Art on the Front Line

In a voluntary capacity, Ian Banks was on the Editorial Board of Art & Architecture Journal (A&AJ) and more laterly listed as joint Deputy Editor. He wrote regularly on public art in the North of England.

A&AJ was a printed quarterly art magazine published between 1980 – 2009, and edited by Jeremy Hunt. AAJPress is the successor to the A&AJ and currently presented as an online blog, providing information and communication on public art commissions, projects, collaboration and architecture based in the United Kingdom.

The below article by Ian Banks in the A&AJ 64 published in Winter 2005/06. looked to something of a cultural revolution happening in Sunderland, and in particular the enlightened commissioning by Urban Regeneration Company Sunderland Arc of architect-artist Dan Dubowitz to help them enable a cultural masterplan for the city – including a case for artist-led initiatives to create more ephemeral work.

Art on the Front Line: A Cultural Revolution in Sunderland  

Above: Hobo1 is a collaboration between artist David Cotterrell and Dan Dubowitz, and is a transient series of projections, from reclaimed US military air vehicles, onto Sunderland’s wastelands: 2006 – Images supplied by Sunderland arc – &

The actuality of Sunderland’s front line presents an interesting paradox, whilst it is a frontier in urgent economic need, it also holds ambitions to become an immediate cultural leader in the process. Its future renaissance will involve the remodelling of an entire industrial city, with a targeted investment of £1.5 billion to physical projects over the next 12 years. However, as part of this ambitious plan, is another undertaking to lever in a completely unprecedented £8 million from the private sector, to spend on both temporary and permanent arts commissioning, to benefit the public realm throughout the entire city. This is in stark contrast to traditional Section 106 or Percent for Art funding agreements used regularly elsewhere – where money for arts commissioning is associated with the actual development generating the levy, and is restricted to more traditional and permanent public art.

The seed of culture often flourishes in a dwindling economy and environment, and so it has in Sunderland. The once major glass, coal and ship-building centre slowly haemorrhaged over the 20th century, but the city has slowly come to terms with the reality of its reducing industrial hinterland and shifting economic focus. Creativity often thrives despite such things, and can even benefit from a sense of neglected isolation. Sunderland’s close proximity to historic competitor Newcastle and Gateshead, has made it increasingly difficult for it to keep apace and the ‘culture-as-economic-driver’ gap between the two cities began to widen following the economic decline and subsequent cultural reinvention of the North East, through iconic flagships Angel of the North, Baltic and Sage, The partisan view of Sunderland from Newcastle is historically of a city of ‘Plastic Geordies’ or ‘Mackem’s’, from the derogatory term ‘Mackem and Tackem’ implying they could only ever make the ships that others took economic advantage of. However, this could not be further from the truth, as it has always been an entrepreneurial city with a creative culture of originality and true identity, proven by the little-known fact that it is the largest city of the North East. One can look at the emergence of Glasgow’s and Liverpool’s new cultural image out from the shadow of respective big-brothers Edinburgh and Manchester, to recognise that such radical reinventions are always possible. The trick here for Sunderland will be for it to benefit from the increased strategic profile and energy of the North East in general, and Newcastle-Gateshead in particular, whilst also retaining a confidence to forge its own ambitious and utterly original cultural identity.

Sunderland arc is one of the main organisations responsible for the regeneration of the city centre throughout a number of sites along the River Wear. Similar Urban Regeneration Companies (URC’s)2 exist throughout the country, and have all been promoted by the government and established by local partners, in order to achieve a focused, integrated regeneration and implementation strategy for key urban centres. To help achieve its own ambition, the arc is supported by a powerful local, regional and national partnership of Sunderland Council, One NorthEast and English Partnerships. The arc and partners are charged with the task of improving Sunderland’s economy, infrastructure and quality of life and the creation of a thriving city centre. Within the broad portfolio of such ambitious aims and objectives, the role and implementation of culture (used as a driving force for economic, social and cultural regeneration), has been recognised by Sunderland arc as a prime tool. This vision of course fits the strategic cultural ambitions of One North East and The Tyne & Wear Economic Strategy, in contributing directly to their key cross-cutting themes of creating a ‘Culturally Vibrant North East’. It also identifies with Culturefirst, the City Council’s own highly ambitious cultural strategy.
A key player in Sunderland’s long-term plan is of course Tom Macartney, Chief Executive of the arc. He is a blue-sky visionary with a no-nonsense approach – and was also commentator on the Urban Task Force’s 1999 final report, Towards an Urban Renaissance, set up to explore providing homes for 4 million additional households through a 25-year ‘urban renaissance’. Before joining the arc, he was also director of the acclaimed Crown Street Regeneration Project in the Gorbals, Glasgow, which in many ways has acted as a pilot for the use of cultural strategies within many subsequent regeneration projects. Integral to the success of the Gorbals regeneration was the incorporation at an early stage of an artworks masterplan. This idea was conceived and delivered by a public art collective called Heisenberg 3 (comprising artist-architect Dan Dubowitz and artist Matt Baker). Heisenberg had been formed originally in 1998 to undertake a programme of collaborative artworks exploring the cultural importance of urban wasteland. As such, they were a flagship project of Glasgow’s UK City of Architecture festival in 1999 with ‘Journeymen’ a series of 30 installations that highlighted and initiated a public interest and debate for Glasgow’s plethora of derelict buildings and spaces. Their Requiem for Springburn’s Public Halls involved the illumination of the building with 2000 Vatican candles. In 2002, as part of the Crown Street Regeneration Project, they unveiled The Gatekeeper at the South West Corner of the Gorbals, where, in the space left between the two apartment blocks a 5 metre sepia photograph apparition of a woman was installed in a steel and glass lightbox (standing on stilts some 11 metres above the ground) with a bronze of another figure, suspended horizontally above. The installation resonates with the notion of the Gorbals as a gateway for Highlanders, Irish, Jewish and Asian immigrant communities to Glasgow over the centuries, and it captured the imagination (and ownership) of the current mixed community. Heisenberg disbanded around 2002, when each artist left to develop their individual practices.

The issue of wastelands continues at the heart of many of Dan Dubowitz’s subsequent projects – whilst practicing as Civic Works.4 The most substantial of these resulted from a successful tender to Sunderland arc as artworks masterplanner (which brought about the reunion with Tom Macartney), to act as both  masterplanner and lead-artist and help it deliver an arts-led regeneration framework. Now launched as The Cultural Masterplan,5 Dan Dubowitz makes it clear that this is not a traditional cultural strategy – providing theatre, performing arts and general arts provision – but is a blue print specifically for providing artist involvement, art work and  cultural activity in relation to the regeneration projects in Sunderland. He believes The Cultural Masterplan is a blueprint for involving artists from the early stages “bringing about in the process cultural regeneration through physical regeneration”. The Cultural Masterplan is putting the city on the international arts map – in the way that the Sunderland band The Futureheads has also raised its profile within the music world. It has become a close collaboration with partners such as Sunderland City Council, Sunderland University, the National Glass Centre, the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art and the Reg Vardy Gallery. As part of its longer-term vision, it is also identifying and collaborating with key local artist groups such as SLAB and will even look to influence artist studio provisions in the city. 

Working closely with Dan Dubowitz on the development of The Cultural Masterplan has been Ben Hall, Sunderland arc’s Operations Manager and Alison Redshaw, Sunderland City Council’s Strategic Arts Officer. Ben Hall firmly believes that whilst Sunderland arc is about regenerating derelict sites, it also wants a cultural regeneration. In addition to this, and from the perspective of the critical community engagement, Alison Redshaw wants it to get to the point where people in Sunderland are so comfortable with challenging public artworks that they start demanding them. This Cultural Masterplan is not about the integration of a traditional public art strategy though. The cultural transformation of regenerating cities, is rarely planned and is invariably left towards the end of the regeneration programme – when it is often far too late. Dubowitz has defined three principle mechanisms in order to embed cultural projects early within this overall regeneration process: First is Masterplanning Culture – The city’s fundamental commitment, to the cultural transformation through physical regeneration; Second is the itinerant commissions programme, an unprecedented level of commitment to undertaking artist lead temporary and ephemeral commissions at the early stages of a regeneration programme. Third is the Percent for Innovation – An evolution of the more traditional percent for art approach, where direct contributions from the private sector, are comprehensively levered in through site ownership and Development Agreements (as opposed to reliance on Section 106 agreements negotiated through the planning). This is a series of permanent commissions where artists not artworks are commissioned to respond and integrate work in the emerging regenerated sites across Sunderland.

The Cultural Masterplan appears to be initiating a cultural regeneration synchronised with the physical regeneration of Sunderland. Kick-starting this process will be the immediate commissioning of temporary art interventions throughout the city centre, with these temporal artworks taking place over a three-year programme – followed-on by a series of more permanent commissions. Both will involve not just artists, but other creatives, such as scientists, engineers, cosmologists and designers. Dan Dubowitz’s fundamental belief is that these temporal projects will start to become permanent as they begin to enter the psyche of a city and initiate a range of dialogues between people and their city. “The first stage of temporal works is aimed at activating sites which people may have forgotten about, lost. We want to engage with the community not only directly but at a subliminal level; getting people to engage with sites.” 

Above: Hobo1 is a collaboration between artist David Cotterrell and Dan Dubowitz, and is a transient series of projections, from reclaimed US military air vehicles, onto Sunderland’s wastelands: 2006 – Images supplied by Sunderland arc – &

This itinerant programme is titled Hobo, and alludes to the transient nature of the intended art works. To encourage a wide variety of creatives to put their ideas forward, Dan Dubowitz has also initiated a Call For Artists.6 This is clearly an opportunity for all artists, whether international, national or local, to register their interest online in being considered for a commission from The Cultural Masterplan. The associated website is designed to last 12 years, and all text and images uploaded by artists online will be curated and then archived. He says: “We will choose people based on what they do and give them a period of time in which to come up with their idea. It is about selecting an artist not an artwork.” The initial plan is for everybody that applies to be posted on the site and as commissions come up a short-list of 3 preferred candidates are interviewed based only on past work and one is selected to develop a proposal collaboratively. The intention is, with the first private sector Percent for Innovation contribution of £150,000 coming in mid-2006, that there will then be a huge pool of creative thinkers and innovative ideas to choose from.  Just prior to that, a first phase called Hobo1 will launch with a number of temporary commissions for the North East nomadic AV Fest7 in March 2006. Hobo1 involves a collaboration between artist David Cotterrell8 and Dan Dubowitz. It is the creation of a transient series of projections from space onto Sunderland’s wastelands. It as a project daunting in its technical ambition incorporating the customisation of reclaimed US military air vehicles and suspended tracking moving image projection spots.– seen at various times, locations and altitudes throughout the city. Equally challenging will be the way the project will begin appearing in the city with no sign of authorship or explanation. Posters are already appearing around the city, to direct people to a website blog on which sightings of the eerie shadow projections can be reported.

The old Anglo Saxon name ‘Sundered Land’ actually refers to the land separated by the River Wear from the monastic estates of Monkwearmouth to the north – the verb ‘to sunder’ means to wrench apart or sever. It was this unintentional severance from the mainstream, through the historic application of a highly specialised industrial base, that perhaps contributed to Sunderland’s downfall. Things happily are now changing, and indeed the swiftness of this change is breathtaking, as many of the joint initiatives of the city council and arc begin to gather momentum, including the imminent arrival of a new Public Art Officer for the City Council. It is of course imperative that Sunderland as a city, continues to think big, and to plug itself back into the wider system on all regional, national and international levels. Culture is of course a critical element in helping it achieve this, and as an integral part of this ambitious goal The Cultural Masterplan is literally off to a flying start and has the real potential to become not just the envy of neighbours Newcastle-Gateshead, but also the world. 

Architect Ian Banks is the Principal of Atoll, a collaborative art + architecture practice.  He is also the part-time Consultant Director of Public Realm at Public Arts, the Yorkshire-based public art and architecture agency – +

*1 Art on the Front Line was the title provided by Tom Macartney, Chief Executive of Sunderland Area Regeneration Company (the arc)1, for his talk on the exemplar role for art and design in Sunderland’s extraordinary transformation – delivered as part of the recent Great Artistic Metropolis: Art in the City conference. 


Categories: Writing

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