In the week when readers of a national newspaper voted Newcastle their favourite city, it seems there is no case for complacency. Hence the Case for Culture which has been launched with an appeal for the widest possible support.
The Case for Culture is a campaign initiated by the North East Culture Partnership (NECP) which was formed about a year and a half ago by the region’s 12 local authorities to provide a vision for culture.
Yesterday the NECP announced the next step forward, a wide consultation process to be coordinated by Beamish Museum.
Cultural organisations, universities and businesses are to start the process of gathering views and ideas with creative consultation sessions scheduled to take place across the region in the New Year.
John Mowbray, co-chair of the NECP, said: “The Case for Culture will be an important tool in supporting the NECP to influence key decision-makers across a range of sectors.
“It will establish the credibility, expertise and significance of the cultural sector to the economic life, health and wellbeing of the whole of the North East.”
Jane Tarr, North East-based director of Arts Council England, added: “It’s vitally important that the Case for Culture is informed and shaped by the views, ideas and ambitions of individuals and organisations right across the North East with an interest in culture.
“This will enable the initiative to imagine what the region’s cultural infrastructure and programming might look like 15 years from now, building on the region’s strengths and all that makes the North East so wonderfully distinctive.”
The region has not always brought joy to visitors. Sixty years ago JB Priestley’s travelogue English Journey came out, giving people in the North East something to feel aggrieved about for decades.
There was grudging acknowledgement from the popular writer of Newcastle’s buildings – “more impressive than one would expect” – but Gateshead looked as if it had been “carefully planned by an enemy of the human race” and Jarrow as if it were being punished for offending “some celestial emperor”.
The people weren’t up to much either: “slatternly” women standing at the doors of “wretched little houses” and Geordie men, “stocky toothless fellows cursing in their uncouth accent”.
That was 1933. In 2014, readers of The Guardian, who you would imagine to be a choosy bunch, put Newcastle ahead of the venerable tourist magnets of Bath and Edinburgh as a good place to visit.
And today it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Priestley, if he were still alive and writing, would reach for his purplest prose if he could stroll down a cleaned up Grey Street (which actually he did quite like even in its blackened pre-war state) and across the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.
Newcastle, Gateshead and even the wider North East have become a popular case study for students of urban regeneration through culture and the Case for Culture harks back unapologetically to the Case for Capital, a triumphantly successful regional initiative of some 20 years ago – pretty much coinciding with the start of the national lottery.
It was based on research carried out in the 1980s by Peter Stark, one of those behind the current campaign for a more even distribution of public arts funding across the country.
The argument back in the 1980s and 90s was that this region recorded the country’s lowest attendance at arts events because of a lack of opportunity and investment in cultural provision. The Case for Capital, launched by Tony Blair in 1995, had twin objectives.
The first was to work with the local authorities to ensure that within 10 years everyone in the region was only a short journey from a properly equipped arts centre. The second was to work towards the creation of new venues of international standard for art and music.
It was an audacious call for investment of £212m in arts facilities over the next 10 years.
The local authorities pulled together, the lottery freed up the funds and the Angel of the North became a vivid, attention-grabbing catalyst for the whole process.
The Case for Capital delivered Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Sage Gateshead, Dance City, Seven Stories, mima in Middlesbrough, Sunderland’s National Glass Centre and a general upgrade in much of the region’s arts infrastructure.
The Gateshead bank of the Tyne was joined to its Newcastle neighbour by its eye-catching Millennium Bridge and suddenly the region had a reputation as a cultural hotspot. Gateshead even hosted the World Summit on Arts & Culture.
But since those heady days of lottery largesse, austerity has bitten. Sage Gateshead is looking forward to its 10th anniversary in December on a shrunken budget. So what now?
Jonathan Blackie, manager of the NECP and former director of the Government Office for the North East, said yesterday: “Over the past 15 years we’ve come a long way in terms of what we have to offer as a region.
“The North East is now seen as culturally distinctive, with many natural and man-made assets. People characterise the region by its cultural icons, like the Angel of the North, Sage, Baltic and Millennium Bridge, and if we’re on a journey there’s maybe a sense that we’ve reached our destination.
“But we are perhaps half way there. We have to establish where we want to be in 2030 and I think we have to ensure that we maintain that confidence and ambition.
“People will remember the Case for Capital but I think it’s about more than money now.
“I think what we’re saying is that culture is about talent and making the most of the assets we have.
“It is about spreading the benefits of culture as broadly as possible so that everyone can make the most of the opportunities that exist.
“It is quite remarkable how, compared to 20 years ago, the North East has one of the strongest cultural offerings of any part of the UK.
“Newcastle is a top destination but also look at the plans Durham has implemented, the pull that The Alnwick Garden exerts, Berwick with its Lowry exhibition and film festival. It’s not fanciful to say that the North East is envied for what it possesses , which brings visitors from Sweden, Germany and right across Europe.
“So we have come a long way but there is a feeling that there is more that can be achieved.”
As in the mid-1990s, the region’s local authorities are behind the Case for Culture, as are the universities and many business leaders. And don’t imagine that culture just means the arts.
Bill Griffiths, chair of the North East Historic Environment Forum, said: “We are delighted to support the Case for Culture. People across the North East, whatever their age or wherever they are from, recognise the difference that vibrant and thriving cultural organisations and activity continues to make to all those who live, visit or do business here.”
Ivor Crowther, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in the region, had a similar message, saying: “The Case for Culture is key to ensuring that the sector continues to engage and inspire and build on its vital role in the development of the North East economy over the next 15 years.
“The North East’s cultural offer is distinctive and it’s great that heritage is playing such a key role, alongside other business partnerships, to help shape and inform the region, making it a great place to live and work.”
There is plenty of fat here for politicians to chew on in the run-up to the general election.
The NECP states that, “in a time of change and economic challenge”, it is campaigning for new funding and more regional influence over funding decisions “as an important part of the region’s development”.
Its 24-strong board, drawn from the councils, education, arts, heritage and business, looks highly influential. An eight-strong steering group, including Jonathan Blackie, is leading on the Case for Culture with funding from ANEC, Arts Council England and English Heritage.
We certainly haven’t heard the last of it. Organisations keen to register an interest in the Case for Culture project can email firstname.lastname@example.org