TALK OF THE TOWN HALL Preston’s pressing problem

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By Patrick Kelly

There’s lots of talk these days about “anchor institutions” - a loaded term, perhaps, and one that might sound like a bit of a drag. But it seems that local economies can’t do without them.

The official definition is “enduring organizations that remain in their geographic locations and play a vital role in their local communities and economies”. Usually the term is applied to large companies or a major public sector employer, a hospital perhaps. But doesn’t it also apply to a local theatre or museum? After all, some of them are “enduring” in Richmond in Yorkshire or Bury St Edmunds, for example, they have been around for a couple of centuries.

But an arts venue, built in the late 20th century can also play a vital role in their local communities, as they are finding out in Preston, where the Guild Hall is threatened with closure.

It may only date from the 70s, but the arts venue, built to replace a much earlier concert hall and boasting two auditoriums holding 3,000 people in all, is part of the cultural history of the town. Like its next door neighbour, the Preston Bus station, it’s a monument to the days when confident local authorities would build iconic modern buildings to reflect the pride and ambition of their communities. Creating a venue that could host the likes of Bowie or Led Zeppelin, as it did, was an affirmation of faith in many a mid-sized town, not just in Lancashire. 

But fast forward to the 2000s and the economics have changed. Not only has the arrival of mega-arenas with capacities of ten or twenty thousand pushed the smaller venues off the circuit, but austerity has crippled councils’ ability to pay the maintenance bills of 50 year old buildings.

In 2014, a planned demolition of the Guild Hall to save cash was only thwarted by a last-minute rescue by a local businessman. Five years later and the business is bust, leaving the council holding the lease, a pile of unpaid debts and an empty building. But it’s an empty building which contains not only a multitude of memories for local people, it also holds the dreams and hopes of a Lancashire community that feels overshadowed by much bigger neighbours like Manchester or Liverpool.

Much has been written about the reasons for Brexit, but a recurrent theme in all the analysis is that small and medium sized towns were amongst those which felt most neglected and overlooked by globalisation and its accompanying prosperity, and felt angry enough to vote Leave.

A similar pattern was discernible in the US, where they often do these things first. But it’s significant that arts institutions have been in the forefront of attempts to roll back the effects of globalisation and impoverishment of once proud smaller cities. In Baltimore the Maryland Institute College of Art has taken it role as an anchor institution very seriously, partnering with local schools and community organisations, repurposing old buildings, letting contracts to local firms and building incubator projects. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has built affordable housing, while the Cleveland Museum of Art has created a community arts centre in a poor Latino neighbourhood.

But there are plenty of examples here in the UK too. Derby Theatre has been a mainstay of the economy in the city and was recently recognised for its efforts with a major grant from Arts Council England. In Middlesbrough, MIMA has created terrific partnerships with other organisations to help combat some of the worst aspects of austerity in the area. 

In its latest report, The Value of Arts and Culture in Place-Shaping (https://www.artsindustry.co.uk/news/1741-arts-key-to-towns-success-ace-report), ACE also praises the work of arts organisations in helping to attract people and businesses to an area and to shape its identity. A survey of places as disparate as Halifax, Hastings, Redruth, Southampton and Stoke-on-Trent, shows that arts and culture promotes wellbeing and many people think it“essential to life”. It also attracts a variety of people to live and work in an area, helps build communities and supports struggling high streets, by bringing in visitors and increasing footfall. See also https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/value-arts-and-culture-place-shaping.

ACE chair Sir Nicholas Serota says the report shows thatthe opportunity to visit a theatre, or listen to music or borrow a book from a local library is as important a factor in people’s  choice of where to live as the availability of good schools. “Public investment in the arts is helping to bring people together, promoting wellbeing, and sustaining towns and cities through the dramatic changes happening on high streets.”

Preston councillors will have a difficult decision to make about the Guild Hall, but it might be worth reading the ACE report before they reach for the wrecking ball.

 

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