Perhaps cognisant of appearing opportunist, and no doubt articulately lobbied about the potential of the Creative Economy, Osborne recently pledged £78m for The Factory, a brand new cultural centre on the old Granada Studios site that will provide a permanent home for the biannual Manchester International Festival. So much for austerity. Eyebrows were raised, to say the least, in the cultural sector, and not least in other large northern cities which questioned yet further investment in Manchester and in bricks-and-mortar, particularly considering the long-awaited launch of the £25m new multi-arts centre Home in April, which will undoubtedly confirm Manchester as the most significant artistic hub outside of London.
It is a well known fact in arts fundraising circles that people give money to people, not necessarily to organisations. The same truism is not so widely nor openly acknowledged in cultural policy circles. But politicians and civil servants notoriously fund their pet projects, and this applies as much to the arts and culture as it does to other areas of public funding. So let’s be clear: cultural investment in Manchester from central Government is not about creating a “cultural powerhouse” in the North; it is about being perceived to take the North seriously and perhaps a small attempt to right the wrongs so openly exposed in the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Arts Council England’s geographical distribution of funding.
Maria Balshaw, Director of the Whitworth Gallery, argues that Manchester has two great strengths: strong and stable leadership and a culture of collaboration. I would add a third: a powerful council that recognises the intrinsic and instrumental benefits of the arts and culture and places them at the heart of its strategy for growth. Manchester City Council certainly plays on its size and location to prize investment from Central Government, but it puts its money where its mouth is in terms of investing itself in the arts, even in the most difficult of times. However, as critics of the Creative Industries (and now Creative Economy) agenda point out, investment in the arts is just one tool in the urban regeneration toolkit and it often comes at the expense of rural and working class communities who choose or are forced to live outside these sparkling new gentrified cities.
The overwhelming success of new national touring arts organisations such as National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre Wales demonstrates that healthy national infrastructures require creative modes of investment, new business models that prioritise the making of and engagement with art rather than the buildings that merely house it. While exciting and laudable on one level, the problem with large urban development capital projects like the Whitworth and The Factory is that they suck up a significant amount of public funding that might otherwise be spent on art itself. This is partly a structural problem, as certain pockets of funding are often ring-fenced for capital projects: I was recently dismayed to read in Arts Professional that due to DCMS restrictions, Arts Council England had been forced to allocate a £6.5M underspend in its Capital Funding Budget to clearly non-urgent capital projects (albeit largely in the North).
On the back of the now infamous and ubiquitous Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital report, which pointed out that 11 times more per capita is spent on the arts in London than in the rest of England, there is finally a sense that some long overdue rebalancing might indeed take place. But the last thing the North of England needs at the moment is more white elephants. With companies like Red Ladder recently losing their regular funding, a more sustainable and creative rebalancing would focus on increasing funding levels for producing arts organisations based in the regions, so that they are less reliant on the paucity of touring work from London. Live streaming is all well and good, but it is no substitute for home-grown work, produced and performed live for local people.
So the key question is perhaps what a northern cultural powerhouse might actually look like. In Leeds, we are lucky enough to benefit from a critical mass of top class producing arts organisations, including Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Northern Ballet. The city has also been named as a national centre of excellence for dance, partly thanks to the legacy of well established producing companies like Phoenix Dance Theatre, the ground-breaking outreach and education work of Community Interest Companies like Dance United Yorkshire and the strategic support and infrastructure provided by Yorkshire Dance. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, there is a growing critical mass of innovative, high profile companies such as Slung Low, Unlimited Theatre, The Paper Birds and RashDash as well as a healthy emerging and underground arts scene. This all makes for a healthy (if of course sometimes fractious) creative ecology. In order to build upon this ecology and replicate it across the North of England let’s hope that these five powerful cities can collaborate to make the collective case for increased subsidy of artistic and cultural production. After all, it is artists, audiences and communities that generate culture and creativity, not flagship (and often empty) buildings.