The North East has world-class cultural assets, so let’s shout about them with one voice to benefit the whole region.
That was the message yesterday at the launch of a new Culture Partnership for the North East. Representatives of all 12 of the region’s local authorities gathered in the Great Hall of Durham Castle with leading figures in the arts, sport, business and education.
The event, organised by the Association of North East Councils (Anec), reflected a widespread desire to realise the full potential of what are seen as the region’s unique cultural attributes.
Speakers included Sunderland-born BBC presenter Lauren Laverne; Kathryn Tickell, artistic director of Folkworks and instigator of the recent Festival of the North East; and Steve Stewart, chief executive of Northumberland County Council.
Coun Paul Watson, chair of Anec and leader of Sunderland City Council, opened proceedings, saying: “I think we all know the value of culture and what it means to people in terms of their health and wellbeing and in terms of our economy. Our cultural heritage has shaped our economy, enriched our lives and helped to transform the image of the North East, particularly in the recent past.”
He added: “We have much to benefit from working together to give the North East a really strong voice, which it perhaps hasn’t had in places where decisions are made.
“It’s never been more important to maintain our profile and to promote our strengths and assets in order to influence decisions about future investment and opportunities nationally and internationally.”
The 12 local authorities, presenting a united front believed to be unique in the UK, have, through Anec, selected a board to oversee the new partnership.
It includes the culture and leisure portfolio holder from each council plus 12 other representatives from the arts, business and university sectors.
It is co-chaired by Coun David Budd, deputy mayor of Middlesbrough, and John Mowbray, past president of the North East Chamber of Commerce.
Mr Mowbray said: “It’s about pulling partners together.
“Since the reorganisation we’ve had (including the abolition of regional development agency One North East by the Coalition Government) we haven’t really got an organisation that represents culture across the North East. We just think we’ve got a rich culture with lots of things happening. This will be a sharing of things between a lot of organisations – local authorities, businesses, arts groups.”
The initial aim, he suggested, was “to harness confident and mature relationships across both public and private sectors to fulfil the potential highlighted by councils and partners”.
He pointed to the success of the Festival of the North East and the current Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition in Durham, saying they had “given us confidence to explore further opportunities to build on our cultural assets to enhance the image of the North East”.
Lauren Laverne, who was in the band Kenickie before forging a broadcasting career which sees her presenting TV’s The Culture Show and a programme on BBC Radio 6 Music, said: “I like the idea that we’re all pulling together to celebrate the whole region because we’ve got so much to offer.”
She said when she was growing up her interest in music was regarded as “a treat”, the reward for hard work.
But she said her career had demonstrated music could be an industry and that culture was “a good economic driver”.
That said, why culture is important is because it’s how we express who we are.
“Going forward, I hope this partnership can enhance the lives of people who live and work here, but can also show off what we’ve got to the outside world because there’s so much to shout about.”
The partnership will be managed by Jonathan Blackie, former regional director of Government Office North East, and Matthew Jarratt, formerly of Arts Council England.
Mr Blackie said the partnership was the start of a journey which could result in a significant growth in the region’s cultural sector, which currently supports about 50,000 jobs.
Attracting private investment to match future money from Europe would be a key aim.
It is part of the North East character to be “a little bit self-deprecating”, suggested the musician and artistic director of Folkworks.
She said the region was full of poets, musicians, engineers and forward-thinking people who were “unsung heroes really”.
She added: “That’s a little bit of a problem. We don’t make enough fuss about what we’ve got here, so the North East is under-regarded.”
The recent Festival of the North East, which included about 300 events, had happened “on a shoestring” because lots of people and organisations had been willing to get involved.
The feeling had been: “Let’s do something where we actually shout about what we’ve got.”
The most important legacy of the festival, she said, had been the links that had been made between people and organisations across the region.
She hoped the new partnership would be able to build on that.
The new Culture Partnership for the North East was a bit like the Angel of the North, said the chief executive of Northumberland County Council, “not just something to celebrate the cultural heritage of the North East, but to benefit future generations.
“This is about the economy, about attracting people to come and visit and about inward investment,” he said.
When companies looked to invest in an area, they might want cheap land and a labour supply. “But they also want nice places to live, schools for their kids and places to go at the weekend.
“It’s about promoting the region for all sorts of reasons.”
Of culture, he said: “I think we should be doing more of it, not less, despite the financial challenges.
“That’s really what this is about, the idea that we can do things better working in partnership than we can on our own. It’s not rocket science.
“At the moment there’s no agenda, nothing’s cast in stone.”
Prof Eric Cross
“I think there’s a real opportunity for the universities in the North East to work together in partnership around this,” said the dean of cultural affairs at Newcastle University.
“We’ve got a pretty good record of doing that through Universities for the North East.”
That organisation was wound up last year, but Prof Cross said there was still a cultural committee whose members, representing the region’s universities, met regularly.
He said Newcastle University had collaborated with Sage Gateshead on a project which had attracted funding and he was keen to look at other areas where the universities might complement each other’s strengths.
Prof Gerda Roper, dean of the school of arts and media at Teesside University, said: “It was wonderful today. There was a real sense of achievement and optimism about the future.
“Partnership and collaboration are the way forward.”
The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
“It is wonderful, isn’t it, to live and work in a region whose heritage draws in so many people and which has the potential to draw in so many more?” said the dean of Durham Cathedral.
The Lindisfarne Gospels, currently on show on Palace Green, represented “the apex of Northumbria’s golden age at the turn of the 7th and 8th centuries”, he said.
The book was “a superb example of the Christian heritage of the North East” and “an emblem of North East England”.
“We’re proud of that fact and we’re going to build on it in the future,” he said.
“We are hoping to develop our own exhibition spaces.
“That way we can rise to the challenge of exhibiting the wonderful treasures that we share with the whole of the North East in this wonderful cathedral.”
Annabel Turpin and Jim Beirne
THE chief executive of Arc, Stockton, said: “Sometimes we spend too much time talking to ourselves. We need to be out there talking to other people and sharing the benefits of culture.”
Partnerships between councils and cultural organisations were under threat, she said.
“One of the main jobs of the Culture Partnership will be to make sure culture doesn’t get lost and so we have to find new ways of working together.”
Jim Beirne, chief executive of Newcastle’s Live Theatre, agreed.
He said the region had built a fantastic cultural infrastructure over 15 years but that was only part of a journey.
Now we had to make sure the buildings were used to their potential to benefit the region.
“We face a lot of challenges but we mustn’t lose sight of what has been achieved already,” he said.