On one of the first chilly, autumnal Saturdays of the year a discussion event entitled ‘Creating a Cultural Corridor: the future of the Arts in the North of England?’ was held in the architecturally palindromic Pyramid and Parr Hall, Warrington. This event had been staged as part of the Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival, a programme of exhibitions, pavilions and performances that is currently underway in the town until October 31. Taking the form of a panel discussion, six curators and directors of institutions and publications based roughly in the North of England were invited to respond to four ‘provocations’ given by the chair. This focus on time-limited provocation rather than in depth discussion is indicative of the attitude of the festival as a whole, and although delivered good naturedly, the outcomes of this event, or lack thereof question its usefulness.
For the first time this year Warrington Contemporary has been delivered in partnership with a new initiative, NORTH, organised by curator William Lunn and Derek Dick of Culture Warrington, and consists of pavilions curated by invited galleries and curatorial collectives from various cities around the North, along with Birmingham as a slightly more southerly addition. The pavilions are presented alongside two themed ‘focus’ exhibitions, THE DREAM OF MODERN LIVING? – contemporary artists respond to IKEA curated by Paul Carey-Kent and Business as Usual, a project by artist Perce Jerrom, both of which invoke the spectre of marketing and mass production in relation to art and design. The aims of NORTH are to showcase, explore and (of course) provoke the contemporary arts community within the region. These are wide, nebulous aims and given the seeming confusion around the make-up and boundaries of the region itself it isn’t easy to work out whether the festival has been successful on these counts. This imprecision is echoed in the title and structure of the ‘Creating a Cultural Corridor’ panel discussion, and belies an orientation towards approximation at the expense of much needed rigour.
The conversations that take place over the course of the event meander around many well worn topics related to the support and promotion of contemporary art being made in the North, giving the impression that each of the speakers are reiterating points that they have made frequently before, and have as such been honed into stony contentions that cannot be easily chipped away at. The panel are led to muse on the extent to which institutions should and can support artist-led activity and whether a commercial art scene is essential, or even possible with a dearth of collectors. These points seem more like self-evident realities than questions requiring answers, and this is largely how they were dealt with by the panel. The speakers present all seem to broadly agree that yes, institutions should show artists from their local vicinity, but only if they’re really good, and of course commercial galleries are important, but can only exist with collectors. Perhaps now we need to move beyond the What and the Why, and use the opportunities offered by events like this to approach the How.
There was only one provocation given that began to approach the ‘Corridor’ specified in the event’s title, and this was the first: “Do terms like regional and local weaken the arts?” As part of the panel’s joint response, Stephen Snoddy of New Art Gallery, Walsall, raised the criticism that London-based curators and artists do not tend to travel outside of the capital to attend exhibition openings and events. This was used as a reason, if not justification, for Northern institutions grasping the Northern Powerhouse identity in order to appear attractive to those living outside of the region. Eleanor Clayton, curator at The Hepworth, Wakefield, on the other hand, pointed to the way that the idea of regionality is peculiarly British and can be reductive. In line with this, Adam Smythe, the newly appointed curator of The Bluecoat, Liverpool, called for a focus on supporting the confidence of the art scene in a city, rather than promoting a regional identity. These differing yet overlapping responses point to a recurring issue throughout the event, and one that often plagues talks of this kind. There was an on going and frequent changing of registers, shifting between discussing the experienced realities of running an institution or gallery in the North, and pointing with hope and inspirational language to the way that things ought to be. This was probably due to a lack of time, but means that the points made seem shallow, and the participants struggle to offer anything new.
Whilst it was pointed to from a distance, or leant towards on occasion, the pressing issue that is most relevant to a concept of a Northern ‘Cultural Corridor’ was left largely undiscussed during this event; that of transport and travel between the cities and towns of the north, the UK as a whole and outwards towards Europe. The term corridor is plucked directly from the terminology of transport, referring to the trans-Pennine corridor of the M62 motorway, that cuts horizontally across the country, linking Liverpool in the West to Hull in the East, via Manchester, Leeds and all of the towns and rural areas in between. As such, the corridor already exists, and the use of the term corridor here creates a clear link between the provision for transport in the North, and that for art, but this conflation is left unexamined, assumed and secondary, rather than being offered as the focus. It is relevant to note here the origins of Corridor8 in its print version, and the aims of the founders in exploring and promoting the idea of a Northern Cultural Corridor built on robust transport infrastructure. The first edition, Corridor8 #1, featured a piece of writing by Iain Sinclair that was a reaction to architect Will Alsop’s concept of a linear trans-Pennine super-city. A decade ago, in 2005, an exhibition was held at Urbis (now the National Football Museum) that explored and visualised this idea. Alsop’s argument stemmed from a criticism of the ways that new housing estates and suburbs are planned and constructed, leading to them feeling like non-places that are not really part of the City that they are linked to, and as such suffer from a lack of identity. His solution was to suggest that linear super-cities could be formed, using innovative utopian architecture, along existing transport routes, one of these being the trans-Pennine corridor. Sinclair disagrees, seeing these plans as laughable millennial pipedreams that, if anything, detract from the sense of place inherent in Northern towns, cities and rural areas. In a 2011 interview in The Quietus, Sinclair cites these kinds of projects as examples of huge investments that failed miserably: “What happened with all the millennial projects has been obscured. They fell apart so quickly. Everybody knows about the rock museum in Sheffield [the £15 million National Centre for Popular Music]…has become literally a bar for the students’ union. A very expensive bar. And Urbis in Manchester, which I visited – this huge, meaningless glacier-like building that appears overnight, categorically ‘not going to be a museum’, and ends up abandoned.”
Later in the discussion Laura Robertson, Founder and Editor in Chief of The Double Negative, appealed to the idea that travel between cities is essential for the career development of emerging artists, curators and gallerists, echoing the point made by Laurence Lane of the Salford-based gallery The International 3, that it is important to the development of excellent work for artists to see a wide range of other new work. These are points that it is easy to agree with, but again there was not enough time to raise and deal with the more general issues of cost and time that often preclude travel between the cities of the North, and which don’t just affect creative practitioners. As widespread cuts to the Arts continue to force changes in the ways that artists and curators think about their practices and careers, and refurbished ex-tube stock from London is bought by the private operators of Northern train companies in order to bulk out their overcrowded services, the concept of a Northern ‘Cultural Corridor’ is ripe for a realistic and focussed discussion that faces up to the logistical barriers that have so far prevented its’ realisation.
Recently the idea was raised by the directors of Islington Mill, Salford and then carried forward to the Arts Council of an artists railcard, similar to a student or young persons railcard, that would make it significantly more affordable for practitioners based in one city to attend previews and events in another, such as the recent British Art Show launch in Leeds. Just pointing this out, however, amounts to much the same as saying that it’s good to go to other cities. It takes concerted organised effort and campaigning to even raise enough awareness of this simple, specific idea for it get anywhere near becoming a reality. During the discussion in Warrington it was noted that the large publicly funded institutions in the North do already have links with train operators that are used for offering reduced or free travel to critics. How then, could train operators be convinced that it is just as essential for artists to traverse the region, as it is for critics to travel here from London, and who’s voice has the authority to make the point?
An example of where an idea of this ilk has achieved a level of momentum, if not outright success, is the Paying Artists Campaign. Instigated and promoted by A-N, the artists information company, and using statistics outlining the economic contribution of the arts, this campaign argues that it is to the wider benefit of society to remunerate artists that exhibit in publicly funded spaces. Launched in May 2014, Paying Artists clearly and concisely outlines the steps that need to be taken in order to make its aims a reality, and is a heartening advancement beyond reiterating the fact that it would be good if artists were paid. Similarly, whilst it is undoubtedly good to travel and good to network, the reality is that for creative practitioners without a regular income the ever-rising costs of public transport, and the slow journeys between relatively close cities around the North are a real barrier that cannot always be overcome through sheer force of will. It would be interesting, then, to see what conclusions could be reached, and plans hatched during a discussion on the formation of a Northern ‘Cultural Corridor’ with a strict focus on the corridor itself.
Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival in partnership with NORTH, venues around Warrington.
2 October 2015 – 31 October 2015
This article has been commissioned by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North West (CVAN NW), as part of a regional critical writing development programme, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England — see more here
Image courtesy of NORTH Contemporary.