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.
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.
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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