What can culture and the arts do for a place? 

by Gareth Roberts

As our members will know, at IPM we spend much of our time conducting research into how we can make better places. Much of this work focuses on the high street, and whilst our towns and cities are clearly operating in a challenging environment, we are always keen to point out that this challenge does not signal their demise. Rather, it is reflective of a shift in how we use them, with retail no longer the critical fulcrum it once was, and it is down to place managers to develop the means of capitalising on this change in demand.

As this realisation sets in, towns and cities are increasingly looking for ways to complement their retail offer, encouraging visitors through other means. One way this is being done is through the development of a cultural offering. This is nothing new – planners and policy makers began to espouse the development of cultural activity in the early 1990s as a means of revitalising cities in the process of de-industrialisation[i], encouraging the rise of the ‘experience economy’[ii]. As a result, culture has, over time, become an increasingly common means of consuming a city[iii].

As someone with an interest in cultural goings on, for me the benefits are clear. They create an appeal and a vibrancy in places which makes me want to visit them. The knock-on effect of this is that whilst I am there for the purpose of cultural consumption, I am also likely to do some shopping, or visit a restaurant or bar. As such, I’ve then become a much coveted thing, what you may call a holistic place consumer, despite being attracted to that place for a single reason.

With places everywhere vying for visitors, providing a cultural attraction can provide a point of differentiation, bringing in people who would not otherwise have visited. It can also create a buzz that can energise residents and engage the local community. If we look at some larger examples of cultural interventions, we can see that they have been so successful as to become brands in their own right, such as the Edinburgh festival (and fringe), the Cannes film festival, or the Notting Hill carnival. We also now see places compete with each other for cultural recognition. In 2008, Liverpool was awarded the European Capital of Culture, an accolade that has spawned the UK city of culture. In 2017, this was awarded to Hull, with Coventry the next recipient in 2021. The obvious implication being that cultural development – and recognition of this – is something worth competing for, such are the rewards it can offer.

Moving down the scale, Manchester has benefited from the bi-annual International Festival, which has brought world-renowned artists – and worldwide visitors – to the city since its inception in 2007. The Council have suggested that the 2017 festival brought around 300,000 people into the city, generating an economic boost in the region of £40million. Therefore, the benefits are clear to see.

However, use of culture as an interventionary tool is now filtering down from the major cities and is increasingly being utilised by smaller towns to differentiate themselves and attract visitors. Indeed, research has shown that even small-scale cultural interventions can have a positive impact for places[iv]; smaller towns have realised this and are looking to capitalise. One such town looking to benefit from a cultural injection is Northwich in Cheshire, which recently played host to ‘North by Northwich’ – a festival built around the homecoming of the town’s most famous musical export, the Charlatans. In addition to four sold out shows at the town’s Memorial Court venue (their first in the town since 1990), the band put together a 10-day town takeover featuring – amongst other things – a long list of gigs from some of their favourite artists, a number of ‘audience with’ events, after parties, an exhibition, and a vinyl record fair.

IPM were fortunate enough to have a chat with the band, and in the spirt of keeping it local, what better location to meet than at the local chip shop? So, I sat down at the Seafarer chippy with Martin Blunt and Tony Rogers to get the lowdown on the festival and their hopes for what it can do for Northwich.

The band are well aware of the challenges that Northwich is facing, and whilst the festival serves as a means of the band promoting themselves, they are clear that it was also conceived of to give the town a boost. “It was more to bring people into the town, and not necessarily just people from Northwich, people have travelled in from London, and Utah in the States!” said Martin. Tony continues, “it’s really good to give it back to the people, things like this are at roots level, it’s not a big record company promotion. It’s us being back at street level, and talking to people that buy the records, the fans, and this Northwich event is a big part of that.”

In a town that is close to the mean for socio-economic indicators[v], it is perhaps unsurprising that its struggles are similar to that seen all around the country. The band are familiar with the issues facing the town, “the oxymoron of Northwich is that since I moved here in 1991, the population has tripled”, says Martin, “but it’s not really having a connection for bringing people into the town.” Tony is hopeful that the festival can help to turn things around, “hopefully it will put Northwich on the map, because these towns are struggling, there’s generally not a lot going on. But this is where we started, one of the first gigs we did was just over the road, so it’s nice to come back to where we started out, and if we can give a little bit back, fantastic. I wish other bands could do the same.”

Of course, it would be remiss to talk to a band about issues affecting the high street without mentioning record shops. Like many bands, the Charlatans formative years were spent idling through the racks of their local store – Omega, the Northwich record store that happened to be owned by their former manager.  With music consumption now firmly in the grips of the digital world, Tony is clear that it is important for record stores to remain, “our manager used to have a record shop, Omega Music, up on Whitton Walk, that’s where we used to go every day to talk business. The small shop, the small record trader, it is very important, it is how you search and research music. The kids these days, I’m not sure whether they’re interested in that, but I think by keeping record shops, keeping all that independence, their interest will grow, and for that reason alone, it’s important to keep the shops going.”  Aside from developing the musical tastes of the youth of today, the often independent nature of record stores is also an important factor, and why Martin thinks their survival, and that of local shops in general, is critical. “A lot of the chains have got no allegiance to any particular town, so when the chips are down, they’ll just shut up shop and move out. So it’s important to try and encourage the independent retail that has that connection to the town.”

Much like our town centres and high streets, one could argue that cultural development hasn’t been adequately supported at policy-level, with the provision of culture and the arts traditionally seen as a non-mandatory requirement for local authorities. Martin is clear that this is a mistake, “some people, some MPs, will say the arts don’t really mean anything, but in a broad sense it does, it brings people into the cities and helps to make them what they are.” Local authorities such as Liverpool have shown the benefits that culture can bring. Mayor Joe Anderson has long been a supporter of cultural development and progress, realising the positive effects it can have. Anderson has been instrumental in prioritising cultural investment in the city, embedding culture in Council policy, and turning Liverpool into a major cultural tour-de force in the process. The Capital of Culture award event in 2008 attracted almost 10million extra visitors to the city, spurning a whole host of cultural development that has provided a valuable legacy for the city. Martin has seen this, and draws parallels to what happened in Manchester in the late 80s/early 90s, the height of the ‘Madchester’ era: “Look at Tony Wilson and Factory Records, they had quite a big hand in regenerating Manchester, because I think music had a lot to do with that. It helped to turn it into the vibrant city that it these days, and what’s happening with Liverpool now as well, they have re-identified themselves as cities people want to come in to.”

Whilst drawing a link between music scenes and the development of major cities may seem spurious, there is clearly something to be said for culture acting as a catalyst for wider development. Former MP Tristram Hunt, now – somewhat fittingly – director of the V&A museum, once claimed that cultural interventions can provide the seedlings for civic regeneration. I would suggest that this is true of all towns and cities, regardless of size. Small-scale interventions that nudge places in the right direction can have a cumulative influence. North by Northwich is one of these small steps in the right direction, and irrespective of the economic benefits, it is something that the town has been better with than without. The Charlatans shows alone saw 2600 people visit Northwich that week (the shows were massively oversubscribed, with 30,000 people on the waiting list for tickets), with many more attracted to the supporting events taking place across the town. The Charlatans performances were also available to stream online, bringing Northwich to a far wider, even worldwide, audience.

At IPM we are proponents of the unquantifiable value of places, of the meanings we attribute to and extract from them. Events such as this help to create these kinds of meanings and connections, bringing people in and making them want to return. Such was its success, a 2019 instalment of North by Northwich has already been mooted. An outcome of this is that the festival is laying the groundwork for a cultural legacy on which further progress can be built, and that can only be a good thing for the town.

[i] Markusen, A., Wassall, G.H., DeNatale, D., and Cohen, R. (2008) Defining the creative economy: Industry and occupational approaches. Economic Development Quarterly 22(24). pp.24-45. Sage Publications.

[ii] Pine, B.J. and Gilmore, J.H. (1999) The Experience Economy. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[iii] Ritzer, G. (1999) Enchanting a disenchanted world: Revolutionising the means of consumption. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

[iv] Evans, G. and Shaw, P. (2004), The contribution of culture to regeneration in the UK: A review of evidence – a report to the Department for Culture Media and Sport.

[v] https://www.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk/your-council/key-statistics-and-data/key-statistics-and-data.aspx