Gillian Bates questions the way that city planners are jumping onto the cultural bandwagon.
Anyone remember when the first multiplex cinemas hit Britain? It was an innovation, wasn?t it? Not two and a half screens like the old Odeon but fourteen! In Nottingham, we all thought we were the chosen city, and then we drove to Derby and found their multiplex was identical!
Well, the arts sector is now getting its own ?multiplexes? and they are called Cultural Quarters. Trust me, there?s one coming to a city near you any day now. All over the country, urban planners and architects are beavering away seeking suitable space for new cultural developments. The general criteria for selection seems to be ?rundown? and ?cheap to build on? ? and, face facts, here in the arts we are used to that.
It goes like this. First you build a state of the art gallery/theatre. Then you add some shops and some ?creative cluster? studio and office spaces. These you rent out really cheaply to recently graduated fine art students and other aspiring creatives. Within six months, so the plan goes, every bohemian and cultural tourist in the region will be swooping in to get a sniff of that creative atmosphere.
Now, I am absolutely committed to subsidy and development in the arts, (honey, it?s what pays my rent). But are we really sure about this one? Throughout history, great cultural quarters have grown up organically and developed over many years. Factors such as the quality of light in an area, the size of buildings or even the proximity of local clay and other materials have all played a part in their development. Here in Nottingham, our cultural area, the Lacemarket, has its roots in the textile trade, and the availability of former factory buildings of quite staggering beauty. One catalyst for its current development came thirty odd years ago when a group of regional artists bought up an old knitwear shop and factory and turned it into a multipurpose arts centre and gallery. The area became a creative quarter organically, long before that term was linked to targets and outputs.
I am not knocking planners for wanting to regenerate and I appreciate the arts are a major tool for positive change. It?s just that, if you impose a structure on cultural activity it could backfire. Creativity doesn?t always fit into planning agendas. I know Kevin Costner was told ?if you build it, they will come?, but what if they don?t?
Gillian Bates is a journalist and arts marketing consultant.