The Art of Devolution: Culture and the North Conference review

by | Jun 27, 2016 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Conference review by Bob Dickinson, PGR policy correspondent for the Art of Devolution Conference.

A week before the Referendum in which Britain voted by a narrow majority to leave the EU, a conference gathered in the old studios of Granada Television in Manchester. Its purpose was to discuss the devolutionary future of the North, its cities, and the role arts and culture will play in all of this under the Northern Powerhouse, the initiative announced in Manchester in 2014 by George Osborne, then the confident Chancellor of an otherwise austerity-delivering, Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition government.

Northern Powerhouse has attracted some jocular comment but remains important, not least because local councils, notably Manchester’s which is Labour controlled, are backing it. As well as major galleries and art venues, which Osborne noted in his original speech, northern cities like Manchester and Liverpool support the livelihoods of many artists, many of whom enjoy studio facilities that are far cheaper than London. Artists and the arts are doing well – and politicians seem to think they are good for the economy, by attracting tourists, by initiating the revival of previously run-down areas, and by creating jobs. But as the Art of Devolution conference began to reveal, things are more complicated than that.

The Northern Powerhouse has promised a rebalancing of the economy towards the North, and away from London, beginning with the upgrading of infrastructure, notably railway and road links. Evidence of this is already being seen in Manchester with, for instance, work beginning on the Ordsall Chord rail scheme and the first moves being made in anticipation of HS2 around Piccadilly Station. Post-industrial land and property are the ground on which the Powerhouse will be built. This was echoed in the site chosen for this conference, which is due to become the heart of a new St Johns regeneration project, adding several more multi-story apartment towers to the landscape, and in the area currently covered by Granada’s old carpark, the construction of the new Factory Manchester arts centre, to which Osborne has pledged £78M out of a total estimated cost of £110M.

The Art of Devolution was the University of Manchester’s first discursive response to the Powerhouse package (a separate conference, organised by Manchester Metropolitan University, took place the following day). Together they indicate the extent to which academic institutions are keen to express and explore their role in the future of the regional, and national, economy (generating £73 billion, annually, according to an open letter to the Independent newspaper, signed by 100 university VCs in opposition to Brexit).[1]

But in the light of that referendum result, there will be a great deal more confusion in many minds as to what the Powerhouse will really mean for the North, especially because Osborne is a noted pro-European, and his days as Chancellor (at the time of me writing this) look numbered.

Before proceeding, it is worth making a few personal admissions. For several years, I have worked as a freelance arts journalist, and I am about to begin a PhD through the North West Consortium Doctorial Training Programme examining the relationship between critical writing and contemporary visual art. So the economic importance of the arts is of special concern to me. Secondly, I am a member of the Manchester Left Writers group, and we were invited to the Art of Devolution conference to perform, as well as to install some of the video works we recently exhibited at Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery, in our Launchpad show, the Powerhouse Liberation Movement – our response to Northern Powerhouse. As a writer on the political left, I have been concerned about Manchester’s many phases of urban regeneration over the years, and I have written about the corporate interests that continue to shape it and have benefitted from it.[2].

Thirdly, between 1985 and 1993, I worked as a researcher and producer at Granada Television in Manchester, and I have been fascinated by way those studio buildings on Quay Street, which have changed very little since I left, have been transformed from a broadcasting centre to a site of high symbolic value in today’s political and cultural discourse.

The Art of Devolution opened with speeches from its biggest names. Fiona Gasper, executive director of Manchester International Festival, provided an official welcome. A keynote address from Maria Balshaw, head of Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth Art Gallery, included an extract from a Guardian editorial by Charlotte Higgins, published at the time the Whitworth’s extension opened. This emphasised culture as a growth strategy, within which Manchester’s ‘level of prominence’ was strongly relevant to the whole Northern Powerhouse project. Furthermore, the ‘creative industries,’ as Balshaw reminded the audience, are the ‘fastest growing part of the economy,’ putting forward arguments for a changing Manchester that sees itself at the heart of the North, away from the ‘world city’ that is London, but owning its own global ‘brand.’[3]

Maria also mentioned a different Manchester, though: the outlying suburbs of the city that are economically as well as culturally deprived. Change at the centre, she seemed to argue, helped in the long term to ‘tackle endemic social problems.’[4]

But in the cold light of June 24th, we needed to realise many parts of Manchester feel far from global, and as the referendum stats make clear, outside Manchester and Liverpool, all 14 Lancashire districts voted to leave the EU.

Maria also mentioned the way artists are beginning to be pushed out of studio spaces in the city centre. She was talking about Rogue Studios, of course, whose building near Piccadilly Railway Station was sold to property development company Capital & Centric recently, and whose 100-plus artists are now looking for a new home.[5]

Noting that in local government ‘there are no top-down structures’ any more to prevent moves like this provided a tough reminder to local artists that they lack any effective representation politically. But a community of young, emerging artists, and a pretty big one, does exist, and should not be forgotten by anyone claiming that ‘creativity’ or ‘creative industries’ (terms that were repeatedly used) are important to the regenerating city.

It may well be true, as was said during the first panel discussion of the day, that artists are good at networking, and artistic networks can pave the way for partnerships linking them to other organisations, be they governmental, educational, or entrepreneurial. It is true too as Professor James Thompson of the University of Manchester pointed out that the arts provide health benefits for all who participate in them. And one cannot exactly disagree with Caroline Julian of the think-tank ResPublica that every community has a right to beautiful places, although what makes a place beautiful might be difficult for any community to agree on. In the North, now, one might also have to think hard about what that word ‘community’ amounts to, in some places.

But there was a bigger question I began asking myself, especially after the mid-way point in the conference when case study presentations began to allow some smaller arts organisations to talk about the challenges facing them, and the sheer effort and ingenuity employed to connect, for instance, with men leaving prison, which was explained well by Simon Ruding of Theatre in Prisons and Probation (TiPP). The question is: how does Northern Powerhouse relate to these arts organisations and artists lower down the pecking order – including those who are young and just starting out – running an experimental theatre company, for instance, or artists trying to establish their practice and sell their work?

Thinking about it, this question points us towards two themes: one of language and one of a growing social divide. They occur together in examples like this: Manchester City Council have stated that they see Factory Manchester (future permanent home of Manchester International Festival, as well as a sizeable arts venue) as central to Manchester’s ‘creative eco-system.’ The St Johns regeneration project it is seen by the Council as a potential ‘cultural enterprise and production district.’  It is worth quoting further detail from the Council’s own online document:

“St John’s will be a seismic catalyst for beneficial economic and social change, driving economic growth by clustering creative industries, digital and HE partners.  It will promote cultural innovation, skills development and talent retention across the Northern Powerhouse (Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds). The Factory will play a critical role in this. As well as being a major new force in the UK and international arts ecology, it will also springboard promising local talent into successful future careers.”[6]

In terms of language some of this makes no sense. ‘Seismic catalyst’ is just bad, corporate hyperbole. But phrases like ‘arts ecology’ suggest a scientifically-studied system, whereas very little hard information exists on the way artists, educational institutions, museums, galleries, theatres, studios, and critical writing inter-act locally, let alone internationally. More worrying is the (long established) use of words like ‘creative’ and ‘innovative.’ At the Art of Devolution conference, there was a distinct split emerging in the way these over-used adjectives were being applied. If creative and innovative work is what they want to make happen in that hub of activity that is desired of Factory Manchester, what kind of work will it be? Work for the painters, sculptors, printmakers, or film-makers inhabiting Rogue Studios (including the laudable work of Pod Collective group, specialising in making art with refugees)? It hardly seems likely. In other words, there is a class divide in the so-called ‘creative industries.’ The upper class is business-savvy, corporate-happy, and upwardly mobile. The lower class is informal, highly-networked, but under threat.

And then, ten days later, the UK voted to leave the EU.

Devolution in the North is facing uncertainty, following that referendum. Two quotes from the Manchester Evening News, on June 24th, sum up the mood. Martin Venning, director of UK Northern Powerhouse which organised the UK Northern Powerhouse Conference earlier in the year in Manchester, stated the result ‘made the case for the UK Northern Powerhouse more compelling.’[7]

Ed Cox of the IPPR North think-tank commented: ‘Our obsession with the big cities and aggregate growth must take a new turn and wake up to the cries of those on the margins who are busy manufacturing the goods we will now struggle harder to sell overseas.’[8]

Meanwhile, up in one pro-Brexit hotspot, Hartlepool, ‘local business chiefs are now seeking to make progress with a devolution deal which is part of the new Tees Valley Combined Authority.’[9]

But they’re nervous, because areas like Hartlepool, which receives millions of pounds of EU investment, will be entirely dependent on whatever, and wherever, the next government decides to push the funding that Brexit campaign leaders previously claimed they can save by not paying it into the EU. In a ‘post factual’ or ‘post truth’ political world, it is difficult to see how these already-struggling parts of the North are ever going to participate in any Powerhouse. And few people are mentioning the arts, or culture, or what it means to be creative, apart from John Kampfner, chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation, who said, on the organisation’s website: ‘It will be vital for all sides to work together to ensure that the interests of our sector on issues including access to funding and talent are safeguarded as the UK forges its new relationship with Europe. The importance of British culture in representing our country to the world will be greater than ever.’[10]

Amid the uncertainty, I believe artists now need to get political. Leaving the EU will endanger the arts, cutting off UK artists from European funding and artistic debate. Artists must not stick their heads in the sand and pretend it will all go away. Many of the North’s full-time art-workers, who are young graduates or post-graduates, no doubt feel their future has been undermined by the EU referendum result, while even younger, succeeding generations are being further damaged by a government whose education policies seem to be squeezing out arts subjects at GCSE level. As it stands, Northern Powerhouse may ultimately generate better communication links, bigger apartment blocks, more hotels, more conference centres, more opportunities to consume the arts, plus create jobs, including jobs for creative workers, of a certain type. But artists who are setting out, starting up, trying to find their way? In the light of the political cynicism and short-sightedness that has defined the last few days and weeks, the Powerhouse project may not turn out the way George Osborne imagined and boasted about.

The transformation of many northern city centres isn’t going to stop. But for how long will economic deprivation hold back the areas outside them? Artists need to get their heads round all this, as well as the rise of nationalist xenophobia on their own northern doorsteps. It is not so much a matter of valuing the arts or saving the arts: artists need to take their own stand on devolution and the sort of society we in the North can build.


[1] University Vice-Chancellors. “EU referendum: An open letter to UK voters from leaders of 103 British universities.” The Independent, 20 June 2016. Available at

[2] For recent examples see MLW’s broadside, Barnstorming the Beeb, 2015, and article for Open Democracy on Peel Group, 2016.

[3] Maria Balshaw, Keynote presented at the Art of Devolution conference, Manchester, 14 June 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See my recent report on this in a-n news:  Rogue Studios: can artists still afford to live and work in Manchester city centre?

[6] Manchester City Council – The Factory, Manchester (PDF)

[7] Shelina Begum. “How does Brexit affect the Northern Powerhouse?” Manchester Evening News, 24 June 2016.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kevin McKenna. “View from Hartlepool.” The Guardian, 26 June 2016.

[10] John Kampfner. “Federation: EU Referendum Response.” Creative Industries Federation, June 2016.