Tag Archives: culture

Without grassroots, independent culture there is no culture

Without grassroots, independent culture there is no culture. And without culture, there’s a gaping hole in our economy and society.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, I have had a continuous, resounding, repeating anxiety when it comes to thinking about our cultural sector (when I say culture, I mean nightlife, pubs, clubs, restaurants, festivals and the arts).
My fear has been this – “What if only the strong survive?”

Polar Bear in Hull

I’ve spent a long time leading, investigating, thinking about and being a part of regeneration projects, creative development and innovation. I’ve seen the big masterplans for city regeneration, the £30 million “knock the old structures down” designs and the development corporation’s “build the business park and they will come” ideas. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. We do and will always need the big top down approaches, but what nearly always works, anywhere, across the globe from Bilbao to Brixton, Belfast to Berlin is culture and cultural regeneration.

I have come to believe that the most important players in any economy but particularly within our cultural economy are the small, the independent and often grassroots businesses. They are the innovators and the entrepreneurs. You know the ones, the arts venue built with love and a bit of MDF, the street food business that trawled the streets for years before getting its first shop, the micro-pub that is now the semi-permanent home of both your best friend and your favourite Gin/locally brewed beer. It’s the theatre in a disused building that brought you the play that then headlined at Edinburgh. It’s the old pub that your heroes played in when they were nobodies and the place most of us still gig in, whilst trying to ‘make it’. Basically – the soul of towns and villages and cities.

The ‘who we are’ of Great Britain, not the ‘what we are’ or ‘what we produce’  The character, the personality and the heartbeat of the places we love and call home.

Let’s look at the numbers: hospitality employs 3.2 million people, produces £130 billion towards GDP every year. The cultural and creative sector produces £10.8billion a year to the UK economy and generates a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs. When the Hospitality Union started calling for support early on in the Covid crisis, estimating 2 million jobs could be lost UK wide, I was one of the first in the North East to join their call, and I coordinated a North East response via Food and Drink North East. We got some of what we asked for but not all. When the Venues Trust and Music Trust launched their campaign for a cultural rescue plan, I quickly backed their call and added my voice to their campaign. I was pleased the government responded; but, just like so many interventions in the government’s response to the crisis, they have been slow and geared towards the big companies.

When I heard just this week about the closure of The Welly and Polar Bear in Hull, and Gorilla and the Deaf Institute in Manchester, my heart sank and my anxieties heightened. When I heard the silent mutterings about a known and loved eatery desperately worried they won’t earn back their Covid Crisis loan and unsure of how to keep their landlord at bay, I felt deeply uneasy. You see, to me, the big institutions and the multi-nationals stand on the shoulders of our small independent businesses. They come because someone came before – big corporations are rarely the pioneers, they often aren’t the risk takers and rarely are they the creators and innovators. But for a place to thrive you need all of these things. So whatever is done, at a local, regional and national level, if we don’t favour the small, if we don’t write policies with them in mind, then we may as well say goodbye to all that makes us strong. To all that makes us, us.

But the problem is, the Conservatives rarely seem to favour the small, they don’t tend to make decisions with the little guy in mind. Just look at some of their recent controversies in the Jenrick cash for favours or the type of schemes and companies being supported by our current Conservative Tees Valley Mayor. It’s the big, the flashy, the mate of the mate of at the £50,000 fundraising dinner, the headline winning proposal that has more gloss than grit. But I have come to expect little less. They are after all a party funded by the big, the rich and the powerful. They pay lip service to the small and sometimes they do ok, throwing a little cash about here and there, but when it comes down to it, when the rubber hits the road, will it be Joe’s Gin Bar and Lula’s DIY music hall that weathers the storm and gets their support, or will it be the Multi-national land owner who is second cousin of the PM? I hope I am wrong but the signs so far say we stand on shaky ground.

Discovering Teessides Cultural Scene

Teesside has creativity and culture coming out of its ears. But it seems only a few people know about it. Just like many other great things happening in the region, it is hidden, underground and away from the main-stream. This is probably one of its greatest strengths but also its biggest weakness. The sector has this gritty grassroots edginess, a non-commercialised character and a group of passionate people connected to it, giving their all and usually living off less than a minimum wage just for the love of it. But these people are also often on their own, unknown, undiscovered, disconnected and disillusioned. Our artists live down dark alleys, in empty office blocks, in the back of old pubs or the corner of some quirky coffee shop.

Our artists live down dark alleys, in empty office blocks, in the back of old pubs or the corner of some quirky coffee shop.

Yes some of them make it to the what’s on guide of the Georgian Theatre or walls of Arc but for the most part they are hidden.

When I started my Teesside regeneration journey, I went first to the churches and then I went to the artists. I remember walking into a conversation in The Georgian Theatre organised by some cultural activists from Leeds. I was pleasantly surprised to find around 60 artists and cultural practitioners there, all passionate about our region, about culture and about creativity. For years they had been finding ways to exist and create and perform amongst the backdrop of recession, austerity and apathy.

I was excited about this underground world I had discovered and wanted to find a way to shine a light on it and to show them that Stockton loved them. I started a blog and social media movement called www.ilovestockton.me. Using on-line platforms, the idea was to celebrate the richness of our cultural and creative activities and get people talking about and engaging with it a little more. It began to take off; people started following us and liking and hashtagging us and a buzz began about our town. But in all honesty, there was too much to write about.

Currently there are so many activities happening that I could do with some help. Last month I discovered Keren & Bobbie, two Teesside Uni graduates students putting on art shows in unusual spaces. They’ve now opened up their own Gallery, ‘House of Blah Blah’ in Middlesbrough which launched its new exhibition last night. This month I met Laura from ‘Writers Block’ who supports writers to improve their craft and reconnected with Stephen Irving who is discovering new and emerging urban artists from around the region.

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I know if the whole of Teesside gets behind our creatives, maybe we could really put these people and this place on the map. I’d like people to come with me on this journey of cultural discovery. Go visit an art gallery, book to see a play, buy some local art, take part in a poetry workshop. Use your facebook and twitter and instagram to big it up and maybe together we can make Teesside’s cultural light shine brighter.