Valentine’s Day came around again this week. The shops and the Web were full of love…for some lucky people.
I do not like this day. The only valentines I have ever had have been from friends who wanted to console me for never having a romantic valentine…oh, and one that was theoretically for me but I never believed was (and, in retrospect, I think my doubts were correct). Valentine’s Day is usually just a reminder of how romance has steered clear of me.
My love of culture has sustained me through the years and, appropriately for the week, one of the big public culture events of the year was also happening: the Arts Council for England’s State of the Arts conference. Consequently, there was much discussion about the state of arts and culture policy (or lack thereof) in my tweetstream. I also saw a number of tweets from people at the conference indicating that they felt some passion for culture was missing from the conference. It was probably just as well that I could not go to the event.
I am dismayed and angry at times when even the people who work within culture in the UK are defeatist in tone when discussing its importance. Yes, it can be difficult to be positive and rational when culture comes under such constant attack in the public sphere. Yes, it is frustrating to have to try to ‘prove’ its value constantly. Banks, car manufacturers and the construction industry do not seem to be under the same pressure to argue for their right to exist, even when they are struggling to keep going. Surely we love our culture and our communities enough to keep encouraging others to understand?
Last night, I was at the second of three workshops about local people getting involved with future planning issues relating to a specific area. The idea is that there will be a group of residents, people who work in the area, and other interested people who live nearby and visit frequently, who can look at developer’s proposals with an informed eye. It is an area with a special character, not quaint in a traditional sense but with a long industrial past. It has become increasingly diverse with a vibrant creative spirit in amongst current industry; green areas rich with wildlife (kingfishers have been seen along the river); and the sound of bands echoing off cobbled streets and walls covered in lively spray-painted art. There are an increasing number of buildings that have been converted into studios for artists, craftspeople, architects, designers and other creative businesses.
The talks at last night’s workshop were about how quality of design can be assessed in more objective ways. Infographics showing how people worked better and crime was less in well-designed places showed us the bright possibilities when design works well. People are healthier, work and study better when they have good quality culture. One study showed that psychiatric patients recover faster in a well-designed building. Love of a well-designed environment can help communities to form and be sustainable. This is not a new idea, of course. Idealists have been building places that would function better, look better, and foster community love, for hundreds of years.
Something that I had noticed at an initial project meeting was the enthusiasm that people generally had for the street art in the area. There are several locations where building owners have given permission for their walls to be covered in art. One building has a notice on it with a polite request that street artists do not paste on or paint certain parts of the building. This seems to have been respected, and there are two good pieces pasted on temporary window covers on it. It is this kind of response that makes me hope that culture and community love will continue to make that area very special.
People (especially, it seems, politicians) underestimate how much culture is the glue that keeps society together. The North East has been using culture for decades as a means to stop decline of post-industrial areas and to kickstart regeneration. Sometimes the culture initiatives come from the community, sometimes they are led by the local authorities or the universities. Some extraordinary love of culture has become apparent.
If you get a chance, go and see the Pitmen Painters play (it may cause a tear in the eye), or read the book by William Feaver, and go to see the pitmen’s paintings. They wanted to study art. They learned through painting and documented their own community along the way.
At the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, the Turner Prize show came to the Baltic for the first time. The queues for it were lengthy, the audience very varied. There was even a long queue to see it on the last weekend. One of the local newspapers, The Journal, could not disguise its trumphant tone: “Turner Prize visitor figures at Baltic put London to shame.” Not all the record-breaking number of visitors were from the North East, but many were. The North East needs more of these major contemporary exhibitions. There was an immense sense of pride that the North East was hosting one of the big annual visual arts events. It is a pity that the North East does not have something like the John Moores Painting Prize because there would almost certainly be an enthusiastic audience for such a show.
The North East retained a remarkably relatively positive attitude through decades of industrial decline in the 20th century. It is an area with a very strong regional cultural identity that goes way beyond the sentimental stereotype of the flat-capped bloke who is accompanied to allotment and pub by his whippet. It is an area that also embraces national and international culture, from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Tall Ships Race and everything in between. There is a warm spirit in the crowd, a sense of community, at such events.
For a culture professional, the best place to live is London because it has most of the best culture jobs in the UK. The love of culture in the rest of the country is at least as strong, however, and helps to sustain through the difficult times and to rebuild or remodel commnunities as circumstances change. Culture is about people. Love culture, love communities. That sounds like idealistic, sentimental mush but is, in fact, a true love that works.