In my view

The recent Journal Culture Awards 2006 saw some fantastic projects celebrated at a great event at Northern Stage in Newcastle.

The recent Journal Culture Awards 2006 saw some fantastic projects celebrated at a great event at Northern Stage in Newcastle.

Ira Lightman's Spennymoor Letters won the Arts Council Award. This is an innovative project creating a massive public poem in the town through eight months of workshops with local people working with Ira, a hugely engaging and quirky visual poet.

It beat off competition from two other great projects: Writing on the Wall by Arts UK, which brought international writers to Hadrian's Wall over five years, and Theatre Cap-a-Pie's production of Waiting for Godot, developed in collaboration with primary school pupils in Hartlepool.

These, and many other excellent projects, received awards and nominations, making me reflect on the particular nature of the arts in North-East England, and the role they play in society.

What are the big questions facing the arts in the North-East in 2007? Is it funding, and the exact scale of budgets and the priorities that guide how they are spent? These are all important issues, and the Arts Council's arts debate is exploring many of them (you can still take part in the arts debate by logging onto and joining the discussion).

But it seems to me that before any of these questions can be really addressed, we have to be confident about what the arts are for, what questions they need to be asking - or even answering - about how we live. And the projects I mentioned earlier go a long way to suggesting answers to those questions.

These projects show artists engaging with some of the key issues for all of us. The Spennymoor Letters tells us much about people's engagement with each other and the place they live. It speaks eloquently of the pride, pleasure and pain of belonging. By bringing writers from countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa whose troops were stationed on Hadrian's Wall, Writing on the Wall reminds us that the North-East is built on diversity and immigration: major and positive influences on life in the region now.

As the region becomes, of necessity but also enthusiastically, more internationally connected, Writing on the Wall reminds us this is not as new as we might sometimes think.

Theatre Cap-a-Pie's Waiting for Godot reminded me that the most intellectualised existential dilemmas, which have caused philosophers to scratch their heads and stroke their chins for centuries, can be understood by six-year-olds who see the funny side of life's mysteries. It gave them confidence in their creativity, and that gave me confidence in the coming generations, as does all the work of Creative Partnerships and other organisations working with young people.

Many other organisations, artists and writers in the region are addressing the major questions of our time. Helix Arts have done great work using the arts to explore issues of climate change, for instance. Bloodaxe Books' landmark poetry anthology `Staying Alive' was a worldwide bestseller because it brought together `real poems for unreal times'. People responded to it precisely because of its seriousness and because it talked about things that were important globally: war, historical forces, changes in society, family life, love.

For me, the arts have always been about exploring the how and why of the extraordinary everyday lives of ordinary people, in all their complexity. Artists might use extraordinary methods or media to do that, or tell extraordinary tales. In doing so they contribute to our economy, have helped transform the image of our region and are playing a huge role in its regeneration.

They are stimulating the creativity vital to the new global `knowledge' economy. They provide us with stimulation, challenge, pleasure and enjoyment.

But to do that to maximum effect the best of them connect with our humanity, our place in the world and our times. That's what we respond to, and what we need from the arts.

* Mark Robinson is executive director for Arts Council England, North-East.


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