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Amanda Parker asks whether the arts can really save our high streets.

Photo of Amanda Parker

Who doesn’t love a bargain? Our passion for money-saving tips has spawned a rash of TV programmes, budget brands, discount codes and out of town shopping ‘destinations’ – none of which look as though they’re going out of fashion any time soon.  

But can savvy bargain-hunting plus arts consumption lead to a high street renaissance? Can the arts do what the redoubtable Mary Portas tried and failed to achieve?

English Heritage seems to think so: how else to explain its proposal to give almost 70 communities what amounts to roughly £87,000 each - in the hope of using the arts to give renewed purpose to our long-declining high streets?

On my local high street, in a shopping centre that’s in dire need of redevelopment, there’s a beautiful installation that is a perfect example of the kind of initiative that English Heritage would welcome as part of its Heritage Action Zones scheme. Dedicated to the Windrush generation, an empty shop front is full of replica boarding cards, detailing the names of those who arrived at Tilbury dock in 1948 on HMS Windrush. A nearby map of London shows where this first cohort of Caribbeans took up residence, and in another window are postcards, written by young and old, thanking the original Windrush adventurers and their offspring for their contribution to UK life: expressing love, thanks, and occasionally anger at the way some have been treated. It’s a simple, relatively low-budget piece of art that resonates strongly with the local community. But it’s not going to drive footfall, or attract new retail businesses. It is an elegant use of an under-used space, but it’s not reason enough to spend more time or, crucially, money here. If £87,000 is all that’s needed to reverse the impact of online shopping, and if the arts can persuade us to abandon click and collect, I suspect it would have been reflected in the 2011 Portas review of high streets regeneration. And although the sector’s thriving, contributing a hefty £110bn to the UK economy, can we also take on a commitment to reviving local retail economies too?

We’re proud of our contribution to the UK’s identity and productivity, so what should we make of governments’ reluctance to participate in the PISA creativity tests? No doubt many of us will breathe a sigh of relief at the refusal to apply quantitative methodologies to creative learning, something that is often a deeply qualitative experience. It’s well-documented that PISA testing can sometimes stop progress in its tracks: when countries come out on top of the league tables for existing PISA tests, it can hinder experimentation in that subject area for fear of losing that coveted top ranking. On the other hand, the international test is a globally recognised shorthand for educational excellence. Should we be using PISA testing to further celebrate our creative talent? Perhaps participation in PISA creative tests would expose the embarrassing dichotomy between our globally recognised creative national identities and the continued under-resourcing of this talent in our schools…

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Photo of Amanda Parker