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Civic Defence

Museums, art galleries and libraries in the North of England have been all but crippled by austerity. But many are still fighting to keep culture open to the people.

Remember the first wave of library and museum closures, when those smaller services and institutions that serve peripheral communities, or deal with local histories had their funding withdrawn? This process has been ongoing for the past decade, with many of those that haven’t been closed redesignated as ‘community run’, meaning that once-paid positions have now been replaced by volunteer labour. Simultaneously, public provision of all kinds has long been in decline, extending from closures of public toilets to the removal of benches in shopping malls. These incremental changes are a subtle form of hostile architecture; not confrontational like metal spikes, but still barring those who can’t pay from using facilities and spending time in ostensibly public spaces. 

The scene as it has been set here is a crucial part of the context for how the remaining cultural organisations operate, and particularly those that are alone in their remit within a large municipality. Through conversations with industry professionals working in towns and cities across the North of England, often in some of the most deprived areas of the country, it’s clear that there are shared experiences and frustrations that are not currently being addressed, or turned towards solidarity and change, as they potentially could be. 

In order to be seen as catering to ‘everyone’ with ‘great art and culture’ as defined by Arts Council England, all English publicly funded cultural organisations share an aim to expand their reach and attract new audiences, which is at odds with how the commercial and philanthropy-seeking arms of the cultural industries depend on an air of exclusivity. Accordingly, in order to attract the kind of private financial support needed to be ‘resilient’, to provide decent employment conditions and a consistent service to the public, organisations have to come across as a sound investment, which inevitably involves papering over the cracks wrought by successive public funding cuts.

There is also the practice of ‘artwashing’ to consider, whereby companies that are suffering from a public image problem use sponsorship of arts and culture to rehabilitate themselves. Taneesha Ahmed, an arts engagement professional who has worked across the North and is currently based at The Tetley in Leeds points to how this attitude harks back to David Cameron’s ‘big society’, imposing an entrepreneurial, growth oriented framework on to services that should be aligned towards caring and maintenance. Ahmed describes how those working in libraries and local museums or galleries are ‘overworked, overachieving on what little they have and being co-opted into this voluntarism model – of ‘going the extra mile’.’ Meanwhile, a qualitative look at the functioning of art centres and galleries in some of the most deprived and isolated parts of England exposes how the inherent human need for self-actualisation plays out in a society stacked against the most vulnerable. 

At this point it’s worth paying attention to how ‘gallery’, ‘museum’ and ‘library’ are often used interchangeably in these conversations. This is because not only do they often inhabit the same building, but they also share the function of being spaces where people can, or should, be able to spend time without having to spend money, to make use of basic facilities, find things out and introspect. Liz Dickinson, who is currently based at The Civic in Barnsley, speaks of the specificities in delivering cultural programmes for areas that don’t attract much tourism, a situation shared by Helen Stalker, director of The Turnpike in Leigh, a town in Greater Manchester that hasn’t had a train station since the 1960s. Both recognise a local population of people who require places to spend time and be around other people during the day. Stalker points to how in Leigh, where the gallery shares a space with ‘not only a public library but also a Life Centre’ (where people access Citizens Advice, Council Services, Domestic Abuse Support, Dementia support etc) she and her team have ‘done simple things like install an ‘honesty café’ with a reading space and kids toys at the entrance to the gallery so that it doesn’t appear intimidating. People can get a brew or a drink of water with no obligations to pay.’ 

Relatedly, Liverpool based curator and producer Maria Brewster describes how with her project The Human Library, she had initially set out to use Bootle and Crosby libraries as sites for exhibitions and theatre performances, but immediately found that there was an urgent need for participatory projects that support not only visitors, but also the diminished library staff. The Human Library takes place throughout the metropolitan Borough of Sefton, and as Brewster points out ‘in a couple of these places the library is simply the last remaining bit of civic infrastructure.’ Like Dickinson and Stalker, Brewster recognises a demographic of ‘people without much economic power, people looking for something to do, or someone to make a connection with, people looking for a break from stressful and really complex conditions of everyday life.’

These realities aren’t necessarily recognised in the cultural industries more generally, or reflected in policy. As Kerry Campbell, director of Mansions of the Future in Lincoln observes, the cultural industries are absolutely geared towards a middle and upper class sensibility; ‘Nearly two decades of diversity and inclusion agendas have failed to measure class inequality in the arts,’ an assessment that is borne out in the recent ‘Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries’ report. In line with this, Campbell raises the issue of the precarious nature of most funding, which compounds inequality of access; ‘what we need to think critically and strategically about is what it means to welcome and support a diversity of groups, to make use of a beautifully designed, well resourced space in the knowledge that the offer can only be temporary.’ Within existing funding cycles and reporting structures, the careful, slow and unpredictable work required to ascertain how best to serve and support communities that have been devastated by austerity is overridden by the need to deliver against pre-agreed objectives. As Taneesha Ahmed describes, ‘this type of working is so precarious – so we really deliver strands we know we can deliver with the core funding we have.’ 

Based on the observations recounted here it would be foolish to suggest that galleries and museums as they exist today are utopian, equalising spaces. The practitioners interviewed and examples cited here are all outside the informal circuit of architecturally glamorous, nationally recognised cultural attractions. In these conversations, it was expressed again and again that there had rarely, if ever, been an opportunity to speak seriously and critically about these issues, or in embedding cultural organisations within a political framework where hope and change are possible. Yet, there’s a glimmer of something to be fought for, and work being done that reveals where strategic battles can be waged.