‘You can’t move for culture in the North’, writes Professor Katy Shaw in The Northern Agenda, highlighting everything from Leeds 2023 to Middlesbrough games designers and Shakespeare North on Merseyside.
Following Liverpool’s triumphal hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest, it’s a good time to be asking why the North seems to punch above its weight when it comes to cultural and artistic activities. Northumbria University’s Director of Cultural Partnerships says culture delivers on some of the key areas of the levelling up agenda like skills and civic identity – so why aren’t we shouting about its value to the North and its brand?
In a country increasingly defined by borders, divisions and fragmenting political alliances, culture connects us like nothing else.
Through culture we see the kind of radical hospitality and participatory innovation that offer a blueprint for the soft and hard power needed to drive social and economic change today.
And while politicians seem to have abandoned the language of levelling up as the long shadow of a general election looms, the North has cracked on with delivering it through culture and the devolution of BBC and Channel 4 to our regions.
Levelling up who creates and curates culture means breaking down barriers between sectors, like MIMA and their partnership with Teesside University, AHRC and Adobe that is developing community co-creation of contemporary art in galleries to help diversify who gets to frame collections.
Levelling up who gets to experience culture means facilitating threshold crossing – getting people through the door through developments like Sunderland’s new Culture House, Baltic’s work with local refugee communities in Gateshead, and public queues around the block to see Manchester’s Museum’s reopening.
Levelling up who benefits from culture means working with public and private sector investment, as seen in the amazing work of Leeds 2023, Bradford Literature Festival and York Festival of Ideas.
Levelling up whose culture gets a voice in our national narrative requires reintegrating marginalised stories, as recently seen in Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’s Hadrian’s Wall anniversary culture year and the new GM Town of Culture (Stockport) through to community festivals and events in country and coastal city regions, towns and villages.
This cross-Northern offer is defined by an approach to culture not as an add on to economic growth, but as a principal pillar of delivering investment and participatory innovation in which everyone participates and everyone benefits.
But the North hasn’t achieved this alone. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has done more to deliver levelling up than the The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities since the publication of the white paper in 2022, while Arts Council England (ACE) has taken a lot of flack for putting into meaningful practice the redistribution of public funding to rebalance for the first time a fuller representation of spend across all regions.
In culture R&D, UKRI and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have invested in super clusters like StoryFutures, and cultural economy and policy hubs like PEC that help make the case for the ‘value’ of culture to the country as a whole.
This spend is vital because where the Levelling Up and Towns Funds have scattergunned huge pots at shiny capital build projects, smaller amounts of DCMS and ACE funding with sustained UKRI cluster funding has strategically focussed on rebuilding, rebalancing and recovering the culture sector post-covid and supercharging the creative industries as a USP of a new brand Britain.
This matters more because DCMS has had one hell of a run – delivering a jubilee, a royal funeral, a royal wedding, Eurovision in Liverpool, preparing for Bradford25. This gauntlet has earned them the nickname ‘the department of queues and portaloos’ but its an investment that is paying off.
This string of national DCMS events has provided a global showcase for the talents of our culture and creative industries but they also reminded those in power how much we rely on these sectors for soft power, tourism, investment and innovation.
While future developments like the forthcoming 2023 DCMS Creative Industries Sector Vision demonstrate real commitment to culture as a cornerstone of creating opportunity for all, in practice many of the funding mechanisms for culture create competition not collaboration and this is limiting the ability of the sector to feed forward learning, innovation and skills to the wider creative industries, as well as to create collective capacity for culture in the North.
The chancellor recently cited the creative industries as one of the country’s top investment and growth areas, while the AHRC creative industries clusters have demonstrated the capacity of culture to create a talent pipeline into skills, commercialisation and inward investment across the North.
From Beyonce creating new global tours from Production Park in Pontefract to smash hit new video game designs from Double Eleven Studios in Middlesbrough, we are developing great innovative creative businesses and place-based cultural development but we need to do more to pull away from the centre of gravity in London. Investment zones are not designed for creative industries (CI) but for life sciences, digital and engineering. This is a massive oversight.
As the chancellor assembles a new CI team – working out of the new HMT Darlington campus – he would do well to consider the recommendations of our recent AHRC and Northumbria University report that outlines the innovation and growth created by culture produced in partnership through Creative Communities, rather than Battle Royale schemes that pit regions against regions, and a pivot in the sources of funding available to include the British Business Bank to support creative freelancers and SMEs.
Culture connects but it also needs to be connected: cultural infrastructure needs physical infrastructure. Building amazing institutions like Shakespeare North in Prescot, Eden Project Morecambe, and ambitious new production facilities like FulwellCain Studios in Sunderland and CoStar means nothing if people can’t access transport to get to them, or the jobs they create.
This means leaning in to trailblazer deals that devolve culture budgets to mayors who know the needs of their local communities better than folk behind desks in Whitehall and can connect cultural development plans with integrated transport, skills and health strategies.
Culture can not operate in isolation: its spillover benefits do not begin and end at the economic, but they are intersectional and need capturing more fully in the Treasury Green Book. Only full devolution can catalyse culture as a true lever for levelling up.
You can’t move for culture in the North. And this is good news because culture matters: it delivers education and skills, health and wellbeing, environmental impacts for net zero, and pride in place and civic identity – all key delivery areas of the levelling up agenda.
So why are we not shouting about the value of our culture – socially, economically, politically – and doubling down on culture and the creative industries as a core USP of brand north today?
For our future North, culture is not just a nice to have, it’s a necessity. If we want to max out the capacity of combined authorities and devolution to deliver a cultural renaissance that leverages strengths and unlocks new opportunities for the North, we have to connect, within and beyond the North.
Creating a culture that is by all, for all, is key to connecting our clusters of excellence in a cultural corridor that runs from Manchester to Newcastle, taking in the diversity of countryside, coastal, city regions and spaces between.
A pan-Northern culture strategy that celebrates the diversity and strength of our cultural offer is needed to foster knowledge exchange between our creative communities and networks of opportunities and to forge a culture of place that can blaze a trail leading to a global stage.
The culture and cultural assets of the North are proud and strong and can stand alone. But if we connect our assets & world leading practitioners in a new pan Northern culture corridor, we stand to gain much more than just the sum of our parts. Together, we can take on the world.
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