Welcome to the North

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 formed the main introduction in the A&AJ 66-67 published in Autumn 2008. This Special Edition focussed on the North of England, and in particular a pan-regional public art programme called Welcome to the North being commissioned by the Northern Way in partnership with the three northern Regional Development Agencies.

Welcome to the North: Public Art of the Northern Way Programme

This special edition of Art and Architecture Journal focuses its northern perspective towards the burgeoning diversity of innovative public art to be experienced throughout this creatively independent über-region. As such, and featured in some detail in the magazine, is the significant commissioning influence of a pan-regional public art programme called Welcome to the North. This has been commissioned by the Northern Way, which is a unique initiative, “bringing together the cities and regions of the North of England to work together to improve the sustainable economic development of the North”. Its ambitious aim, is to close the £30bn output gap between the North and the average for England. The desire stems from the self-styled “paradigm shift” launched by ex Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in 2004 at the Urban Summit. As well as showcasing Welcome to the North projects, also included in this issue are articles on: John Newling’s The Preston Market Mystery Project, part of the In Certain Places programme; the highly original work of international research and development agency Grizedale Arts in Cumbria; English Heritage’s continuing arts programme at Belsay Hall in Northumberland; and Dan Dubowitz’s Lead Artist role on both The Peeps at Ancoats in Manchester, and in Newtopia on the Scotswood Housing Expo in Newcastle. Other featured updates include the current public art scene associated with northern cultural centres like Sheffield and Newcastle-Gateshead.

Seen collectively like this, the pure depth and breadth of public art here is hugely encouraging. But of course this confidence and vibrancy is not just a recent phenomenon. It is a simmering northern legacy evolved from a range of pioneering arts practice that stretches back well over 50 years. This school of influence is incredibly diverse and includes most notably: the abstract work of major northern artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, begun at Leeds School of Art in the 1920’s; émigré Kurt Schwitters developing his Merzbarn concept in 1940’s Cumbria; and work like Victor Pasmore’s art-architecture collaboration on the pavilion at Peterlee New Town in 1970’s County Durham. More recently, major strategic programmes like: the Yorkshire Sculpture Park conceived in 1977; the two northern Garden Festivals of 1984 and 1990; the Art Transpennine exhibition in 1998; Liverpool Biennial launched in 1999; Liverpool Capital of Culture in 2008; and the ongoing Culture10 cultural events and festivals programme throughout the North East; have all helped define and elevate this northern cultural perspective yet further. And it doesn’t end there; notable future legacy is additionally primed with the inaugural year of the Tatton Park Biennial in Cheshire; and in the bold vision of a potential future West Yorkshire Sculpture Festival.

This influential list of course leaves out one significant artistic contributor – Antony Gormley’s seminal work The Angel of the North. In its tenth anniversary year following installation, May 2008 sees The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead hosting The Angel Symposium to explore “The effect of public art on regional culture; economy and politics.” Gateshead Council’s anticipated response to this question appears quite clear, it being seen by them as a signpost to a much wider and prolonged cluster of cultural activities. On the Council’s own website it states that without the density of cultural offer built around Angel, it would be much less effective. The forms of ‘linkage’ and ‘virtual clustering’ it describes are seen as being critical. During a 25-year programme, Gateshead have commissioned over 80 works of art, with around a third of these being pre-Angel, including many of these linked to the 1990 Gateshead Garden Festival – an important factor not lost on Gormley himself on the website. However, by its 10th birthday, the illusive alchemy of the ‘Angel Effect’ has sometimes become little more than a battle for the best regional icon of regeneration and marketing, than as advocacy for art-for-art-sake. The Ebbsfleet Landmark is arguably one such public art flagship, being a key component of the mass regeneration planned around the newly opened Eurostar Station in Kent. Eminent selection panel member, and Executive Director of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Peter Murray, acts as advocate for the landmark project. He also maintained in a public art feature on Radio 4’s You and Yours programme in February 2008, that the UK doesn’t actually spend a huge amount on public art anyway. This may be true, but the rather capitalistic greed seen here is for a £2 million and 40 to 50 metre high artistic statement made in one big hit, whilst using an artist shortlist of ‘big names’ to deliver it. The quote from Winston Churchill of “We shape our landscape, thereafter it shapes us” is used by Ebbsfleet Project Ltd to sell their stirring philanthropic ambition, but perhaps subliminally written between these lines is the real economic rider to all this: “and being more expensive, thou shalt be bigger, better and more iconic than The Angel of the North”.

Of course, since the industrial revolution, regional envy and economic competition has been commonplace. This has involved an added dimension wherever it has also tackled the complex myths and realities of the English north-south divide. In February 2008, that Great British indicator of vox-pop Travelodge, released the findings of a customer poll that showed a real bias from customers towards their respective northern and southern neighbours. In it, 61% of southerners wrote-off the North of England as being “cold, bleak and unsophisticated” and not worth a visit. Many also cited Jack Duckworth as their northern man personified – with his pseudo-northern dialect, as seemingly spoken by all in Weatherfield’s Coronation Street. Writer and radio presenter Stuart Maconie is perhaps the cultural media’s own preferred northern-born ambassador, being populist, forthright and funny like ‘Our Jack’; but thankfully also cultured, articulate and urbane. As it happens, Maconie identifies similar north-south stereotyping to that reported by Travelodge in his 2008 book Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North. However, whilst dedicating it “for the angels of the north”, he also writes lovingly of his own northern affinity to Gormley’s Angel as “a landmark that says ‘You’re home’. A star to navigate by, a friend, a strangely affecting totem of what the north means to us: lonely, loving, free”. Given this, and somewhat ironically, a Geordie he consulted saw Maconie’s own Wigan roots as being more Midlands than Northern. This honest observation wouldn’t come as a shock to some resident northerners, and speaks volumes of the historic north, south and Trans Pennine sub-divisions within the North anyway. It also revealed a combined strength and weakness in the paradox between an externally perceived northern unity, contrasted with historic inter-regional rivalry. This northern competitiveness should never (and probably could never) be changed, as it lies at the very heart of an almost indefinable ‘Northern Soul’. It has meant however, that for whatever reason, the North has historically continued to under achieve economically whenever compared to its southern neighbours.

Attempting in its own way to address this paradox, the £4.4 million Welcome to the North public art programme is a unique commissioning opportunity that sees a number of major works commissioned at key gateways across the North. It is the first time in the UK that such an ambitious pan-regional public art strategy has ever been carried out. The programme is a part of the overall £13 million Market the North to the World investment strand; drawn itself from a £100 million Northern Way Growth Fund. A small but important part of this, Welcome to the North is intended to help improve the cultural offer and to enhance perception, profile and quality of place in an internationally-branded ‘England’s North Country’. More than just implementing a series of iconic regeneration symbols however, Welcome to the North’s has an ambitious long-term vision. This is to engage northern, British and international audiences alike, whilst also seeking to identify both the likelihood of resulting inward investment and contributions to the positive profile of the North through related tourism and marketing gains. To add further value to this, a number of high level Northern Way Public Art Advisory Panels have been engaged to provide ongoing expert advice and to champion the programme – thus ensuring that the wider opportunities and legacy arising out of this investment are maximised. The programme has also commissioned Arts Council England to create an innovative virtual gateway to the North of England through a highly ambitious touring and new media artist residency called The Wonderful North. It is also a significant contributor to Channel 4’s Big Art Project, with 3 out of its 7 British projects being based in the North (Burnley, St Helens and Sheffield). Recently completed within this northern portfolio, is Greyworld’s Invisible community engagement and light projection project for Burnley.

As in The Angel Symposium, the notion that culture can add value to regeneration crops up many times nowadays. It is a question that Lewis Biggs, Chief Executive of Liverpool Biennial, helped debate this time, in an earlier public art feature on Radio 4’s You and Yours programme in April 2007. His concluding view was that the spiritual and social dimension of art should always be paramount, and that the “arts are about the arts” and “not about making money”. Whilst this is of course true, whenever art enters the public realm to integrate itself architecturally as ‘public art’, it inevitably becomes bound by a number of other controlling forces. This complexity, contradiction and paradox is perhaps what gives public art such power whenever it is actually done well. The only problems perhaps comes when the curatorial balance gets out of kilter and is forced too far towards the economic and marketing ends of the spectrum.

The 2005 BBC series and accompanying show at TATE Britain called A Picture of Britain explored how the British landscape has inspired artists for three hundred years, and examined how their work has in turn influenced our view of it. The section entitled The Romantic North – Man, Nature and Society, looked to Northern England itself, where its opposing human themes were seen as ‘discovery of nature’, and the ‘industrial city’. In doing so, it set J M W Turner’s Morning amongst the Coniston Fells, Cumberland, against L S Lowry’s Industrial Landscape of Salford. This stark contrast of ‘rural versus urban’ and ‘romantic versus pragmatist’ still exists in the North today. Welcome to the North attempts to pick up on this, as a result of largely unconditional funding offered to its select group of existing public art programmes. Whilst the projects seen collectively carry no pre-determined curatorial theme, and do not all involve northern artists, their overriding sense of northern entrepreneurial culture and originality does shine through. Of course, the need for artistic integrity and legacy through the ‘linkage’ and ‘virtual clustering’ that Gateshead Council advocate, will be much harder to achieve when operating pan regionally like this. However, the unprecedented scale and degree of ambition evident in many aspects of The Northern Way provides great hope that this could be possible if enabled. As such, Welcome to the North should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a fixed-term initiative that can act as both flagship to the bigger Northern Way programme, and then (hopefully) as a catalytic marker for what can be achieved when the North collaborates really creatively. In the same spirit of Ebbsfleet’s grand marketing vision, and at the watershed 10 years on from The Angel of the North, another famous Churchill quotation might apply to the realisation of Welcome to the North; in alluding to the stirring agit-prop that such a mass campaign can bring to the North: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”



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Categories: Writing

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