Home is where the art is
Two events recently have made me think about symbolism. The spectacular comet now gracing the night sky visiting from the outer solar system would have been seen centuries ago as a harbinger of doom. The other event was closer to home: in my kitchen, in fact. My seven-year-old turned to me one morning and said, “Is that real, Mum?” pointing at a snake in the middle of the floor. “No, of course not” I said, until it raised its head and flicked its tongue, no doubt wondering where on earth he or she was and if we were real. And that made me think about how snakes, creatures that grow by sloughing their skins, have long been symbols of rebirth and regeneration.
A few days before the Culture Secretary’s very welcome announcement of £1.57 billion emergency funding for the arts and culture sector, the Prime Minister hinted that something was in the offing. He told the House of Commons that the economic case for supporting the performing arts is overwhelming.
He is right, it is. The cultural sector generates £32 billion for the economy a year, as part of the wider creative industries which contribute £111 billion – £304 million a day – and, until Covid-19 stopped the performing arts in their tracks, grew five times faster than the economy as whole. But it is about more than the earning power of the arts. The human case for supporting the performing arts is overwhelming too.
Cultural activity is a part of our national life – in the way it expresses who we are and helps us define ourselves as individuals and communities and in our outward expression as a nation. Culture and the arts contribute to our wellbeing, to our education, and to our social lives as well as to our economic prosperity.
The government’s rescue package is hugely positive news, but there are still lots of unknowns. We have to accept the possibility that it cannot save every organisation. We don’t yet know who will be eligible for support, and we don’t know the future course the of pandemic. There is a palpable sense of relief across the arts and culture sector, but we are not out of the woods.
While much of the recent noise has been about national institutions, it is in the regions, away from the metropolitan centres, that the loss of cultural institutions would be most grievously felt. We have seen the spectre of NewcastleGateshead without the arts and we don’t like it.
Here in the North East we have libraries, galleries, theatres and concert halls laid down proudly by the leaders of the industrial revolution and then built upon anew – indeed still being built upon in Sunderland – substantially in the 21st century, underpinned by lottery investment. In both periods, this investment has been fuelled by communities wanting to support better lives for their people. In latter times, successive local authorities – in Gateshead, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Darlington – have been pivotal in this, seeing cultural activity and the infrastructure which supports it as fundamental to making a place better for its people.
We think of the physical buildings as symbols of the role which culture plays in our lives. Just like the big national numbers, they attract attention. But behind them lies the other half of the story: what they mean to individuals and how this contributes to the way we knit together as a society. Which in turn makes place – helping define its quality and its identity.
Ultimately this isn’t about bricks and mortar – or glass – it’s about what it means for individuals. It’s about the effect which being involved in the arts and creativity can have for a person – from the broadest experience in a concert of hearing something new, meeting new people or simply having a good time and forgetting a day’s work; through building physical co-ordination, working as a team, communicating in playing music with others, to using music to build bonds between adopted children and their new families and to enable older people to combat isolation and loneliness. It is no accident that we turn to the arts at times of greatest joy and at times of greatest pain. We come together and sing to welcome people into our families by birth or by marriage and we come together and sing our farewells.
In short, the arts can help a person’s physical, emotional and mental health. This is where the vital human value lies, and this is why it’s crucial for villages, towns and cities to have the arts and culture as part of their place.
What it starts from in our region, with the richest musical heritage in England, is a belief that access to participating in arts and culture of the highest quality, in being creative, is everyone’s right. It is a driver and a measure of social inclusion. It cements communities which are far from the big cities; it epitomises democracy. This is what acts as a catalyst to further investment – making places attractive for people to live and work and for businesses to invest in. If the whole cultural sector, central and local government, civic society, communities and individuals – all of us – put culture at the heart of place we can aspire to a more inclusive society where places do not define us, they make us.
As we make the case at national level, the power of the case is across the country –it’s specific in each individual place, but what each place has in common is the value brought for individuals, the potential it releases in communities and the society and identity it creates. Which brings be back to our visitors, to our comet and our snake. We can choose doom, or we can choose to be energised by the prospect of rebirth and regeneration.