TAITMAIL Poisoning our cultural grassroots
There are two key phrases in the cultural news this week, equally ugly: “levelling up” and “gentrification”, sparked by four different stories.
First is the Birmingham bankruptcy story; second a report about the link between artists and the uplifting, or gentrification, of urban centres; third is a riposte to the government’s designation of arts degrees as “low-level” as not only wrong but missing the point; and fourth is another report that schools are no longer taking kids to museums. Separately they may seem incidental to our developing cultural story; together they paint a shocking picture of infinite potential being scythed down at the knees.
Until recently local and regional councils outspent central government on the arts, even though it was not a statutory requirement, and in the nineties and noughties Birmingham, Europe’s biggest local authority with one of the country’s fastest growing economies, led the way, and if not rivalling London for its creative output it certainly offered a very credible and different alternative.
Birmingham City Council went hell for leather for culture with a unique arts strategy, through a new post of head of arts to make it happen through a visionary facilitator, Anthony Sargent (who went on to do it again in Gateshead), making partnerships with the likes of the Arts Council and European funds to fulfil a dream of Brum truly becoming Britain’s Second City, with a bright, polychrome shine to its output. It gave us the City of Birmingham Symphony Hall, arguably the best concert hall in the country; it brought Ed Smith and Simon Rattle to lead the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as the hall’s resident; it changed Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet to Birmingham Royal Ballet and installed it in the Birmingham Hippodrome which it had rebuilt; it supported Birmingham Rep as it strove for international recognition for its innovations; it brought contemporary dance to the people with DanceXchange; it supported the visionary Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company, as it is now, taking productions of new work to the streets to huge acclaim. This is all part of what has become known as gentrification.
But the future of all of that is in doubt now, since the council declared itself bankrupt, the government blaming the city’s Labour administration. But Birmingham is not alone.
Councils all over the country, Labour, Conservative, LibDem and Other, are going bust because of the deep cuts to the local government subvention from Westminster since 2010 – Woking, Thurrock, Croydon, Northumberland, Slough and even local government minister Michael Gove's Surrey constituency among them – and despite the earning power of the creative industries, the fastest growing sector in the British economy. When the choice is between arts funding and keeping care centres open, there is no choice.
Levelling up in these places has become a sour joke, and even where there is promise of funding for cultural levelling uo projects the promise is withdrawn when strict deadlines are not met, allowing the levelling up minister Michael Gove to hand back £1.9bn (curiously almost exactly the size of Birmingham’s debt) to the Treasury unspent.
Main image: Teachers on an Art Fund sponsored museum visit, picture by Holly Pickering
“Gentrification” is a misnomer, and my thesaurus gives a number of alternatives including “rejuvenate”, “exhilarate,” and simply “restate”. My choice would be even simpler: “humanise”, making a town or city one in whose streets its inhabitants want to walk together, and artists have always been associated with the humanising process of urban areas.
Not anymore, according to a study by University College London and Birmingham University and published by Creative PEC (the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre). In an average neighbourhood a 10% increase in the share of creative industry businesses in 2001 led to only a 0.02% increase in gentrification over the following decade, and a 10% increase in creative workers in 2001 led to a 0.2% increase in gentrifying. The artist may be there before the process has taken off, but the costs of living in a newly humanised community is unaffordable by most creative workers, so they have no place in the new “hipster” towns and their growth.
“The overall takeaway from the report is that while the arts, and the wider creative industries do correlate with increased gentrification, the increase is very marginal says Creative PEC’s Hasan Bakshi. “The research suggests there is potential to build on this small positive correlation and for policy makers to lead on more direct interventions to increase the scope of economic renewal and to support community cohesion activities to limit the negative side-effects of gentrification. With a holistic approach, informed by local knowledge, the findings suggest the creative sector could play a bigger and more inclusive role in economic regeneration.”
But not without local funding.
Meanwhile, and despite Rishi Sunak declaring arts degrees to be of “low value” and to be discouraged, young people are still yearning to be trained as artists, if the experience reported this week by the University of the Arts London is anything to go by, as it contradicts Sunk by rising in the university rankings. It has over 120,000 students from more than 130 countries at its art schools, which include Central St Martins, The London College of Fashion and Camberwell College of Art. What is not so satisfactory is that the number of working class arts students has now shrunk to just 8% of the art school student body.
It's the cause of particular anguish to the International Body of Art, a new organisation set up to help under-represented artists, whose CEO is Maria Artool. “Without emphasis on the arts in the mainstream, many young people without prior knowledge or family support can’t discover their artistic potential” she says. “They can’t find their way to people or organisations that can offer them an opportunity to fulfil their potential. This prevents not only individuals from reaping their talents but art enthusiasts from being able to indulge in and enjoy art from people of different backgrounds.
“The key to sustaining the arts in the future lies in making young artists a priority today, not only in education - which has experienced substantial cuts over the past few years but making sure they are supported in all other areas of everyday life.”
And where do young people get their inspiration to pursue a life of creativity? Museums and galleries, of course – though, wait, perhaps not…
More new research, this time from Art Fund, shows that barely half (52%) of less privileged children have been to a museum in the last year compared with 70% of the more advantaged, with teachers reporting that museum visits from schools have plummeted since the pandemic. This column has highlighted the change in museums’ focus from objects to people, citing places like the Manchester Museum and Art Gallery and the new Young V&A in East London, their new orientation towards giving its visitors immersive and learning experiences to spark their imaginations, but not for the under-privileged it seems.
“Children’s ability to enjoy museums, galleries and historical places shouldn’t be determined by their socio-economic status or geographical location” says Art Fund’s director Jenny Waldman, who this week launched its Teacher Art Pass to get teachers into museums and discover how galleries, museums and historic houses can spark creativity in the classroom.“At Art Fund we believe all young people should have the opportunity to build their cultural confidence, develop their creative capacity and reach their full potential.
"We want to support teachers, who play such a vital role in pupils’ lives, and we know that visiting museums can also help improve their own wellbeing.”
Our councils have always been an unremarked bedrock to our culture in many different ways, and with the emergence of community as a capsule for ground level cultural participation and enjoyment they have become even more important. But the impoverishment of local authorities, whose government grant has been cut by half between 2010 and 2017 and whose council revenue fell by 20% between 2009 and 2019, is poisoning our cultural grassroots.