The Guggenheim effect is all very well – but every city needs culture

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. Image: Getty.

Since the launch of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao in 1997, arts – or more accurately, arts venues – has been seen as the great drivers of renewal. The model is simple: find an abandoned industrial site, erect an architectural marvel (or repurpose a striking earlier building), stuff it with big name art, and rebuild the town around it. 

In Britain the model has largely been a hit. From Tate Modern to the Baltic and Sage in Gateshead, to V&A Dundee, the story goes, previously unfavoured areas have benefited from what has come to be known as “culture-led regeneration”.

Obviously this is a strategy with limits: there are only so many locations that can offer the combination of circumstances to build a new Guggenheim. Moreover, the model increasingly makes demands “host cities” to provide incentives for taking up a location; and the model risks morphing into the rather more cynical gallery franchise concept (hello, Louvre Abu Dhabi) where the focus is prestige for the host city and profit for the museum, with no focus on genuine creative engagement.

But there is more than one way to build creativity into a community, and more ways to regenerate besides base infrastructure.

A recent report by the Local Government Association examined different models of culture-led regeneration across England, from new infrastructure such as Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard to events such as the Manchester International Festival; and other, more modest projects such as Stoke-On-Trent’s Appetite, a three year programme aimed at engaging Stoke residents in cultural projects. The results are significant, in financial terms but also, importantly, in creating a crucial sense of ownership for locals: in Stoke-On-Trent, 90 per cent of participants in the Appetite programme reported increased pride in their city; Culture Works in Grimsby and North East Lincolnshire boasted of developing a more distinct identity for the area; likewise, with 80,000 participants in 200 events, the First Arts programme succeeded in increasing community pride and cohesion across the former coalfield areas of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

One important conclusion of the LGA report was that the “cultural offer needs to be authentic”; this was essential in building a lasting impact for residents who “wanted their cultural offering to be a true reflection of their place and a source of local pride”. 

For cultural projects to be sustainable and fundable, this is vital. Put simply, if people feel they are part of something, then they will be more open to attending, more open to spending money, and more open to seeing their taxes invested: impactful cultural projects do generate significant revenue, but they can require significant investment too; a local event or venue that people invest in emotionally will find it easier to find financial investment.

In an interview with the Guardian, Arts Council England Chair Sir Nicholas Serota pointed out the irony that while arts and culture provide the backdrop to everyday life, very few people perceive themselves as being involved in culture, saying, “There’s obviously an idea about the arts which is about it being elitist. In sport they don’t have any difficulty at all in recognising the difference between a knockabout game and the Premier League. They recognise there is the professional game and something they can be involved with on a Sunday morning.”

This seems self-evidently true. Moreover, it is true that one can enjoy both a knockabout game and a premier league match: a person’s enjoyment of one will be informed by their experience of the other. There is no inherent contradiction in enjoying and relating to both.

The same is true of culture: while the art world has buzzed with debates over “relevance” versus “excellence”, the truth is that this is not a necessary nor desirable distinction – implying, as it does, an old-fashioned idea that accessibility and artistic excellence are at odds with each other. At our own venues, we have hosted works by popular and acclaimed artists such as playwright Inua Ellams and poet Kate Tempest alongside needlework classes and singalongs for older people. If arts centres are to be cultural centres, then the entire point should be that all walks of life feel they can come through their doors and feel they can find something they will enjoy.

The recent launch of Arts Council England’s new 10-year strategy “Let’s Create” has prompted a rare conversation about the nature of art: what is it, who gets to create it, who gets to participate, all questions that have animated artists and arts professionals for years.

“Arts Council England aims to foster culture in every 'village, town and city'”, proclaimed the Guardian. In the introduction to the strategy itself, Serota stressed that, “Recognition of the part that creativity and culture can play in supporting local economies and talent, health and wellbeing, and children and young people, has flourished over recent years”, while identifying the need to create shared experiences.

The benefits to local economies are clear; an Arts Council study from 2019 estimated an additional £1.4bn gross value added to the economy of the north of England by the arts and culture sector, with nearly 17,000 people employed in the sector. 

This sits alongside evidence from the LGA, and the Arts Council showing that busy inclusive cultural programmes create greater community cohesion and attracts people and businesses to areas. The challenge is to ensure that as cultural practice expands in an area,it starts off, and remains, inclusive for all aspects of the community. The Here and Now project, launched this year with the support of the Arts Council and the National Lottery, is exploring how that works in practice, with 40 new projects undertaken by 40 arts centres, designed to speak directly to, and with, their immediate communities.

We believe this will be an invaluable piece of work allowing us to see how different communities will respond to what is the same project brief – to encourage dialogue within communities about what they want from art, and from arts centres. 

While Grand Designs-style arts venues will always be with us, it’s becoming clearer that the local, smaller scale, and yes, “relevant” cultural projects are increasingly centre stage when we talk about developing communities. We don’t need Guggenheim for every city, or a big-name touring exhibition that makes residents tourists in their own town. To create a real sense of place, people must be able to look at gallery walls and see themselves.

Gavin Barlow and Annabel Turpin are co chairs of Future Arts Centres.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.