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.


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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.