Reap the cultural rewards of brave decisions

Communities can be transformed through cultural investment but it requires some brave decision-making.

Dotti Irving: CEO of Four Colman Getty
Dotti Irving: CEO of Four Colman Getty

Using culture as a driver for economic and social regeneration is nothing new.

In 1951 the Festival of Britain established the South Bank, an area that had been overshadowed by the opposite bank, as the international focal point for the arts that it still is today.

More recently the Basque authorities transformed the image of Bilbao - a fast-declining industrial centre - by commissioning the iconic Guggenheim Museum as the first stage of an ambitious redevelopment programme for the city. Bilbao is now a major tourist destination. In its first three years, almost four million tourists visited the museum, generating about EUR500m. The regional council estimated that the money visitors spent on hotels, restaurants, shops and transport allowed it to collect EUR100m in taxes, which more than paid for the building.

This proves using culture as a driver of regeneration works. But the reality of UK public money being devoted to the arts during the worst recession in living memory is challenging. It would take a brave arts minister or councillor to push through a cultural build at the expense of maintaining the health service, educating children or collecting rubbish. It truly isn't easy to make these choices, as one councillor who was in charge of waste disposal and culture (in that order) recently explained to me. But those who make these difficult decisions will reap the rewards.

There are a number of visionary decision-makers out there. Look at Margate and how Turner Contemporary has transformed what was, until recently, a down-at-heel English seaside town.

Look too at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, a £25.6m, 1,200-seat state-of-the-art auditorium with vastly improved facilities, along with a second, smaller studio, on the site of the original Marlowe. In the two years since launch it has seen record audience numbers, an increase of 26 per cent on the old theatre. The commercial success of the main house is also enabling the new studio to develop the UK's next generation of theatre-makers and support writing and community activity.

Canterbury city has benefited too: £24.34m has been generated for the local economy, an increase of more than 84 per cent. Theatre audiences have eaten 128,000 tubs of local ice cream and 41,000 chocolate bars and sweets - 4.5 tonnes in all.

The most striking example of UK cultural regeneration in recent years must be the newly opened Library of Birmingham. A three-year, £189m capital project, this was a potentially controversial spend in a deep economic recession and at a point when community libraries were under threat or being closed elsewhere. It attracted huge interest from the media, local community, cultural sector and the world at large. The library had 300,000 visitors in its first three weeks and 10,285 books were borrowed in the first seven days.

It is too early to detail the financial return, but anecdotally we know that the impact in the city has been transformational.

It may take a brave councillor to invest in the arts, but culture's ability to restore a city is a wonder to behold. And a joy to publicise.

Dotti Irving is CEO of Four Colman Getty.

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