and its big, brightly painted red arrow are, I am pleased to say, still going. Meanwhile the music chain stores in the ambitiously-named Pyramids shopping centre, which represented the future in Birkenhead in the 1990s, have long shut down.
Birko was the classic boom town of the 1800s, which grew rich quickly off the back of the shipyard set up by the Laird family. This wealth paid for the fine Hamilton Square, the largest concentration of Grade I listed buildings outside London, and Birkenhead Park, the world’s first municipal public park, with Europe’s first street tramway running between them. Since then, the town’s fortunes have been inextricably linked with the rising and falling tides at the shipyard which still looms over Birkenhead physically, psychologically and economically. The dramatic vista of Hamilton Square, with its station tower promising FREQUENT ELECTRIC TRAINS, retains its visual impact though. However, for the moment, many of the buildings around the square are empty, including most of the Town Hall itself.
For a long time, the centre of Birkenhead was dominated by its post-war shopping centres, while this older part of town slowly died off. However, as retail struggles, new attention is being paid around here. The founders of the key Liverpool region music magazine, Bido Lito!, have set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) and turned an empty building into a new 350 capacity music venue. Called Future Yard, it’s planned to be the UK’s first carbon neutral grassroots venue. As a precursor, they painted THE FUTURE IS BIRKENHEAD in bright pink letters on the front while work went on inside. The venue builds on the Future Yard music festival held in 2019, which took place over several locations including the historic remains of Birkenhead Priory. Hidden behind an industrial estate, the Priory, which includes the oldest standing buildings in Merseyside, represents the history of ‘the headland of birch trees’ before the industrial revolution. Its tower gives dramatic views across the Mersey and the waterfront, with you standing high above the massive vessels in the shipyard propped up precariously for repair.
Future Yard’s venue opening was hit by Covid, but they have delivered online shows and have an array of gigs lined up as restrictions lift. As a CIC, Future Yard has a social mission which asks questions like: ‘How do we leverage the social and economic power of music in struggling towns?’ and ‘How do we provide new career pathways into the live music industry?’
Nearby meanwhile, in what was once the Borough Council’s Treasury building, a new venture called Make Hamilton Square has opened up, set up by another CIC which already runs successful studios in Liverpool. Housing creative workspaces, it also includes a new small urban farm and an events space. Make similarly has a social mission which includes: ‘to remove barriers to people joining the economy, by making things themselves and becoming self sufficient’.
As central Liverpool has redeveloped, areas which I knew as largely derelict have become the Ropewalks and Baltic Triangle and cultural centres in a way I couldn’t have imagined. As sure as the wind blows though, cultural spaces in them have been threatened by redevelopment. As such development in Liverpool grows, could Birkenhead become a new local mecca for culture and music? Or is this just the cultural scene being pushed further out – a ‘temporary utopia’ to facilitate more traditional forms of redevelopment?
Hopefully, with Future Yard and Make being CICs planned with sustainability in mind, this could make the difference. Future Yard recently received financial support to buy their own building. A long way from trashy but cool venues existing until their landlords get offered a better deal. If these initiatives and others like them are to succeed, they need to be able to control their spaces and receive proper protection and support long term from institutions, authorities and funders.
Still too many young people in Birkenhead and many places like it are not given enough opportunities to experience creative arts, develop their interests or get their own work out there. Despite everything that’s happening at the moment, places like Make and Future Yard are progressing and offering people new spaces to grow in. Projects such these could create a situation where those FREQUENT ELECTRIC TRAINS are bringing more people to the town than they’re taking out. They point to a different kind of future for Birkenhead. A different kind of future in general.
As a baby I was, apparently, taken to the Liverpool International Garden Festival in 1984. It was arguably the first cultural mega event in Britain since the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the first to have what would become familiar goals of such events: urban renewal, creating a buzz and changing public perceptions of a place.
The event was largely a success. Based on the German Bundesgartenschau concept and backed by significant Government funds, it turned a former riverside landfill site into a varied garden and event space with activity across the year. It was popular locally and further afield and there were some significant ripple effects. It helped the region regain some confidence and think about what its future might be after a more than a decade of especially hard decline. The festival was also part of a wider Government-backed programme, which for example included the Mersey Basin Campaign to clean up the river, and started the long, still ongoing process of reclaiming the miles upon miles of abandoned industrial waterfront on both sides of the Mersey.
The legacy of the festival site itself is more ambiguous. It was sold off and turned into a leisure complex, which was successful for a while but later closed and lay derelict for years. More recently the gardens at least have been restored, but they have struggled for lack of maintenance funds.
The festival also did not in itself alter the fundamental economic challenges the region faced: a lack of decent quality well paid jobs, a solid local economic base and the tax base that comes with it to fund important services. 35 years later, while Merseyside has improved in many ways from when I was a child, even if things were never as bad as the media stereotyped them, this fundamental challenge has not really gone away. The event however was meant to be a spark for change, not a solution to what is an almost existential urban issue. One that has in the time since, sadly, gone on to affect more and more areas of the UK and the world.
The Garden Festival also inspired others. Similar events followed in Glasgow, Gateshead, Stoke-on-Trent and Ebbw Vale. Arguably the initiative influenced Glasgow working towards its 1990 European City of Culture programme, and Gateshead’s arts based regeneration projects including things like Sage Gateshead, BALTIC and the Angel of the North. The perceived success of Glasgow led to fierce bidding for the 2008, renamed, European Capital of Culture title, including between Newcastle-Gateshead and Liverpool, the latter who eventually won. In Liverpool itself, one of the regeneration projects which followed the Garden Festival was Tate Liverpool opening in 1988 in the redeveloped Albert Dock. Tate Liverpool’s first Director Lewis Biggs, went on to play a huge role in the city’s cultural development in a range of ways, including founding the Liverpool Biennial in 1999, one of the first attempts in the UK to hold a regular biennial in the general mould of Venice.
By the time of the build up to Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture (CoC) in the mid-2000s, I had managed to get a first, tentative job in the cultural sector, as a zero hours gallery attendant, as well as being part of the alternative publishing scene in the rapidly regenerating city. What happened in that period was, after years of stagnation and decay and then slow, patchy development was a period of hyper development. Like many locals, I was torn between the positivity of finally seeing our region get such a level of new investment and construction after so long when so little was built at all – something hard to grasp if you’ve never lived somewhere facing hard decline. At the same time though, a wariness about whether all this was sustainable.
The Capital of Culture (CoC) programme was by and large varied and successful and had huge impact on changing perceptions of the city and giving it a new level of ambition. For me though, one of the most interesting things about CoC was that, initially intended or not, it made large, questions that may not otherwise have been addressed locally or nationally. Being held in Liverpool, it built on what began in Glasgow and to an extent deconstructed the idea of what a large scale cultural event (LSCE) should be in a city heavily impacted by post-industrial decline – a very different context to the first European City of Culture winners: Athens, Florence and Amsterdam.
Raymond Williams said that “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” This makes it hard to organise a LSCE, much harder I would say than organising the sporting equivalent, but to me, that’s what makes it a lot more interesting. Before, during and after 2008 the question pushed to the fore was a simple one with a complex answer: what is culture? Breaking that down: How much should things be ‘local’ and how much from ‘further afield’, how do you choose between art forms, between the popular and the niche, the traditional and the radical? Who are the intended audiences? How do you talk about a ‘local’ culture without excluding people newer to a place? Who decides all this and allocates responsibility, platforms and money accordingly? What do we want to change through all this? Such was political engagement locally, there was a huge level of critical debate and it was fascinating to watch received wisdom nationally about what and where was relevant in terms of culture getting unpicked by the region.
What was also important, and I saw this later in Hull too when I worked there, was how the year and build up to it helped restore more confidence and pride to the area. Not that it had ever gone away, but it had been severely dented by years of negative stereotypes and media hatchet jobs, which eat away at the collective psychology of a place. The power and importance of this is little understood by those whose world view comes from richer, more powerful cities which inevitably dominate the arts, media and academic discourse, rather than those who live in places which may only feature in the media as the butt of a lame comedian’s joke or in an negative article by a journalist from far away.
Nevertheless, the nagging question, especially when I came from a local, working class background, was would a LSCE event make things better in a region facing multiple challenges? My experience was that CoC in Liverpool did, in many ways. Even just in cultural terms, in the late 1990s, the city’s Philharmonic Hall was on the rocks, the Playhouse and Everyman theatres had shuttered, even popular music venues like L2/Lomax had closed down. No new cultural buildings had been built since 1939 and culture was not high on the agenda of the local authorities. The situation now, even after 10 years of austerity, is very different. Though the impact of CoC itself cannot be separated entirely from other factors such as wider public and private investment in that period.
However, CoC did not remove in itself the fundamental structural issues the area faced, even if it reduced some of them significantly. The point for me though is, much like with the Garden Festival, it should never have been expected to in isolation, because, frankly, no one single thing would remove complex challenges many decades in the making and part of huge global shifts. The counter question I always put is, would the region be better off if it hadn’t happened, if it had gone to another city? Few local people I think would agree.
On a wider level, what happened in Liverpool for CoC also had a real impact in beginning the still ongoing process in the UK of rethinking of how culture is defined and funded and how LSCE are delivered, especially in terms of how they interact with the varied residents of a city. Something which has carried on in subsequent events. Demand and interest in such LSCE has kept on growing. After the popularity of 2008 in Liverpool, the Govt. launched the UK City of Culture model, held in Derry/Londonderry then Hull and now upcoming in Coventry for 2021, with several areas now developing bids for 2025. The Liverpool City Region launched a Borough of Culture and the Greater London Authority launched a similar scheme, with Greater Manchester starting a Town of Culture. Folkstone has its own art triennial, there’s the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent, Brighton Photo Biennial, the biennial Manchester International Festival, Blackburn’s National Festival of Making, Whitstable Biennial, Glasgow International and so on. Britain was due to have a European Capital of Culture again in 2023, with several cities bidding, until the UK’s involvement was barred because of Brexit. Leeds valiantly has decided to deliver a year of culture regardless in 2023. In 2025 Rotherham plans to deliver a Children’s Capital of Culture, co-developed with children and young people. With it seems an ever increasing number of such events, is there the risk is there of diminishing returns – at some point will everywhere have had a big cultural festival of some kind?
For me though, the question should be, why shouldn’t everywhere have a year of culture, or similar? When the Garden Festival began this whole trend in the 1980s, culture for many UK cities was at the bottom of the civic priority pile, in contrast to the past. Poorer cities didn’t see it as important given what other challenges they had, even wealthier cities saw it as something to give a bit of funding and support to, mainly via older established civic institutions, but few put it front and centre and rarely did it stretch out to all forms of arts and different interpretations of culture. Many cultural facilities were ageing and underfunded, with few built outside London between the 1960s and the 1990s. Artists were rarely considered in town halls if not dismissed entirely. The creative industries were low on the economic agenda despite their importance. All this has now changed for the better, with the role of the arts and culture in its many forms not just valued in itself but increasingly for many other reasons besides. Many fear negative aspects of instrumentalization, with good reason, but if anything, the conversation around culture, what it is and should be, who gets to access and create it, is wider than ever. With a growing understanding of the role it can play in planning, health and many other areas. Many cities like Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, have it near the top of their priorities, while authorities like Hull, despite the huge central Govt. cuts they have received, have maintained cultural funding levels.
All power to towns and cities who have this level of focus and especially those which are doing it off their own bat. Rotherham for example didn’t bid to have a Children’s Capital of Culture, they just decided it was something they should do. And there for me is something absolutely fundamental to the success of a LSCE at all levels, now more than ever, is that it is driven by local ideas, needs, interests and specialisms above all else.
To me, one of the most important Liverpool Biennial commissions ever was Homebaked/2Up2Down for the 2012 Biennial. This saw social practice artist Jeanne van Heeswijk work in Anfield, celebrated as home of LFC but also an area devastated by the Housing Market Renewal Initiative. Jeanne worked over two years to develop a project with the community, which resulted in the tentative re-opening of a local bakery, an idea for community-led housing and a tour/performance explaining the complex local context. I always got the impression the biennial team were surprised this project seemed to attract some of the biggest interest from the international art press rather than other aspects of the programme. I was not though. Here was something original, specific, that could not be seen, easily at similar events elsewhere in the world, even if some of the concepts were transferable. Something that had impact locally, but relevance internationally as more and more of the developed world faced up to a post-industrial future. Eight years on, Homebaked is now a larger, co-operative community business, employing 18 people and playing a big role in a more sustainable wider development of the neighbourhood.
For me this is an exemplar of how projects within biennials and other LSCE can have impact in different ways – plenty of time to explore, develop and build something up with a particular community, with a later event or other public face that engages a wider constituency, but then some sort legacy that can be taken forward. Of course, the very nature of such projects means that not all are guaranteed to be successful in the long term, but Homebaked demonstrates what it is possible to achieve when the conditions are right.
Even from a purely strategic point of view, such as getting on the ‘art world map’ featured in travel guides etc, doing what is already being done elsewhere over and over again, is I would argue, a hiding to nothing. Key is not to fall into the trap of replication, even tempting as it when looking at successful cities or projects elsewhere. To truly have local impact as well as gain the benefits of increased attention and visitors, originality is key. This will vary from a more specific event – a ceramics biennial makes perfect sense in Stoke-on-Trent, Glasgow, with its large number of studios and galleries makes sense to have its International, while having an outdoor focus makes sense in a seaside town. Even within wider, year-long cultural programmes which need to approach culture from a broad range of perspectives, a firm rooting within the city or town itself will always have most power and local specifics are what can make a programme really stand out.
Towns and cities often have specific cultural strengths. Artists and art organisations based in them usually understand these very well and how they relate to the wider cultural landscape and they should play a key role in the development of such programmes. This doesn’t mean though that the loudest voices, from the biggest organisations or the most well connected artists, should have all the power. Rather those planning such programmes should take this as a starting point for a wider conversation about what they want to achieve within a LSCE. This should involve people at all levels: already engaged audiences, artists, community organisations, but much further out to people on the street and online going about their daily lives. Asking questions such as, what part of town could most do with a boost, what local artist from the past has been forgotten, which project could do with help to get them to the next level, what themes are important to this place? Crucial also is to maintain this conversation throughout all phases of a LSCE. Keep asking people, how do they think the programme is going, what do they want the legacy to look like and how will we achieve it? For year- or six-month long programmes as well, there should be care also to taper an event, with a steady build up and wind down so it doesn’t feel like the LSCE was ‘it’ in terms of culture, overwhelming people and then stopping dead, instead acknowledging a particular time as a period of focus. I don’t think there’s a single ‘best’ way organise a LSCE, remember, what Raymond Williams said about culture. Key for me though is to take a key perspective of the local, then see how those ideas fan out nationally and internationally.
Wirral was the Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture 2019 and it was great to go back and experience some of the varied events as part of it. For me though the most powerful were a couple of photographic exhibitions, Tabula Rasa and Women of Iron, showing work by young people from the Creative Youth Development Programme ran by the Council. Using a LSCE event to inspire a new generation is so important but having the long term programmes in place so young people can develop themselves before, during and after such an event is vital. As are new employment opportunities. If it wasn’t for the increase in entry level paid arts roles in Liverpool in the build-up to CoC, I might never have been able to get to the role I have now. In a LSCE, plans should be made around what cultural employment opportunities will be created for people locally and how least some of these will be sustained beyond the event. Programmes in areas such as youth development and employment should be front and centre of long term cultural programmes in a region to help develop them as centres of art and creativity.
What the legacy of LSCE looks like should be as specific to a place as the event programme itself. It’s certainly possible to be too rigid about long term outcomes, when working in culture you have to allow for serendipity to an extent, but what the future looks like does need to be considered in some detail before such an event happens. A LSCE might have the big impact, but how to build on that long term needs to be thought about as soon as the event is being planned. When funders are looking at LSCE, they should consider their support in three or five year terms, tapering for developing, building up to the main phase and then afterwards, reduced but longer periods of funding to bed down sustainability and impact. One of the most powerful factors of delivering a LSCE is the scale of discussion and debate it can create locally about culture, how to nurture and further develop it and this should be harnessed. It’s crucial to ask early on, what can such an event help spark that does carry on after it? Could that be say, a permanent, low cost artist studio complex, protection through Agent of Change for local music venues, an ongoing commissioning programme in a certain field, a new annual festival, a neighbourhood cultural event that starts the conversation about long term local change, a new creative arts facility for young people. Again, this should always be driven by specific local needs. Though it’s important to ensure that space in towns and cities is developed or sustained to make art, as well as show it.
However, while we focus on arts and culture here, we cannot separate it from the wider context that LSCE operate in in particular locations. A LSCE in an area with a solid economic base but less of a cultural profile, will be different from a place with a good cultural profile but challenging economic situation, different again from perhaps a smaller place with limited profile at all and a small arts base. Liverpool for example, had to deal with decades of nasty stereotypes, Hull felt it wasn’t heard enough of at all in the media, upcoming Coventry meanwhile has a relatively solid economic base but feels it doesn’t have enough cultural recognition nationally.
This does not mean though, that LSCE should be the preserve of already successful places or that bigger, wealthier cities should have a monopoly on the arts. What’s been positive in recent years has been the increased focus on directing some more state arts investment in the most disadvantaged and under invested areas of the UK. However, developing and sustaining an arts and culture programme in a post-industrial area, cannot be done in isolation. LSCE and initiatives such as Creative People and Places are powerful, but they are not panaceas and must be linked in with wider plans and ideas for local economic and social development. Precious few places in the world operate wholly on a culture-based economy and those that do are fragile – Venice’s population has declined throughout the 20th century as its wider economy moved away to more modern places and it became purely a tourist city. While cultural mega cities, say London, New York, Berlin, are employing tens of thousands in culture, arts, tourism and creative industries, those sectors still play second fiddle to things like high finance, professional services and public administration, which more fundamentally sustain them economically. A place cannot be regenerated without considering culture, but art and culture alone cannot be expected to regenerate a place. The Festival of Britain in 1951 is fondly remembered because it was just the celebratory part of a much wider programme of national renewal and investment and opening out of access to education and the arts.
Gentrification and ‘over tourism’ are also significant issues which need to be considered in this context. Though it must be remembered, in urban terms these issues principally impact on the most highly successful and well-off cities and receive so much focus because such places control much of the media and academic discourse. More disadvantaged cities face a different, perhaps even more stark challenge: to keep sustaining and further developing cultural provision at all with limited funds. While artists in these places can struggle to sustain themselves when faced with far fewer opportunities, even if rents remain cheap compared to wealthier cities.
The role of arts and culture in post-industrial urban change can and does have many positive benefits. Yet these can also be fragile and easily be lost. Long term thinking is not something the UK often excels at, but now, as we’re getting closer to having (re?) won the argument about the importance of art and culture in urban areas and civic life, it’s time for a new paradigm, in which a LSCE is the showcase, the platform, for what’s been achieved and will go on being developed within longer term civic and community ambitions around art and culture.
If we do want to see our cities continue to transform for the better, LSCE’s should also be an opportunity, a catalyst to ask bigger questions about society, politics, economics, culture, and places. What we want them to be and how we go about achieving them. A way of exploring what changes people want to make in towns and cities in the UK and how to build underinvested places back up as we go through challenging and tumultuous times.
 Williams, R. Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana, 1976: p.87.
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.