Do We Need to Grow Up? A two day conversation hosted by the NewBridge Project, 10-11 September 2015

This article was originally published on a-n news 17/9/15
Here is my original version.

Last week I attended Do We Need to Grow Up? A two day conversation hosted by the NewBridge Project (NBP) in Newcastle. It formed part of its 5th birthday celebrations but was also a response to the problems they, and other artist-led projects in the UK, are facing. How to deal with financial insecurity, gain support from and manage the expectations of funders and Local Authorities and what to do when your building gets taken from you for redevelopment.

NewBridge’s 80 studios, project space, book shop and performance space are located on a block of land in Newcastle’s city centre along with several other small arts projects, which include VANE, Commercial Union House Studios, Tyneside Cinema’s pop up space and Globe Gallery. At a conservative estimate 200 artists are supported on this block, which is owned by the billionaire landowners the Reubens brothers. Newcastle City Council is currently in negotiations to unlock this space for redevelopment.

One of the aims of the conversation was to explore various models from around the country and Europe with representatives from different artist run projects including East Street Arts in Leeds, Grand Union in Birmingham, Star and Shadow cinema in Newcastle and NAC Foundation in Rotterdam sharing their experiences and insights. The second day was more focused on local issues within the wider political and economic setting and we heard speakers from Newcastle City Council, ACE and Newcastle and Northumbria Universities. This was where you might say the conversation got a bit ‘grown up’.

Jon Wakeman from East Street Arts in Leeds. Photo Courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

Jon Wakeman from East Street Arts in Leeds. Photo Courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

Andrew Rothwell, Culture and Tourism Manager, Newcastle City Council let us know quite plainly not to expect much support from the Local Authority. There was no money for culture and seeing how it isn’t a statutory requirement and there are only two people in the Cultural Development department we are going to have to learn to stand on our own two feet. He said it more kindly than that but it was still pretty sobering.

In a neo-liberal environment where everyone has their eye on the bottom line and Local Authority budgets and cultural departments are disappearing we are asked to look to philanthropic sources of income and as someone in the discussion pointed out, it’s hard to find a philanthropist who isn’t also a philistine.

John Tomaney, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, UCL, talked about big institutions getting sponsorship from oil companies as if this was OK. Where are our sponsors? He asked, reminding us that our artistic values have to change to meet the needs of funders. How do we reconcile? Should we reconcile?

One contributor suggested that business needs us, needs our ideas and creativity and we should allow ourselves to be ‘tapped’. Great! And when our city becomes a completely devolved private corporation, managing its own affairs just like a big business (apparently this is happening to some cities in the US and is on the cards for us) arts and culture will settle down to become be a division of Newcastle Corp. Maybe good things can come out of art and business working together but the idea of being tapped made me feel a bit ill.

Tom Warburton, Director of Investment & Development, Newcastle City Council had the most difficult job of all the speakers. He was there to give an update on the Rubens negotiations. Many of the attendees were studio holders and wanted to know how long they had before they’d be forced to leave. What they wanted to say but didn’t was: You are happy to use Culture to sell the city to foreign investors but how willing are you to help us when we need you? You could feel the tension in the room and see it on the poor guy’s face.

Group discussion led by activist Chris Erskine. Photo courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

Group discussion led by activist Chris Erskine. Photo courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

We were reminded again and again by the representatives from the city council and the Arts Council that culture is a driver for urban growth and to this some artists voiced their frustrations. What were we talking about when we used the word ‘culture’? Were we confusing it with capitalism? Is art just seen as an activity, a way of making money? What about actually paying the artists who create all this culture and growth?

The problem for NBP and projects like it across the country is that most of the stuff they do is hard to see. Unless you have a shiny, glass fronted space where the public can consume a neatly packaged product, those with power aren’t going to see the value – I doubt they understand the contribution that a repurposed office block full of studios actually has. This is the difficult side of art – people need time and space to produce it and there aren’t always tangible outcomes.

There is hope though. Grass-roots movements are beginning to gain momentum and our voices are starting to be heard. With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour Leader a feeling of optimism and opposition can be transformed into positive action here at a community level. Imagine if we worked together to voice our concerns, influence policies and made a case for artists in urban spaces? What if we saw to it that more public money (our money as Chris Erskine reminded us) got spent on culture? What would a Corbynite Newcastle look like? Alex Niven asked. Well, let’s figure it out and see!

We don’t need to grow up, not if growing up means compromising our values or forgetting why we became artists in the first place, we need to stand up and be counted.

For a full schedule and list of speakers >

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