The beginning of a third national lockdown has brought into sharp focus how we must do all we can to protect city centres until a vaccine has been successfully rolled-out and normality can return.
Alongside retail and hospitality, there must be more consideration as to how we can support the art and culture sector, which may not provide the same level of employment but is part of the social fabric and creates vibrancy in city centres.
The past year brought many challenges, with venues closed for almost half of 2020 and three quarters of arts organisations suffering funding cuts. The Government has provided emergency support in the form of a £1.57 bn national funding package, but with local authority arts budgets under pressure, and still uncertainty as to when city centres will return to normality, there is a danger that many organisations will not survive.
It raises the question, could the development sector be doing more? Arts and culture are vital to placemaking and creating long-term value, but developers rarely take a long-term view to nurturing local artists and supporting organisations.
It all starts with how the arts are represented in the planning system. Developers are obliged to agree a contribution under ‘Public Art’ in the Section 106 Agreement, which is typically interpreted as a financial contribution to public artworks.
One problem with this rather narrow approach is the art in question is often selected by the local authority with little engagement with the local community. In the worst cases this can cause frustration and resentment among local people who can feel the art has been imposed on them, and perhaps does not reflect their culture or views. The removal of the Edward Colson statue in Bristol as part of the Black Lives Matters protests is a powerful reminder that public art stirs strong emotions, and the community must feel it is ‘theirs’.
Developers and local authorities have a responsibility to properly engage with the community around public art, in the same way we would around a development project. In Brighton we have seen the benefit of this first-hand: by issuing an open call to local artist and creatives, and assembling a panel of local people, we have ended up with a truly unique and landmark piece at Edward Street Quarter. The piece, an 10 ft high mural of the Roman God Neptune, is a reference to Brighton’s nautical history but also an image with strong positive connotations for Brighton’s LGBT+ community.
The other issue with using Section 106 as a mechanism to support the arts is that it is means there is a very narrow focus on a financial contribution. No matter how that money is used the fact remains developers have a more valuable commodity they can contribute: space.
Public art is vital to placemaking but as we know a statue, plaque or mural will not contribute to the economic recovery. By taking a more holistic approach and thinking about how a development can provide or safeguard space for local artists we can support jobs as well as create lasting vibrancy. This may mean less financial return for developers in the short-term, but long-term investors understand that there are clear commercial benefits in nurturing arts and culture as part of the fabric of a place.
The arts deliver many vital and often unseen benefits to places and communities. We must offer more than a statue in recognition.