‘The North – a nebulously distinct place…’

Culture Forum North symposium, Howard Assembly Rooms, 24 May

The quote above is taken from the symposium’s opening remarks by Alistair Hudson, Director of Middlesbrough’s mima and CFN’s Chair, at its first symposium in Leeds on Tuesday. A grand gathering of folk from the HE and arts/culture sectors came together to debate the virtues and potential pitfalls of working together more closely, and of course many such partnerships already exist – not least between Opera North, host for the day’s events, and the University of Leeds just up the road.

Culture Forum North is an open network of partnerships between Higher Education and the cultural sector across the North, and it turns out we’re already doing it rather better than colleagues elsewhere, apparently. The Forum aims to achieve impact beyond these individual partnerships however, in order to make a difference to society at a regional and national level. Three key agendas dominate: Research (how to make it meaningful); Creative Careers (how we can shape society through skills and learning); and Public Engagement (responding to the challenges and achieving impact). In an era where our Universities are becoming ‘civic institutions,’ Hudson wanted the audience to think about how the big social agendas are being set, and by whom: ‘Who’s telling the story?’

In his opener, Hudson described the two tribes, i.e. attendees from the HE and the culture sectors (he missed his opportunity to come on stage to the classic by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, a great northern band who emerged from Liverpool’s punk scene in the late 70s), as ‘two groups on either side of a dance hall’, a rather more polite analogy. This was a theme picked up by warm-up act Kate Fox, a stand-up poet with a lot of chutzpah, whose witty lines occasionally turned risqué as she riffed on ideas of what it is to be northern, and what partnership means (the risqué bit had to do with whether you spit or swallow).

Sir Peter Bazalgette was up next and used his keynote speech to demonstrate the richness of existing HE/culture partnerships across the North, and to argue that such partnerships are one of the ways in which the arts and culture sector is doing well at diversifying its funding streams in the post-cuts era. Whilst this is particularly true for larger NPOs, I’m not so sure that HE partnership offers any immediate answers elsewhere in the arts ecology. More on that later. However, on diversity there is still much to be done and Bazalgette urged the HE sector to do more to encourage ‘the cream of talent from every background’ into careers in the arts and culture – the ‘incubator for the creative industries.’

Andrew Thompson, CEO of the Arts and Humanities Research Council followed, and outlined how many arts and cultural organisations are already building significant research capacities of their own, it’s not just confined to our Universities. But he posed the intriguing question of whether we as a country understand why we’re good at creative economy, and noted that there is ‘more work to do to understand the role of research in the UK’s creative industries.’ Thompson echoed Bazalgette’s comments on diversity, urging that HE/culture partnerships embrace diversity as a source of creativity and place the arts and humanities at the forefront of this key conversation: ‘Diversity as opportunity, not just as obligation.’

Pat Connor, Head of Development and Events for BBC North, was the last of the three keynote speakers, and focused largely on ideas of placemaking and local identity. The BBC’s move north to Salford, five years ago now, was triggered in part by what used to be a stronger sense of public dissatisfaction with the work of the BBC the further north you went. The move aimed to close that gap, and Connor outlined how new programming engages with northern places and ‘authentic local voices.’ The Beeb seems to be putting its money where its mouth is on this, as Director General Tony Hall has announced that 2017 will be ‘unashamedly focused’ on Hull during its year as City of Culture.

A panel discussion followed, chaired by Jane Tarr, Head of Resilience for Arts Council England, with smaller group discussions during the afternoon session focusing on a myriad of related issues around aspects of strategic partnership working, as well as the vexed question of whether there is something that defines a concept of ‘The North’. On this, there was some discussion in the first session I attended (‘The idea of North: Making connections between the cultural research agendas coming out of the northern powerhouse’) about the ‘Great Exhibition of the North’. This was announced by the Chancellor in 2014 and will take place somewhere in the North in 2018. How that ‘somewhere’ will be determined is the contentious part: far from strengthening the idea of a northern powerhouse by facilitating collaborative working to unify cities across the north, those very cities have been thrown into a competitive bid process. Although some participants were constrained by what they could say publicly at this point, with a deadline for the bids approaching in June, it seems that Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield at least will be throwing their hats into the ring. Some local authorities have apparently written to central government to protest at the way this initiative has been handled, and at what could be seen as a deliberately divisive tendering process – the ‘divide and conquer’ approach. But hasn’t there been a missed opportunity for ‘The North’ collectively to demonstrate solidarity and steal a march on the northern powerhouse rhetoric by simply saying ‘no’, with one voice, and refusing to bid? Why is the North dancing to this tune?

In summary, the symposium offered an energizing day, and a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, that felt galvanizing to a group of passionate supporters of the value of Higher Education and the arts and culture. The day left no-one in any doubt as to the high stakes we’re all playing for at present. For me, there was no sense of a schism between the dance partners, just a tangible sense of urgency and a strong collegiate desire for meaningful partnership to generate real impact.

Partnership working was posited as the key to achieving real change and impact on a raft of critical issues including place making, diversity, cultural education and talent retention. There was challenge too. One of the most impassioned pleas was from Sharon Gill of ROAR (Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance). Her direct question to Peter Bazalgette after his keynote clearly invoked frustration born of a desire to nurture creativity in a place with a critical absence of infrastructure for the arts and culture. The local authority, although supportive, are unable to contribute financially, and existing businesses in the town can’t bring the match funding to bear that might catalyse public investment in capital development. Without physical venues in the town to perform and display work, talent and audiences can’t be nurtured and retained. Bazalgette asked whether Gill felt that Rotherham has the leadership it needs, someone who can stand up and articulate a strong vision for the place. In this way, Rotherham seems to present a clear opportunity for action research on the subject of HE partnership.

In his closing remarks, Dr Edward Harcourt, Pro-Vice Chancellor for External Engagement at Liverpool John Moores University, and CFN’s Vice-Chair, asked who wasn’t already in the room. This seemed a key question: although Harcourt noted the absence of local authorities and the corporate sector, as someone working primarily within the visual arts, the absence of small, grass-roots and artist-led organisations seemed particularly telling. With the exception of Castlefield Gallery (Director Kwong Lee led a discussion group on talent retention in the North), a strong aspect of the visual arts across the North was missing. Working within this sector over the last 20 years (it’s comprised of studio providers, galleries, roving curatorial projects, publishing etc) it’s sometimes frustrating that this group, with such extensive experience of nurturing creativity, isn’t at the table. Equivalent representatives from music, dance, theatre etc were likely missing too. The day’s discussions were mostly characterized by taking place at a high level between larger institutions. How can the voices of individual artists and practitioners, and very small organisations and groups, be brought into this conversation? What value and values do they hold that are relevant to the debate? They are a vital and characteristic part of the northern cultural ecology, which isn’t understood, celebrated or supported anywhere near well enough yet. How can partnership with HE come about where capacity is very low and everything’s geared towards daily survival, how could a conversation take place, and what could be the mutual benefits? Food for thought.

I’ll leave the last word to Kate Fox, whose excellent poem summing up the day’s events urged the room to ‘Risk a boogie in the Culture Forum North dance hall’. I’m in and I’m dancing, so long as Frankie is asking.

www.cultureforumnorth.co.uk