In 2014, following the announcement of Anthony Gormley’s knighthood, a visitor to BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art remarked to me that the artist ‘ought to be locked up’. This was a startling reaction, especially given that Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ (1998) looms over Tyneside as a monument to Gateshead’s urban renaissance. Its local embrace was, I thought, largely reciprocal and its message still relevant. Then why the hostility? I don’t believe it was due to an aesthetic judgement or a serious call for artistic censorship, but rather a rejection of the sculpture’s symbolic import. The commissioning and installation of the Angel signalled an economic shift from production to consumption, and the end of an era of social organisation that centred around Northern industry.
Alongside public art commissions, the contemporary art institution has emerged as a familiar component of post-industrial Northern urban environments. The red brick Victorian civic museum, with all its civilising intent, has found a distant relative in the glossy, branded veneers of the art galleries and museums that now populate docklands and waterfronts. The genealogy of these art institutions can be seen in the repurposed industrial buildings they inhabit, such as in Tate Liverpool and BALTIC, and through the collections they hold such as in Hepworth Wakefield. Importantly though, these sites have come to represent a regional and national commitment to accessibility in the arts and the potential for cultural activity to have a positive social impact.
The threat of cuts and closure currently hanging over many cultural organisations, and the reappraisal of the value of such spaces, has prompted a rallying cry from the art world. The force and clarity of this defence could easily be interpreted as consensus, but the relationship between public galleries and the publics they serve is complex. The romantic notions of the artist-as-genius, culture as a pure public good or a civilising force, and artistic value as transcendent, are as resilient as they are incompatible with current approaches to cultural policy making. There is a parallel narrative to contemporary art institutions’ activities; they are deployed as economic stimuli and drivers of social inclusion, and as places of cultural discourse. The nature and identity of these institutions is inevitably influenced and obfuscated by these dual activities, prompting an array of perceptions regarding the function of contemporary art institutions in urban spaces.
Cultural activity is often used as a mechanism for reshaping local economies. This can be understood through the theory and policy of the ‘culture industry’, first coined by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). But while they warned of the dangers of linking the material value of industry with the symbolic value of art and culture, the term has since been distorted and co-opted into the nomenclature of neoliberal policy, often used interchangeably with ‘the creative industries’. Accusations of elitism have dogged Adorno and Horkheimer’s initial definition, on the basis that industrial production and mass cultural consumption could provide a challenge to class-based, hierarchical conceptions of arts and culture. This has led to our contemporary notion of the culture industry/creative industries and their active incorporation into political discourse.
The socio-economic, or instrumental, rationale of cultural and creative industries policies has been a key driver of culture-led regeneration, leading to many regions attempting to emulate the ‘Bilbao effect’. The 1997 opening of the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao represented some of the best outcomes of public cultural investment. However, it is debatable whether Bilbao can function as a blueprint or an anomaly. Its success relies on its costly blend of internationally applauded architecture, a significant acquisition fund and access to the collection and administrative resources of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Gateshead, Liverpool and Wakefield are examples of urban areas in various stages of regeneration initiatives that echo Bilbao, but reflect the opportunities and constraints of their resources and location. Modern and contemporary art institutions such as BALTIC, Tate Liverpool and the Hepworth Wakefield form centrepieces of the regions’ cultural offer. There are also distinct differences in their approaches to balancing their dual functions as a socio-economic stimulus and as an internationally recognised platform for the visual arts.
Firstly, their exhibition programmes are distinct. Tate Liverpool draws on the considerable Tate collection and displays exhibitions of key figures and movements from twentieth-century modernism. The Hepworth Wakefield holds seldom seen works by Barbara Hepworth and Wakefield’s civic collection. They both compliment these with temporary exhibitions of national and international contemporary artists. BALTIC houses temporary exhibitions by internationally recognised artists. These institutions also play a key role through major commissions and competitions such as the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture and the forthcoming BALTIC Artist’s Award, and by participating in art fairs such as the Liverpool Biennial, or expositions such as the Great Exhibition of the North, a two-month exhibition of art, design and innovation to be hosted by Newcastle and Gateshead in 2018. The £5 million exhibition was announced as part of George Osbourne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiative, demonstrating the enduring political interest in cultural funding, in spite of public sector cuts.
But does this diverse cultural offer stimulate local economies and promote social mobility? The answer is unclear. There are no agreed upon metrics to measure the social impact of cultural institutions. Wakefield council stated that in the first year of opening (2011) the Hepworth Wakefield brought in £10 million to the local economy (Wakefield Council, 2012). There are similar justifications for cultural investment in Gateshead. In 2015-2016, the Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues (NGCV) reported that for every £1 of public money invested in NGCV, there was a return on investment of £4.61 (NGCV Annual Economic Assessment, 2016). These figures illustrate some positive impacts of cultural funding, however, quantitative data is limited in what it can reveal about the value of culture. The complex issues of production, provenance, authorship and display in visual art means that notions of value can be amorphous, elusive and misleading. Whilst the economic impact of cultural funding is important, it should not overshadow the complex role that cultural institutions have locally, nationally and internationally.
However, there are still unresolved issues of participation and whether access to art and culture can address social inequality. The North East, Yorkshire and Humberside have the lowest regional participation and attendance to arts events and exhibitions in the country (Taking Part Survey, DCMS, 2016). The North West sees more participation, but is still below the national average (ibid). Low participation largely correlates with lower socio-economic status, with other factors such as education and age also playing a role. The proportion of people living below the poverty line has dropped slightly in the North East and has remained static in the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside from 2002-2015. In 2015, all of these regions was 22% of their populations living below the poverty line (Households Below Average Income, Department for Work and Pensions, 2016).
A fundamental problem with cultural and creative industries policy is that it asks organisations to address deeply embedded social problems such as inequality. Cultural institutions can be a product and process of positive social change, but they cannot do so swimming against the tide of slashed local authority budgets, disappearing front-line services and the privatisation of the public realm. The outreach and education strategies that the BALTIC, Hepworth and Tate employ are an important aspect of the civic function of public organisations, and arguably make them an increasingly important part of public infrastructure.
Tate Liverpool actively engages with individuals and groups disengaged from arts participation in the North West, and BALTIC has proved to be an important case study for education and interpretation approaches for a variety of audiences. It has a public art book library and facilitates an MFA course in partnership with Northumbria University. Hepworth Wakefield has used public consultation processes to develop its interpretive approach and education strategies, ensuring that the gallery continues to represent the community it is a part of. It is important that cultural policy makers recognise that these key functions do not always yield quantifiable results. Rather, they demonstrate the fact that galleries and museums have become focal points for cultural and civic participation.
A criticism that has been levelled at contemporary art organisations is that their concern with the globalised culture industry usurps their local, public function. Jonathan Vickery, writing for the journal Made in 2011 stated that, ‘the ‘art world’ and its national sponsors are once-removed from “the city”, whose economic life and intellectual discourse are not embedded within it – however much they benefit from its cultural facilities, platforms or locations’. He suggests that there is not a symbiotic relationship between the ‘art world’ and local communities, however, the BALTIC, Hepworth and Tate Liverpool initiatives suggest that this is not wholly true.
The long-term impact of these cultural policy developments in the North of England has yet to be seen and fully grasped. They are evolved from relatively recent conceptions of the ‘culture industry’, marking a shift from rigid and hierarchical conceptions of art to broad and amorphous notions of culture. Whilst this has had a positive impact in terms of accessibility and participation in the arts, cultural policy has increasingly been conceived as a surrogate form of social and economic policy. As the form and function of distinctive types of policy have become blurred, so have definitions of public and private space, citizens and consumers.
In this liminal space lies unresolved issues of value, identity and function. During his time as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt spoke of museums and galleries attracting the ‘cultural consumer of tomorrow’. This is a restrictive and portentous view of the future role of cultural institutions. The vitality and reach of arts and culture will only increase if the public are not simply seen as cultural consumers, but as participants, creators and agents of cultural value.
Tom Hopkin is a postgraduate research student in the department of Media, Culture, Heritage at Newcastle University.