Don’t wait for the state…

This is a short blog post that I’ve written for the Crossovers blog, that we’ve been developing to help stimulate some debate before the Crossovers event on 19th September, which I’ll blog about later in the week.  The post is based loosely on a chapter that I’ve written for the new Routledge Handbook of Cultural Tourism, which is being published in January 2013, and it is about the future of cultural regeneration.


As public funding for both culture and tourism continues to shrink, and with the private sector feeling the effect of an extended period of economic gloom, it is easy to think that the long boom in cultural regeneration is over.  For two decades and more, cities and towns in Europe have been through cultural regeneration schemes of one sort or another, often focussed on high-profile, expensive new cultural icons.

 have cultural producers have bought into the cultural regeneration rhetoric?

The success stories that our attention is usually directed towards include Bilbao, Newcastle / Gateshead, Lille, Glasgow – cities that have used flagship cultural developments to help them grow their economies in response to decades of industrial change.

Right now, everywhere in Europe is facing the kinds of economic challenges that the regeneration schemes of the long boom were designed to tackle.  What role can the cultural sector play in meeting these challenges and who is going to pay for it?

We’ve heard for years how the cultural element of regeneration helps to promote things like community cohesion and sense of place, how it can address low aspirations and create new kinds of employment and educational opportunities, especially for young people, and how it can be used to re-brand and promote areas that are in need of investment, often through attracting high-spending cultural tourists.

What will be put to the test now is not whether civil servants and regeneration bureaucracies believe in the power of culture to achieve these things, or whether private sector investors understand the role of culture in attracting employers and employees to an area, but whether cultural producers have bought into the cultural regeneration rhetoric as much as policy-makers and funding bodies.

 is this the new model for cultural regeneration?

In Stokes Croft in Bristol, local activists and artists came together to improve and promote their neighbourhood, from the bottom up.  This meant working at street level with residents and visitors and not waiting for the state to step in with grants or the private sector to open a new shopping centre to attract tourists.  Stokes Croft designated itself as Bristol’s cultural quarter and over time has become known as a cultural tourist destination famous for its vibrant street-art scene and its energetic DIY culture.  Sometimes this brought it into conflict with the local authority; the recent protests against the opening of a Tesco in the area are a testament to its continuing anti-establishment stance.

What has happened in Stokes Croft show us that the positive impacts of cultural regeneration can be achieved by cultural producers, activists and others working together as a community, without the need for masterplans, grants, public-private partnerships or consultants.    We’ve seen this approach being taken in cities across the world from Berlin to London to New York, but historically the developers move in and start buying things up once an area becomes ‘successful’.

Now the developers are keeping their hand in their pockets, is this the new model for cultural regeneration?

Beyond angels, elephants, good intentions and red-nose rebellion

Ixia , the public art think tank, have produced some great stuff on public art, and this event has the best name I’ve come across for an event in a long time. On top of all that, it’s free!

Future Visions

The very talented Rachel Holland, eco-stylist and founder of La Luminata, the sustainable design and trends online magazine, has published a book called ‘Future Visions’.  This contains  “A view of the future from some of today’s top blogger’s, trendwatchers, artists, designers, philosophers, experts and free-thinkers in the eco world”.

20 individuals have contributed their observations on the state of eco design, fashion and society and Rachel has put these together as a set of views on the future in a beautifully designed book.

You can view a preview of the book online here, where you can also order copies.  If you click on the image of the front cover below, you can go straight through to a lovely digital version of the book.

My contribution to the book is on page 17 and is heavily indebted to Mike Davis’ latest writing about the ‘ecological genius of cities’ in the New Left Review and recent actions by the Climate Camp group in the UK.

As seen on TV….

I will be part of a panel on the South-East section of BBC 1’s ‘the politics show’ on Sunday 23rd November, discussing the role of cultural projects in the regeneration of seaside towns.  The show will be broadcast live between 12.30 and 1pm from Margate, ahead of the ground-breaking ceremony for the controversial Turner Contemporary gallery that will be constructed in the Kentish resort.  If you are not in the South-East, you can view the show after it has been broadcast via their website.


New writing at ixia

Over on the ixia website there are three new essays on public art, commissioned by Sophie Hope.  Of particular interest to me is David Patten’s piece on the commissioning of artists in the development process.

“He argues that keeping artists at one remove from the development process, sheltered by agencies and curators, can add to continuing ignorance and the sense of unease over the artist’s role. ”

Ixia welcome comments on these essays, as well as suggestions for new articles and contributions.

Cultural regeneration in Tehran

I’m currently at the Creative Clusters 2007 conference in London.  I’ll post more fully about this when it is over (it finishes tomorrow), but one thing that come up today seemed particularly interesting and I thought I should share it.


 In a session on ‘developing creative spaces’, a question was asked: “What problems are there in using concepts like ‘creative cluster’ or ‘regeneration’, which have developed out of the European and North American context, in other regions or cultures?”.  The question was answered by M.A. Hossein-Nejad, from Tehran.  He has been working on a cultural masterplan for Tehran, a city that has experienced huge physical and socio-cultural change over the last thirty years.  His reply was that Iranian culture has has a historical grasp on the concept of creative clustering and mixed-use development, that comes from the way that ancient Iranian cities like Shiraz and Esfahanwere structured around public spaces constructed by the proximity of mosques, bazaars, public buildings and housing.  He described how these developments had been enable each ‘user of the cluster’ to support the other, thereby maximizing opportunity and producing a harmonious society. 

 I’m sure that the analogy has its limits but I find this idea intriguing and I plan to look in to this in more depth and hopefully to write it up on here at a later date.

How not to do it and how to do it well (but not tell anyone!)

Back in August I posted about one aspect of the lost-o project in Ashford.  I wanted to start a debate about the quality of a piece of graffiti that had appeared on the edge of the town centre, not because it was graffiti, but because it was a bad example of the form that had gained public prominence.  Overall, i think the lost-o project had the potential to be really exciting and to make a fantastic contribution to the development of the town, but although some parts of it were great, the execution of the project as a whole seems to have let it down.  Have a look at the pictures below:


The first image is part of the ‘ring road revolutionaries’ project, where 70s pop album cover-style posters were made, showing individuals who had contributed to the redevelopment of the Ashford ring road. I liked these posters, but not the way in which they were used – Firstly they went up before the work was finished, portraying these people as ‘heroes’ of a project that was receiving almost universal condemnation at the time and secondly, there appears to have been no commitment to maintain them, or take them down when their time had passed.  This has meant that they have become weather worn and vandalised and are producing a feeling of neglect and indifference around the unfinished redevelopment project – the exact opposite of their intention.

The second image shows a flock of flying birds that were painted on the road.  I watched this being painted and the end result was arresting and beautiful, an organic re-interpretation of the most man-made of structures.  As soon as they were finished however, a series of cones were placed over them and have remained there ever since. It is now impossible to gain a good impression of the work as a whole, leading to many people describing them as ‘spilt paint’ or complaining that they confuse traffic.

Unfortunately this project has been conceived and managed by individuals and organisations from outside of Ashford.   The local council however, have been organising Ashford’s second ‘visual arts and architecture festival’ – a series of events that are much more locally grounded.  I was involved in a short film night that took place on Thursday and on Saturday I went to the town centre with Abi and Lyra to have a look at an affordable art fair, an environmental art workshop and to see Flora, the lovely Singleton Giant.


In the first picture Lyra is making a ‘bug hotel’, to be placed in the flowerbeds of a new local environment centre.  In the second picture, she is being introduced to Flora.  Both of these things, and the affordable art fair featuring Ashford Visual Artists, were public in the best sense of the word, being on the high street on a Saturday.  The day’s events were participatory, inclusive and still engaged with the development of the town and its communities.  The only problem was the lack of publicity, although things still seemed quite busy!  The whole festival could do with with a vastly increased marketing spend and much more support from the local press, who continue to run reports on bad traffic lights and the project overruns on the local leisure centre when they could have been promoting something so much more positive.

So, here are my rules from this for public art:

  1. It must have a local base, or at least local oversight
  2. If it is meant to stay, it must be maintained
  3. If it is temporary, it must have a date for removal
  4. You have to tell people about it!

Ring Road Aesthetics

In my hometown of Ashford, Kent at the moment there is a big public art program running alongside the redevelopment of the town centre.   This has attracted the kind of small-town criticism that I assume it was partly designed to provoke and has involved a number of interesting artists, doing all kinds of things that you can read about here. The Daily Mail newspaper did try run a story on the project, but luckily that fizzled out before they had a chance to develop a ‘political correctness gone mad’ or Princess Di angle.

Whilst the vast majority of the criticisms levelled against this scheme have been along the lines of ‘why spend the money on art when you could spend it on schools / hospitals/ bus stops / arresting young people’, there has been very little public engagement with the content or quality of the art involved.  These pictures are of  a building that has been covered in paper (perhaps a little derivative in 2007?) and then made into a giant canvas for graffiti artists.  In principle, I think this was a great idea.  It is in a prominent location on the town’s ring road and opposite the train station.  Potentially it offered a ‘way in’ to the scheme for lots of young people and was participatory in nature – all these things go in it’s favour.  My problem with this is that the final product is so bad.  Given a wall this size, why turn it into a giant tag?  There are plenty of artists out there working in this style who are producing work that is about more than its creator (have a look at this as a high-profile example) and that respond in a more meaningful way to the building and its environment.  It is definitely a wonderful thing to have art in the public realm in a place like Ashford, where aesthetic considerations have always been way down the planning and development list, but the fact that is its public shouldn’t be an excuse for a lack of discussion based on judgements of quality.


Public Art - Ashford Ring Road 2