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Issue 217

What Does ‘Levelling Up’ Mean for the Arts in the UK?

The strengths of regional approaches in a country deeply divided by the dual crises of Covid-19 and Brexit

BY Amy Sherlock, Kitty Anderson, Skinder Hundal, Kim McAleese AND Miles Thurlow in Features , Roundtables | 12 MAR 21

How united is the United Kingdom? Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the UK was one of the most geographically unequal economies in the developed world and deeply divided over the results of a Brexit referendum that saw the nation leave the European Union after 47 years of membership. The current Conservative government in Westminster was elected in a shock landslide in December 2019, the result of a collapse of Labour support in the postindustrial Midlands and north of England. The Conservative Party manifesto promised to ‘level up’ regional inequalities through investment in infrastructure and skills in ‘left-behind’ areas outside of London and the southeast.

However, the coronavirus pandemic and its chaotic handling have made brutally evident the effects of a decade of austerity under consecutive Conservative-led governments. Already under-funded local authorities and social services have been stretched thin by the crisis. A London-centric approach to COVID-19 restrictions and financial support has brought regional leaders – including the mayors of northern cities, as well as the devolved leaders of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – into conflict with central government. In Scotland, an expected victory for the Scottish National Party in May’s general election would set the stage for another referendum on independence.

Where do arts and culture fit into this discussion around devolution and ‘levelling up’? And might the pandemic, with its curtailing of travel, give rise to a new emphasis on localism, forcing arts organizations to re-evaluate which communities they serve and how? Last December, frieze deputy editor Amy Sherlock spoke with Kitty Anderson, Skinder Hundal, Kim McAleese and Miles Thurlow – who work at arts organizations across England and Scotland – about the possibilities of a new regionalism.

The Growing Project, Grand Union, Nina Bailie, Crisis and Spring Housing
The Growing Project, 2020-ongoing. Courtesy: Nina Bailie, Grand Union, Birmingham, and Crisis and Spring Housing

Amy Sherlock I want to talk first about the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda: what does that mean in terms of the cultural landscape, and is it even a useful term?

Skinder Hundal ‘Levelling up’ is about a more even distribution of resources across the UK, which is more complicated than it is often portrayed, obviously. The black and white figures, when it comes to arts funding, imply that London gets too much – although Arts Council England has, for many years, been working to redress this. But we need to understand the dynamics in play to be able to work out what kind of investment a particular place needs. London cannot be compared with Nottingham, for instance; and, even within the city, an area like Hyson Green, where New Art Exchange is based, has its own specificities. Levelling up is about ensuring that resources make it through to these intricate spaces on the periphery, which I believe are the inventive future.

Kim McAleese I find the term ‘levelling up’ quite patronizing because it implies a hierarchy favouring the south, which is not a useful way of looking at it. One thing that I’ve learned since I’ve been living in Birmingham is that it’s the largest local authority in the whole of Europe. It’s a massive area to manage and has suffered some of the most brutal cuts, totalling GB£730 million to vital services over the past ten years. If the chancellor wants to redistribute wealth around the country, then local authorities need to be properly equipped in order to manage that. But there’s a serious lack of infrastructure, symptomatic of a decade of austerity, which has eroded the structures that might facilitate those conversations about different futures that Skinder mentions. Birmingham is the largest local authority in Europe, but there are only three people in the arts and culture team.

Kitty Anderson There’s also the issue of national institutions and their representation around the country – I’m thinking of Tate Liverpool, for instance, or V&A Dundee. These huge bodies get so much airtime compared to other activity, which is misrepresentative of what’s actually going on. For me, ‘levelling up’ is as much about representation as it is about infrastructure and resources.

Simeon Barclay, Isabella Is My Muse, Flash Broke All the Rules, 2014, acrylic and vinyl adhesive, 119 × 90 cm.  Courtesy: the artist and Workplace, Gateshead and London
Simeon Barclay, Isabella Is My Muse, Flash Broke All the Rules, 2014, acrylic and vinyl adhesive, 119 × 90 cm. 

Courtesy: the artist and Workplace, Gateshead and London

Miles Thurlow I do think any sort of recognition of the gap [between London and the rest of the UK] is important and, to some extent, helpful. We mustn’t forget austerity and the huge damage that has occurred during the decade since the financial crash. When I first came to Newcastle in 1998 to study art, the northeast was in the throes of a kind of millennialism: the River Tyne had a new bridge, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art was about to open and there was a Regional Development Agency bringing large amounts of money into the area. There was a sense of connection with national organizations, but also international organizations. And I think the strain that’s been put on those relationships due to austerity and a lack of investment has been intense over the last few years; certainly, for artists who are trying to grow and develop, it affects the opportunities that are open to them.

SH It’s a good thing to have a sense of renewed investment, but we must make sure it gets to the right places. I want to pick up on Kitty’s point about these ‘franchises’ of national organizations: New Art Exchange was born out of the struggle for racial equality in the 1970s and ’80s. It was very much about being in a neighbourhood, Hyson Green, which is one of the most ethnically diverse parts of Nottingham. It’s one of the very few spaces that does what it does in an area that is constantly battling for survival – from income to crime to educational attainment. And it was really important that it happened from the bottom up. It started in this dilapidated red-brick dump, which had Victorian charm, but the taps leaked, there were issues with flooding, and it was quite limited in terms of what you could do with the space.

We opened in a new building in 2008. At that moment, there was another initiative in the city that got the bulk of investment: Nottingham Contemporary. We have always had a good relationship with Contemporary, they’ve always been colleagues, but it was an imported, London-centric model. Think about somewhere like Turner Contemporary in Margate: it has been successful, as has Nottingham Contemporary, there’s no doubt about it. It has attracted a critical mass of investment in the local economy: on a macro level, you can say it’s worked. But, on the micro level, what can happen is that local communities don’t get engaged in the process, and these new organizations recruit myriad new teams, but often not from the local area. I’m not saying the neighbourhood gallery is perfect either, because there are limitations and you need other perspectives. But I think there is a question about what an organization does for the local skills base: the infrastructure that’s created needs to enable transformational change. One of the biggest impacts of New Art Exchange has been in terms of the careers that we have made: supporting local talent to have an influence in designing strategy and creating meaningful programmes for our context. There is still, however, a long way to go.

Florrie James, Palm Tree, 2019, video stills.  Courtesy: the artist and LUX Scotland, Glasgow
Florrie James, Palm Tree, 2019, video stills. Courtesy: the artist and LUX Scotland, Glasgow

MT One issue is that, if you are outside of London, it can be very challenging to remain visible. I’m not just talking about during lockdown; I mean, generally, you can disappear quite easily. Whether that’s about certain curators or writers or collectors being able to visit or see shows, it’s really hard – to Kitty’s earlier point – to stay part of the conversation. In a way, London is the elephant in the room in terms of a discussion about regionalism: how do we grow our visibility and how do we shift from what is still – and will likely remain – an extreme focus on London? Is there a way out of that, and does the attention on levelling up present an opportunity? 

AS It’s important to recognize that each regional landscape has its own inequalities and imbalances and that investment needs to be distributed in a way that enables spaces at many scales to co-exist. A capital injection into regions outside of London is only going to make a difference if it’s administered skilfully. My concern, to Kim’s point about the gutting of local authorities in recent years, is: who’s going to do that, if there are only three people working on arts and culture across the biggest local authority in Europe?

SH My wife’s a social worker and she always tells me that she does the real work. And I know, because she’s dealing with it, that a lot of people in our neighbourhood are just worried about getting by, particularly during this pandemic: people are trying to keep their businesses afloat; schools are struggling to hit their targets; there’s residential overcrowding. Over the last ten years, all kinds of local funds have gone, and certain voluntary groups have disappeared. The infrastructures have been eroded. There’s increasing reliance on New Art Exchange, as an arts organization, to deliver these lost services and we can’t do it, because we haven’t got the expertise and we also don’t have sufficient resources to deal with the complex scenarios.

Workplace Gateshead, The Old Post Office
Workplace, Gateshead, The Old Post Office. Courtesy: Workplace

KM Going into this conversation, I didn’t want it to be all doom and gloom. I was trying to think about the positives that we might be able to talk about, the things that we’ve learned. There’s obviously a massive infrastructural problem, but the thing that has given me a sense of hope has been watching local responses to the pandemic and the ways in which various organizations and structures have been able to support people in different ways. It’s been amazing to see mutual aid flourishing and to see different artistic spaces becoming very involved with that. To me, that shows so much promise.

Something we’ve been thinking a lot about over the past couple of years within Grand Union is the housing crisis. We’ve been working with the artist Ed Webb-Ingall on his project Forming a Residents’ Association (2020–ongoing), for which he has been building partnerships across Liverpool, Birmingham, Nottingham and Glasgow, bringing together people interested in housing activism to be local envoys and to join up conversation and thinking around local responses to the housing crisis.

KA What’s interesting about that project is that it was conceived with Ed as a sort of conduit, going between the cities and meeting with everybody. But, since COVID-19 restrictions mean that’s no longer possible, we’ve had to create a different kind of network, finding someone in each city to act as that conduit, or hub of information. Kim and I, who are both working with Ed on the project, now get to meet regularly, whereas previously we weren’t due to have much interaction with each other. I guess we’re starting to think about other kinds of infrastructure: building stronger connections between the cities. If something good has come out of the pandemic, it’s been in terms of creating hubs and networks that extend beyond the local.

Ed Webb-Ingall, Forming a Residents’ Association, 2020–ongoing, research methodology documentation.  Courtesy: the artist, LUX Scotland, Glasgow, Nottingham Contemporary, Rule of Threes, Liverpool, and Grand Union, Birmingham
Ed Webb-Ingall, Forming a Residents’ Association, 2020–ongoing, research methodology documentation. 

Courtesy: the artist, LUX Scotland, Glasgow, Nottingham Contemporary, Rule of Threes, Liverpool, and Grand Union, Birmingham

KM To add to that, something has happened around opening up and listening rather than speaking all of the time. Even at a national level – if you think about how vocal the local leadership in Manchester has been [in opposing the government’s tiered system of restrictions] and the way support has galvanized around that, you can feel there’s been a shift. At the heart of that is a demand that the government [in Westminster] properly look to and think about other places across the UK, rather than just focusing on London. It’s about being in tune with and listening to what is actually happening around the entire country.

AS Has the pandemic reconfigured your relationship to what you would consider your local audience? Has it shifted the way that you’re balancing local, national and international concerns?

MT It is interesting: the last fair we did was the Armory Show in March 2020, which was literally on the cusp of everything. As we left New York, the hospital ship pulled up on the pier: it felt like a grim portent of what was about to happen.

When we went into the first lockdown, one of the things I felt quite quickly was that I should phone up artists and talk to them, to see how they were and get a sense of what people needed and how we could be of help, really. Out of that came a series of conversations that we started having on Zoom, where we would bring together an artist and a curator to just talk about their work. One of the things that was clear to me was that, during the initial period of lockdown, it was very hard for artists to remember who they were because their audience had disappeared and, sometimes, it was difficult for them to get to the studio. The idea of even talking about your work or thinking about your practice could feel slightly indulgent almost, given the extremity of what was happening at that time.

KA    It’s interesting hearing Miles talk about those first few weeks and months. Our first reaction was also to think about how we could help the people that we’re here for. In really thinking about that, and who constitutes our community, we’ve been able to clarify our purpose. In terms of localism, I live in an area of Glasgow that is full of artists. I’ve found myself trying to resist the local because we could very easily only work with people that live nearby: that would be entirely possible. It’s been important to remember that we are here to support artists that work across the whole of Scotland. Now, with Zoom, I’m speaking as regularly to artists based in Orkney or Shetland as I am to artists that live down the road from me. There is a sort of democracy of communication – the sense that you can have an equal relationship with people, wherever they are in the country. As long as those people have an internet connection, of course ...

Honey Williams, No Joke by Me, collage, painting, paper, card, ink, acrylic, 119 × 84 cm.  Courtesy: the artist and New Art Exchange, Nottingham; photograph: Tom Morley
Honey Williams, No Joke by Me, collage, painting, paper, card, ink, acrylic, 119 × 84 cm. Courtesy: the artist and New Art Exchange, Nottingham; photograph: Tom Morley

SH In terms of the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and I feel like we haven’t done enough as a gallery and local arts space. We’ve been closed for the bulk of the period since March. We tried to re-open but there was a second wave and, since then, Nottingham has been under restrictions that mean museums and galleries must remain closed. There’s a real sense of guilt that we’ve not contributed enough to what’s happened in the community.

On a personal level, it’s been a really difficult period, because I lost my sister and then I lost my mum. And there are so many people going through experiences like that in the neighbourhood of Hyson Green, I am sure. I feel that maybe we could have done more, looking back, to support that kind of trauma. If you speak to the team, they’re also deflated; they’re missing interaction with the audiences, communities and one another. Our space has always been a hub: it was a place that people, whether they came to the exhibitions or not, could claim as their own. It hasn’t been there for this whole period. We’ve tried to distribute our funds by giving artists work – a bit like what Miles was saying – inviting them to speak on platforms and paying them real fast, even before they do the gig. But the people who we draw our narratives, our context and our motivations from also needed support. I feel that we could have done a lot more for them – not art stuff, just helping out in the community, whether through food banks or clothing or by opening up the space for people to have a coffee in a socially distanced way. We didn’t do any of that: we just closed to make sure we didn’t use all of our reserves because it made financial sense, in terms of keeping the institution going in the long run. But I do wonder if that was the right decision. 

MT Firstly, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother and your sister: that is a lot for anybody to be dealing with. Also, I don’t think you need to feel guilty. We are all feeling that we haven’t done enough, no matter what. Not just in relation to the pandemic but – to bring in some of the other things that have been going on this year – thinking about the impacts of Black Lives Matter or the climate conversation. Everything has changed and everything is up for grabs. Levelling up is part of that: it feels like there’s such possibility for change across everything that we’re doing.

KM It’s easy to think about organizations in the abstract but, really, we’re all just made up of people – we’re all human and vulnerable. We’re just trying to react and deal with things in a way that is as kind as possible to other people. I think there’s much to be said for small gestures at the moment; it doesn’t have to be grand statements. I’ve learned a lot over the past couple of years from an amazing colleague, Jo Capper, who runs our collaborative programme. She’s wonderful because she has an activist background and she was teaching in higher education for a long time. The first thing that she said to our team when the pandemic started was: ‘Who are our constituents?’ She didn’t exactly say: ‘Let’s forget about our arts programming.’ But, she did ask: ‘We have 20 to 30 people living in hostels that we see on a weekly basis: what do we need to do for them?’ It doesn’t have to be massive; it doesn’t have to be public, but you can be responsive and nimble, and there are creative ways to think about how you approach a crisis and work within it to create structures of support for people. I think that’s where the power of ‘regionalism’ and local response comes in. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 217 with the headline ‘A New Regionalism’.

Main image: Jamie Crewe, Ashley, 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist and LUX Scotland

Feature Image: Turner Contemporary building exterior. Courtesy: Benjamin Beker

Amy Sherlock is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

Kitty Anderson is the director of LUX Scotland, a non-profit agency dedicated to supporting artists’ moving-image practices in Scotland. She is a visiting lecturer at Glasgow School of Art, UK. She lives in Glasgow.

Skinder Hundal is director of arts at the British Council. Between 2008 and 2020, he was the CEO of New Art Exchange, Nottingham, UK, an arts centre dedicated to artists from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Kim McAleese is a curator and programme director of Grand Union, Birmingham, UK, a gallery and studio space. She is co-founder of Household Belfast: a collective of curators who organize projects encouraging people to renegotiate how they interact with art in city spaces. She lives in Birmingham.

Miles Thurlow is the co-founder (with Paul Moss) of Workplace, a commercial art gallery in Gateshead and London, UK, which grew out of the artist-led scene in the northeast. In 2017, they set up Workplace Foundation to support artists and communities in the region. He lives in County Durham, UK.