Missing a trick

Artists deliver a lot of cool for very little investment, argues Kathryn Hodgkinson who says we’re missing a trick by ignoring the “hidden” sector

In less than a square mile of Newcastle upon Tyne there are well over 400 artists – and countless more small arts and community organisations – hiding away. They are hiding in artist-led spaces that are also home to maker-groups, lecture series, theatre groups, galleries, bookshops and project spaces. These multi-purpose buildings nurture peer support, instigate collaborations and offer experimental opportunities.

They are the punctuation marks tucked away inside our larger north east cultural scene, a hidden sector that is proving to be a very fertile cultural breeding ground. But could it also be an engine for economic regeneration?

Measuring the value of these spaces and their occupants has always been difficult. They are not always selected or curated. The quality of output is mixed. They change fast. They can be very hard to pigeonhole, because amongst the artists are also storytellers, dancers, poets, film-makers, cultural producers and philosophers. And this hidden sector is run by builders, makers, do-ers and activists. But they share many common characteristics: they work with passion, they exist on very low incomes, and they work extremely long hours to make their art.

Photograph by Metro Centric under Creative Commons licence

Photograph by Metro Centric under Creative Commons licence

So what would a city like Newcastle – with much larger problems to solve – want with a bunch of slightly scruffy arts projects that come with no neat economic statistics attached?

COOL. Newcastle is already cool, of course – we have wonderful architecture, open spaces, character and much more, but it needs to get way cooler. FAST. It needs to step up to compete with its Northern counterparts. We are at the end of the line geographically and have to fight against the perception of being little more than a party city with a football ground and high social deprivation. A Geordie Shore city. Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool feel streaks ahead of Newcastle.

We need better urban development, better graduate retention and better quality of life for those who live here. We need to attract new businesses. And a good dose of cultural tourism would help things significantly as well.

And artists deliver a lot of COOL for very, very little investment. In spite of little or no investment, and in spite of austerity cuts, this sector is blossoming nicely, quietly collaborating, fighting and finding ways not just to survive but also to grow.

Through their work and engagement with the public, artists and other “hidden sector” projects make towns and cities more interesting. They help us see things in a new light, they add colour. They make our places different – an antidote to homogenous high streets. Alongside artists come festivals, quirky independent retailers and other businesses of character and integrity.

Take The Late Shows as an example: 62 venues took part last year and on just two nights there were more than 33,000 visitors to all shapes and sizes of venues offering experiences from live music to interactive workshops. Or the long standing Open Studios event that offers open-access to more than 10 studio groups and the chance to meet and buy from artists directly. These are the kind of events that people consider when choosing a weekend break away, a university course or even a relocation. And for the record, both of these events are free, funded by the artists and organisations who put them on.

You cannot masterplan or fabricate this kind of cool overnight. It grows organically and responsively. But here is the rub… once they get a whiff of cool, the developers move in. “The dead hand of the developer”, as Grayson Perry calls it, moves fast. We’ve seen it at work in London’s Shoreditch, Hoxton and Dalston, pricing out their artists and pushing them away. This is terrible for a creative capital such as London… but with a little foresight and drive it could be a very good thing for Newcastle and the north east.

Photography by Metro Centric, under Creative Commons licence

Photography by Metro Centric, under Creative Commons licence

All the hidden sector needs is bricks and mortar. The artists do the rest. So what if Newcastle was a city that didn’t push out its artists. What if Newcastle was the city that really bought-into creative city-making? What if this was the city that wooed artists the 2 hrs 40 minutes from Kings Cross to settle here instead? Other regeneration would surely follow – and our graduates would stop moving to Leeds or Manchester because they are cooler cities where they can dance later into the night.

Achieving this doesn’t need to be that difficult. Newcastle City Council seems desperate to sell many of its properties as fast as possible. What if, instead of seeking short term financial gain, these properties were used to invest into local communities in other ways? What if artists and other community projects could buy their buildings with public payback, or community service? What if they could pay for their spaces from their vast reserves of creativity, entrepreneurship, energy, commitment, experience and passion?

Sounds crazy, right? But consider the difficulty our council has in maintaining the city’s parks. Why couldn’t an artist pay for his or her studio space by offering gardening services for one day a week? Or running workshops in schools? Or working with the elderly? Or mentoring students?

To its credit, Newcastle City Council has taken a small step in this direction with The Star and Shadow, a compact, volunteer-run community cinema with vintage organ and bar that also hosts gigs and exhibitions. The council helped rehouse the cinema and enabled the volunteers to purchase their building. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s time to look properly at the “hidden sector” that we already possess, rather than complaining about what we don’t have. We have an incredibly rich, untapped resource under our noses that nobody is talking about it. We are missing a trick.

Kathryn Hodgkinson is an artist. 

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3 thoughts on “Missing a trick

  1. I think your description of our city as being less cool than Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds is just wrong. We’re not defined by Geordie Shore any more than Mancunians are by Coronation Street. John Cooper Clarke’s poem “Beesley Street” and its updated version probably say as much as necessary about the destruction of community, paucity of aspiration and the self-ghettoisation of artists who comment without profound knowledge. Newcastle is the greatest and most civilised city on earth because of its unity. This means that football, art, music, culture, history, politics, economic growth and social progress all happen because we all participate. Instead of getting artists to pay for space by their labour in a park, talk to the people working on that park – the diggers, cleaners, bin-men and the like to find out about their artistic needs. Maybe then our city’s arts and cultural provision could receive the cooperation it needs from all of its people and the many excellent, committed cultural practitioners can make a sustainable living without being at the mercy of funding, HLF, corporate donations and whatever trend is current now.
    As a football fan who enjoys art, culture, music, theatre, philosophy, literature, history, opera, dance and helps organise festivals producing all of the above (except opera) I feel a bit insulted by this characterisation of my city. Culture is for everyone – shown by the great success of simply opening the doors to the people for The Late Shows – but a sector with a record of producing financial disasters, demanding more funding and failing to deliver on its promise shouldn’t be criticising a council suffering tens of millions of cuts whilst trying to help people desperate and starving in food banks. I know it’s tough, but stick together with the people who go to the match and laugh at Geordie Shore and know exactly why they love this great city and you may just see your dreams fulfilled.

  2. Good grief. Newcastle is way cooler than manchester, liverpool or any of our southern partners in this ‘Northern’ powerhouse. It always has been. and there’s thing. Artists and the creative sector have made huge changes to Manchester, Liverpool and the East End of London over the past two decades. But that’s a trend that’s been happening for centuries. Think the Bloomsbury set, or St Ives even. Newcastle (and Gateshead importantly too) have largely by-passed that need. Its very presence at the end of the line has let it develop in it own distinctive way. An original way. And isn’t that what the developers elsewhere are buying into – or at least hoping to buy into – Originality. Creativity. Identity. Tyneside has this by the bucketloads. It’s part of its fabric and culture. It’s what made it the centre of invention and innovation. Beyond Tyneside, the North East as a region is far more culture savvy than anywhere else in England. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t need creative ghettos as artists can thrive easier generally across the region. Of course artists continue to have roles to play in the vitality of the city. It’s already the go-to place for the region. Just look at Durham by comparison. I don’t live in Tyneside. I’m 60 miles away, but given the choice of where to get a great cultural experience – Leeds, Manchester, York, Sheffield – Newcastle wins hands down every time.

  3. Hello, I am an artist from ‘the hidden sector’ – it isn’t named but I presume intended is the one situated amongst Pilgrim Street, Market Street and New Bridge Street West. I saw this linked to on Twitter and also that you were encouraging comments on this piece, which intrigued me.

    I was born in and still reside in Newcastle, although have actively volunteered in the arts (in many a community, across multiple counties in the North East) since I was in high school – running workshops in schools, working with the elderly and mentoring students, all as mentioned above, yet all without any financial incentives in the first place.

    I come from a working class background, with no insider, nepotic ties to the arts and have always funded my work (and now my studio rent) with the income gained from low-hour contract, minimum wage jobs or benefits. It is now common amongst young people to work more than one job and only dabble in creative hobbies or enterprise on the side. So few of us are lucky to be employed by arts organisations or earn anything near enough to ever call ourselves professional artists. Zero hour contracts are increasingly prevalent across the nation, and unfortunately rife amongst Newcastle’s arts-involved individuals – because of this, the time and costs we can spare to put into our work varies, hence why the quality of our work is, as put here, “mixed”.

    I do believe we need more opportunities for creative graduates, but also more opportunities for individuals to enter the arts professionally in the first place – those of all ages who never went to university, the volunteers, the would-be freelancers who struggle to earn a living wage and those like me who are of minorities and low socioeconomic backgrounds. I am grateful to the established artists who are genuinely concerned about supporting and nurturing the next generation of artists, and to those that have already been kind enough to invest their time and offer mentorship to individuals such as myself.

    Although the artists of Shieldfield and Ouseburn have contributed greatly to their gentrification, I wouldn’t necessarily say that events like the Open Studios and once-yearly Late Shows (which I support, attend and contribute to) are the deciding factor that sways potential arts students to move to Newcastle and reside in the newly-built accommodation complexes.

    I doubt that Newcastle City Council will ever see investing in this “hidden sector” a priority, or prime opportunity for an overall “better quality of life” in a city that consists of areas of significant deprivation and over 40 square miles – unless that sector starts creating more jobs and/or generating more profits. I also doubt that they will ever see it financially viable to reward artists with stakes in property for volunteering at community centres and cultural venues when there are many of us already doing it for free, and at no cost to them, as it stands when they are under increasing pressure from the government and cuts.

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