Can culture really save us?

This was my main contribution to Issue 2 of Post. The issue of culture led regeneration, and gentrification which is a closely related phenomenon, is something I’ve become very interested in recently. It’s particularly interesting to me having lived in places like Shoreditch and Brixton when I was in London, and in the North East of England where these issues are prominent.

Like most people I used to assume these kinds of processes were an obviously good thing, though having looked into it my view has changed entirely. Interestingly my current flat in Edinburgh has an original promotional poster for the 1990 Glasgow city of culture on the wall. When I first moved in I thought it was really cool advertisement for Glasgow (one of my favourite cities), whereas as I know see it as something akin to Soviet propaganda. I still like it though.

In writing this piece I was heavily influenced by a number of articles I read in a sadly now defunct magazine called Variant, an apparently anarchist-situationist Glaswegian magazine recommended to me by Tom Leonard. If you are interested in this sort of thing I highly recommend checking it out.

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When Hull was announced as the 2017 UK City of Culture in November last year it became the latest in a long line of attempts to use ‘culture’ as a tool for economic regeneration. The idea, whereby large scale investment in cultural projects is intended to rejuvenate under-developed areas and stimulate economic growth, has been a much tried technique the world over,  most famously in the ‘Bilbao effect’ of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. In the UK such projects can trace their roots at least as far back as Glasgow’s 1990 tenure as European City of Culture, and more recently in towns and cities including Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Dundee, Liverpool and recently Derry/Londonderry, the inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013. ‘Cultural Regeneration’ has proved a remarkably popular idea with planners the world over, but to what extent does it actually work? And what is the effect on ‘culture’?

The theory behind cultural regeneration fairly straightforward, and much of it can be found for example in the 2009 report from the UK City of Culture Working Group, led by famed television producer Phil Redmond. The report, which was commissioned by the New Labour government and led to the establishment of the UK City of Culture, stated that culture should be used as a ‘driver for economic benefits’ by developing tourism industries, promoting inward investment by improving a city’s image and by encouraging start-ups in the creative industries.

To this can be added the ideas of Richard Florida, the sociologist whose ‘creative class’ thesis has been central to global trends towards cultural regeneration. Florida’s idea is that 21st century economic growth will be driven by ideas, so in order to be successful cities and regions must compete to attract the ‘creative class’ of professionals who provide these ideas. Since this class tends to prefer to live in areas with strong cultural assets, cities must provide these assets in order to compete. So while historically cities, regions and even countries might compete to attract corporations, today the competition is for a cultural elite which in itself attracts investment. Government’s buying into this theory have tended to assume a ‘trickle-down’ effect of this process, whereby the wealth created by the creative class at the top of society will spill over to those at the bottom.

Using Florida’s framework it quickly becomes apparent that not every city can be a winner in the competition for creative talent, and the ‘successes’ of cultural regeneration have shown predictable variation. But even on its own terms the results of investing in culture have been decidedly mixed.

A study of the impact of the 2008 European Capital of Culture programme on Liverpool concluded that  the city received 9.7 million additional visits as a result, with an economic impact of £753.8 million from tourist spending. The programme was also said to have coincided with a substantial increase in hotel stock, with occupancy rates reaching 77% in 2008 compared to a North West average of just under 60%. Although the effect of being Capital of Culture began to decline after 2008 they remained higher than previous levels. Similar effects can be seen in other cases of cultural regeneration. It is, however, worth thinking about what these seemingly impressive figures translate into. The employment created by tourism spending is frequently low waged, including jobs such as cleaning and reception work, while larger hotels are frequently owned by large investments groups. The effect is that the greatest rewards of a cultural boom are unequally distributed, or somewhat ironically extracted from the region altogether.

This kind of inequality is a more general feature of culture led regeneration, with even Richard Florida acknowledging a strong correlation between creativity and inequality. In many ways it echoes more general trends in western economies in recent decades. As the geographer Jamie Peck has pointed out, ‘creative cities policies would hardly be spreading like wildfire if they represented a challenge to the neoliberal status quo’. At the same time cities are destined to find themselves locked in a race-to-the bottom, where any attempt to redress this imbalance risks their flight. Cities, regions, and even countries can be held hostage to these creative classes in much the same way as they are by footloose international business. This can be difficult to stomach when projects such as the Liverpool Capital of Culture programme are almost entirely publicly funded and ostensibly benign.

Cultural regeneration has other negative effects. Improving the image of an area often has the effect of raising property prices, triggering a process of gentrification that forces the local populations out of their homes. The Shoreditch area of central London is a classic example, associated as it was with the Young British Artists of the 1990’s and subsequently with 2000s hipster culture.
The economic effects of cultural regeneration are less positive than is frequently assumed, and a similar conclusion can be drawn with regards to its effect on culture itself. Public investment in cultural institutions and events is almost unanimously lauded, but the outcomes for culture itself are hard to gauge.

One uncomfortable truth is that investment in cultural regeneration can divert funds from elsewhere. In 2007 the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) opened its doors as a symbol of the Northern English regeneration. Several years down the line local residents are asking tough questions about why their libraries, community centres and lollipop ladies were being cut while money continues to be heavily invested in maintaining the £18 million gallery. The campaigners publicised their point by carrying out research suggesting that more than half of the gallery’s visitors entered the building to use its public toilets rather than view the artwork on display.

This hints at another concern, that the elitist and aspirational nature of these projects often excludes much of the local population. With projects often aimed at an economically productive cultural class there can be a tendency for those outside that elite to feel detached.  Although many of the new wave of cultural hubs are free of charge, they do not belong to the target audience. This is the reason why MIMA has failed to gain traction in Middlesbrough, one of the poorest parts of the UK, and why those from lower socio-economic groups were underrepresented in participation figures for Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture (34% of the audience were from lower socio-economic groups, despite making up 58% of Liverpool’s population).

At stake is the ability to determine what culture is, as cultural value is largely reduced to economic value. So long as cultural investment is aimed at attracting or appeasing those cultural or economic elites it is they who get to determine, if only indirectly, what cultural initiatives are worth investing in. Only those groups may fully participate, as those aspects of culture deemed economically inactive are neglected. At the same time, producers of uneconomic culture struggle to make a living, which has a negative impact on artistic diversity.

In the absence of alternatives it can be argued that the regeneration approach is better than nothing. In this sense the phenomenon coincides closely with more general trends in recent decades that have seen governments shift their attention away from providing services crucial services for the general population in favour of placating drivers of economic growth, be that corporations or the creative class.

Greater democratic participation in cultural bodies, featuring both artists and the general public, might help give the interests of those groups greater prominence. Such an approach was pioneered by the Polish collective Rewolucja Kulturalna when they created a manifesto to integrate artistic support with social welfare which among other things would act as a form of redistribution and help cultural producers of all kinds sustain themselves. In the younger democracies of Eastern and Central Europe, the cultural sector has come to fill an important role in the national picture, and maybe what the UK needs is fewer draughty monuments to the economic might of the state and a more equitable, decentralised cultural conversation.

This article was first published in Post Magazine Issue 2. You can buy or download the magazine here.

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