Is the northern ‘cultural powerhouse’ an empty bribe?

The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. David Levene

The reopening of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery is the latest in a slew of good news in what might be perceived as a cultural coup for the North of England. Or at least for Manchester, which George Osborne has been convinced to place at the artistic heart of his so-called Northern Powerhouse plan.

Osborne’s plan is designed to support a call from five key northern cities (Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield and Liverpool) for a £15bn investment over five years in science, transport and infrastructure. Cynics might note that both culture and the Conservatives have come late to the regional investment party. This was sparked not only by the looming general election but also by the game-changing Scottish Independence referendum, which put the spotlight firmly on the benefits of devolution.

Perhaps cognisant of appearing opportunist, and no doubt articulately lobbied about the potential of the creative economy, Osborne recently pledged £78m for The Factory, a brand new cultural centre that will provide a permanent home for the biennial Manchester International Festival. So much for austerity.

Eyebrows were raised, to say the least, in the cultural sector and other large northern cities. All questioned this yet further investment in Mancunian bricks-and-mortar, particularly considering the long-awaited launch of the £25m new multi-arts centre Home in April, which alone will undoubtedly confirm Manchester as the most significant artistic hub outside of London.

Cornelia Parker’s War Room, The Whitworth. David Levene

What incentive?

It is a well known fact of fundraising that people give money to people rather than to organisations. The same truism is not so widely nor openly acknowledged in cultural policy circles. But politicians and civil servants notoriously fund their pet projects, and this applies as much to the arts and culture as it does to other areas of public funding.

So let’s be clear: cultural investment in Manchester from central government is not about creating a “cultural powerhouse” in the North; it is about being perceived to take the North seriously. And perhaps it is also a small attempt to right the wrongs so openly exposed in the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Arts Council England’s geographical distribution of funding.

Maria Balshaw, Director of the Whitworth Gallery, argues that Manchester has two great strengths: strong and stable leadership and a culture of collaboration. I would add a third: a powerful council that recognises the intrinsic and instrumental benefits of the arts and culture and places them at the heart of its strategy for growth. Manchester City Council certainly plays on its size and location to prise investment from central government, but it puts its money where its mouth is in terms of investing itself in the arts, even in the most difficult of times.

Arts, not buildings

The overwhelming success of new national touring arts organisations, such as National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre Wales, demonstrates that healthy national infrastructures require creative modes of investment. New business models are needed that prioritise the making of and engagement with art rather than the buildings that merely house it. While exciting and laudable on one level, the problem with large urban development capital projects like the Whitworth and The Factory is that they suck up a significant amount of public funding that might otherwise be spent on art itself.

Sarah Lucas’s exhibition, The Whitworth. David Levene

The Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital report pointed out that 11 times more per capita is spent on the arts in London than in the rest of England. On the back of this there is finally a sense that some long overdue rebalancing might indeed take place. But the last thing the North of England needs at the moment is more white elephants.

A more sustainable and creative rebalancing would focus on increasing funding levels for producing arts organisations based in the regions, so that they are less reliant on the paucity of touring work from London. Live streaming is all well and good, but it is no substitute for home-grown work, produced and performed live for local people.

So the key question is what a northern cultural powerhouse might actually look like. In Leeds, we’re lucky enough to benefit from a critical mass of top class producing arts organisations, including Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Northern Ballet. The city has also been named as a national centre of excellence for dance. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, there is a growing critical mass of innovative, high profile companies such as Slung Low, Unlimited Theatre, The Paper Birds and RashDash as well as a healthy emerging and underground arts scene and ground-breaking partnerships with HE.

This all makes for a healthy (if of course sometimes fractious) creative ecology. This needs to be built upon and replicated across the North of England – let’s hope that these five powerful cities can collaborate to make the case for increased subsidy of artistic and cultural production. After all, it is artists, audiences and communities that generate culture and creativity, not flagship (and often empty) buildings.