Culture: the word on the street

Can local arts projects really change the world?

Munira Mirza

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Topics Politics

To many, the Tate Modern in London symbolises a transition that has taken place in Britain in recent years. A hollowed out shell of old industry, this renovated power station now hosts some of the leading contemporary art work in the world. The dynamism of old industrial Britain has given way to a new kind of creative, artistic energy – or so the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) would have us believe.

Creativity and culture are at the forefront of the UK government’s vision of national transformation and urban regeneration. In an attempt to create the ‘Bilbao effect’ (referring to the Guggenheim Museum that transformed this small Spanish town), decaying cities and towns across the UK are taking up the ‘cultural renewal’ challenge with plans for new museums, galleries and visitor centres.

Culture, it seems, is the word on the street.

The argument goes that creativity is now a vital part of Britain’s overall economy. Lord Evans, chair of Resource: the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, talks about an ‘economy of imagination’, which, he claims, is growing faster than manufacturing. Secretary of state Tessa Jowell boasted of the importance of creativity to the UK economy in her Labour Party Conference speech in Brighton on 2 October 2001 – explaining that one in 10 of us works in the ‘creative industries’.

But when you look a little closer, the talk of an ‘economy of creativity’ seems to be more spin than substance. The number of ‘creative workers’ is often blown out of proportion. In 2000, the total number of people who either produced cultural products or needed to think originally in their work (designers, advertisers, and so on) was just 5.4 percent of the paid labour workforce. The relative growth of this sector in comparison to others is a result of the upsurge in advertising and information technology over the past five years.

The reason the government can claim that so many of us work in creative industries is because the term ‘creative worker’ is being applied to an ever-expanding range of industries – including tourism, the service sector, communications, finance and transport. Serving hamburgers at a theme park is hardly most people’s idea of ‘creative employment’, but describing it as such reflects the self-flattery about how creative we all are these days.

Also, the impact of the ‘creative economy’ remains small. As James Heartfield writes in Great Expectations: ‘As a proportion of the economy as a whole, [the creative industries] are quite modest – being worth less than six percent of GDP.’ (1)

The promise that the arts and creativity can regenerate society and help create an ‘urban renaissance’ often seems strangely incongruous to what we see. The fact that the Tate Modern is not even a new building reminds us that there is nothing particularly ‘urban’ or ‘developing’ about this new urban development strategy. At a time when new housing construction is at its lowest point since 1924, the conversion of a power station into a world-class art gallery perhaps says more about our fascination with the aesthetic of decline than with the transformation of our capital city.

Often, the new urban-regenerating local arts projects and galleries have annoyed local inhabitants. The National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield has been anything but popular; the Centre for Visual Arts in Cardiff was closed down after losing funding from the Arts Council of Wales; the Bradford Life Force Centre lost its fight for life after receiving only 62 visitors in the first week after opening. The unpopularity of these bland institutions – coupled with the inevitable ‘gentrification’ of housing prices and importation of outside employees into local areas – has caused consternation among locals. Despite the grand claims made by new arts ventures about fitting in with local communities, it seems local residents see things differently.

The bland nature of some of these new arts institutions – and the fact that they often aspire to capture the local rather than anything universal – reflects a broader lack of dynamism within society. The policy seems to be: create architectural expressions of a dynamic society and hope that real change just might follow. For this reason, the ‘brand value’ of a city is now considered to be as important, if not more so, than the city’s infrastructure and economic value. Creativity is now more about making do with what you already have – being resourceful rather than revolutionary. So projects like Britain in Bloom, the opening of a new gallery and the repainting of local town centres become major focal points – because the cosmetic enhancement of a town centre is the only exciting thing likely to be going on.

Look a little deeper and it seems that arguments in favour of new cultural institutions and ‘urban regeneration’ are driven less by cultural concerns than by political ones. Often the question that is asked of a new arts project or centre is: what will be its social value? Will it bring about a cultural transformation in people’s attitudes to their environment and to each other? But like the claims about a dynamic creative economy, the idea that you can bring about social-cohesion-by-art-project is just not compelling.

According to associates of the think-tank Demos Charles Leadbeater and Kate Oakley, arts and culture ‘create meeting places for people in an increasingly diversified, fragmented and unequal society’. Local authorities are forever developing cultural strategies and encouraging ‘grassroots’ active participation through the arts. And Lewisham Council in London recently launched its new cultural strategy by arguing that ‘regeneration is not just about bricks and mortar, it is about people….I want Lewisham to be the main creative and cultural centre in London’.

This desire to create ‘points of connection’ through culture reveals much about anxious local authorities desperate to connect with disaffected electorates. But it’s a bit much to ask an arts project to succeed where politics has failed. When traditional institutions like political parties, churches, working-men’s clubs, trade unions fail to command the majority of people’s allegiance, it seems the authorities are hoping that a sense of togetherness and community can be created through cultural projects instead.

The perceived failure of representative democracy and the lack of a common social identity create a peculiar vacuum where even an exciting busker can become the talk of the town hall. It is the lack of a grand social vision that means arts and culture have become The Next Big Thing.

The UK government has told arts institutions that they must integrate ‘social inclusion’ into their overall strategies and seek to connect their ‘diverse audiences’. The idea of art for its own sake has been sidelined by a new conception of art as a means of social cohesion. But the pressure to create social networks can only undermine the role of galleries and museums to remain independent and produce serious art. What you end up with is neither art nor society – neither the socially cohesive local communities that New Labour dreams of, nor the kind of excellent, challenging art for its own sake that many of us would like to see.

The end result is that neither the urban renaissance, nor indeed the artistic one, is able to flourish.

Munira Mirza is organising the discussion ‘Can the arts create an urban renaissance?’ on Wednesday 14 November, 7.30pm, at the Battersea Arts Centre – as part of the Institute of Ideas’ Pieties or Policies? series. For further information or to book tickets, phone +44 (0)20 7269 9220 or email info@instituteofideas.com.

Read on:

Pieties or Policies?

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) Great Expectations, James Heartfield, Design Agenda, 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

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