If you look at the list of 200 Arts Council-sponsored organisations who have had their entire funding withdrawn, you’ll notice one very conspicuous absence. Those slashed range from long-established theatres like the Newcastle Theatre Royal to community music groups like Sound It Out in the West Midlands, from film producers like onedotzero to publishers like Proboscis – but you won’t find one example of a very particular kind of arts organisation, that is, of the Blairite grand projects of the 1997-2010 period.
One of the “big ideas” of the New Labour “vision” was a new kind of spectacle culture, where the arts would be consumed in dramatic showpiece buildings. Every big British city can boast one, almost invariably built on former industrial land – on the site of, or using the shell of, a mill, a warehouse, a factory or a dock. You could date this move as early as Michael Heseltine’s “Garden Festivals”, designed to bring festivity and commerce to riot-torn British cities in the early 1980s, but in their current incarnation they come from an experiment in the post-industrial Basque capital of Bilbao, which staked large quantities of capital paying American “starchitect” Frank Gehry to design a branch of the Guggenheim Museum on the city’s waterfront.
The immediate success of Gehry’s curvaceous, titanium-clad effort in bringing tourism and service industry jobs led to a plethora of imitations all over Europe, most of all in Britain. Think of the Baltic and the Sage in Gateshead, the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, the Millennium Dome/O2 in London, @Bristol in Bristol, Urbis in Manchester, the Lowry in Salford, The Deep in Hull, Glasgow Science Centre, Millennium Point in Birmingham, The Public in West Bromwich. The names so often say it all. In Bilbao and other EU cities municipal governments also built metro systems to accompany the galleries, but our privatised public transport companies haven’t managed to cope with that.
Sometimes these were serious, non-patronising additions to the industrial townscape – the excellent New Art Gallery in Walsall or Nottingham Contemporary spring to mind – but all of them served a similar role as Trojan horses for “regeneration”, that quasi-religious term for gentrification. The best of these new galleries or the worst of the new interactive entertainment hangars provided the specific economic role of making an area safe for the middle classes, and many are surrounded by blocks of speculative “luxury flats”. The arts were a trade-off, a way of both offsetting and sponsoring the Blairite property boom. Take how the Laban Centre in Deptford, a dance school and performance space on a post-industrial Creekside, is now surrounded by new blocks of “stunning developments” – which, their advertising notes, are both “inspired by dance” and sponsored by RBS.
Many of these schemes were hugely expensive, and some have been only semi-occupied. One very high profile example went to the wall within a couple of years – Sheffield’s misbegotten National Centre for Popular Music. But all of them have managed to survive the cull largely unscathed. Might this have something to do with the role they have played in the privatisation of inner cities?
To get some idea of the sort of organisations that have suffered, try Side Gallery in Newcastle. This is a documentary photography gallery that also runs the film production company Amber Films. Its work is often strongly politicised, frequently dealing with the corruptions and conflicts of local political history. It is run as a collective. The latter was specifically named by the Arts Council as a reason for withholding funding. The Arts Council in its wisdom could not ascertain “who runs” the gallery, and considered its non-hierarchical structure inherently suspicious. Small activist-run places are left to disappear, while the gigantic Sage and Baltic over the river, with their cluster of luxury flats behind, will survive.
Similarly, in London, in the midst of the buckets of money thrown at the Olympics, one organisation to have completely lost its means of funding is Mute, a left wing art and theory magazine and publisher. Given that the same magazine has spent the last decade fiercely critiquing the ideology of “urban regeneration”, it’s hard not to imagine this move as a stroppy retaliation against the feeding hand getting bitten. Both Side and Mute favoured culture being produced from below. It’s perhaps unsurprising that they are among the coalition’s first casualties, while the lucrative flagships of culture as spectacle endure.
Owen Hatherley’s latest book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, is published by Verso
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