Sunday, 20 January 2013

Art Academy reading group: Art and uneven development's cause is one: reflections on art and 'regeneration', Susan Fitzpatrick

The first Art Academy reading group of 2013 focused on a text by Susan Fitzpatrick entitled Art and uneven development's cause is one: reflections on art and 'regeneration'. The essay was originally published as part of a pamphlet which accompanied Hoist by Our Own Petard, an exhibition held at Islington Mill in late-2012 which brought together artworks by people who might not necessarily consider themselves artists – often creating work from home, and in their spare time, as opposed to in a dedicated studio space or as a way of making a living. The exhibition questioned the nature of art and the value of creativity, and the accompanying booklet primarily comprised each participating artist's responses to a questionnaire on their attitude towards making art. Fitzpatrick, whose work appeared in the exhibition in the form of elaborate knitted hats, chose to expand on certain themes explored in the exhibition by contributing a longer piece of writing which drew on her doctoral thesis on community art.

As not all members of the art academy were able to attend Hoist by Our Own Petard, or obtain the exhibition booklet, reading Fitzpatrick's text (slightly expanded for the purposes of the reading group) enabled us to get a sense of the exhibition as well as have a wider discussion around our understanding of how art and culture are related to issues such as economic value and place-making.

The essay quoted a Liverpool City Council bureaucrat’s definition of 'culture' as being something we do when we are not at work, and we discussed the way in which leisure time is becoming increasingly commercialised (for example, private shopping development Liverpool One is seen as a destination for a 'day out'). Similarly creativity is often packaged as being part a 'lifestyle' we can aspire to. Fitzpatrick suggested that art is seen by its advocates as being intrinsically good (this has a historical grounding in the nineteenth century critic John Ruskin's notion of art as a 'sacred fisher who gathers souls of men out of the deep'). From this perspective, art has the power to improve people's lives, but it also works the other way by enhancing their contribution to society; today, creativity is valued insofar as it makes a positive contribution to the economy, whether by developing people's transferable skills, directly generating money through entrepreneurship or attracting tourism and investment to an area. Whilst artists themselves often have mixed views on regeneration, Maurice Carlin, a director of Islington Mill, said that from his experience regeneration agencies and the council were supportive of the Mill's activities – or at least the artists' studios, which are home to small creative businesses. He suggested that artists are attractive to regenerators, as they can make something out of nothing – often very quickly – and, unlike bureaucrats, they will think about the impossible.

Islington Mill is an interesting venue for a discussion on regeneration, due to its proximity to the Chapel Street regeneration area of Salford, an inner-city area which was once home to a thriving high street but is now characterised by a mix of empty, derelict buildings and new build flats. The wider area of Salford has seen a lot of investment in cultural venues such as the Lowry Centre, a big flagship venue for the city which cost millions of pounds. What is missing from much discussion about regeneration, however, is what people want. We wondered how many places in the UK beyond a few, high-profile success stories have truly benefited from arts-led regeneration, and what could have been achieved for the Salford's creative industries if, instead of spending a large sum on creating a cultural centre from scratch, the funding available had been spread across smaller projects throughout the city, supporting organic growth of the city's art scene. Fitzpatrick quotes studies which suggest many residents struggle to be part of defining the places in which they live and work, and we discussed to what extent we, as members of the public, feel we 'own' these flagship arts buildings, ostensibly built for our benefit. Comparisons were drawn with their antecedents, such as town and city galleries built by philanthropists in the Victorian age and municipal buildings built by modernist planners in the twentieth century, both of which had an element of controlling or 'civilising' the populace, aiming in some way to 'improve' citizens and their moral outlook.

We also discussed one of the high-profile local 'failures' of cultural regeneration: Urbis in Manchester  city centre which opened in 2002 at the centre of a new, so-called Millennium Quarter (a city brand which has not made its way into popular vocabulary), but closed just eight years later after failing to attract the expected number of visitors. As Fitzpatrick notes, from a perspective of regeneration creativity is expected to be easily definable and have visible, measurable outcomes, yet experimentation and failure, without always having to get it right the first time, is an important part of the process of being creative. Perhaps Urbis was never allowed to get into its stride and its value would have become apparent over the longer term.

With this in mind, we asked why art and culture is so often seized upon by those looking to regenerate and reinvent places, regardless of whether there is a demand or infrastructure in place to support it, and wondered what the alternative is for creating jobs and economic growth. Having gone from an agricultural society to an industrial economy to a service economy in the course of a few generations, it is not clear what type of production is going to drive our economy in the future, and there is a lack of long-term vision regarding the arts due to the whims of changing political regimes. However, if we want to enable to next generation of artists and creators to thrive, we must ensure there is an infrastructure in place to support emerging creative production that includes independent spaces, not just easily marketable large-scale projects. There is a danger of art being seen as a subject suitable only for the rich, or an activity which is understood and approved of as long as it makes money. Rather than imposing a certain, strategically-approved type of culture from above, we must ensure that creative subjects continue to be taught and valued at the level of schools and universities, and that art is not allowed to become a 'luxury' or something to be indulged in only during our leisure time.