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Art and the Rural: Is there a way for arts and culture to break out of the city?

Illustration by Himarni Brownsword

Away from the buzzing activity of bigger metropolitan centres, artists often find their greatest inspiration, and yet there is a deficit in arts cultivated in those peripheral locations. With Brexit supposedly giving the non-metropolitan a voice, will a new political and social landscape extend to the arts?

The UK City of Culture scheme is an initiative that bolsters the cultural status of a UK town for a period of a year. The most recent holder of the award was Hull in 2017, where the BBC reported that by early 2018 there were five million visitors, £220 million of investment and 800 new jobs. The next city to take up the mantle is Coventry in 2021. For 2022, the government is lining up the team that worked on the Hull project to take charge of a Four Nations arts festival that will take place in Birmingham with a budget of £120m.

I’m all for nation-wide cultural schemes, but am concerned about locations that won’t reap any benefits. Those motorway towns and villages where healthy communities dwell and little artistic stimulation exist. We need new ways to use the art institutions that are focused in London, Liverpool, Manchester or Edinburgh, to reach out and expand in an all-encompassing way. We don’t see enough art dotted around the countryside; it’s only in cities where planning allows for serendipitous encounters with art and ideas.

One reason for the disparities in cultural activity across the country is the disparities between ages. The area of Britain with the oldest average age is North Norfolk (53.8 years). The youngest is Oxford (29 years). Rural places, of course, have older populations, while intense environments attract younger generations. The gap is only going to grow larger with coastal and rural areas experiencing rapidly ageing populations. So we are led to believe an older community may not be interested in an art project. A great misconception and missed opportunity. We need to bridge the divide and recognise that energetic projects must not just be aimed at the young. After all, the most significant figures in history and those that leave a lasting impact on the world are most often over 65; the fact that young people run most cultural and arts events should not limit the audience to young people.

There are some efforts to spread the cultural capital of the city, such as the Turner Prize exhibition taking place in Margate. The Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate is a good example of a gallery contributing to wider cultural activity in a town; a similar example is the V&A Dundee. But aside from a landmark, starchitect building suddenly being imposed on a town, there doesn’t seem to be a conscious effort for art to thrive in smaller communities, in a more organic way. Small towns shouldn’t have to wait to get lucky. But gentrification is a tightrope walked in Margate, and I would argue for a celebration of arts in a community, not a spaceship gallery landing.

In the Brexit referendum, England’s ageing smaller towns voted overwhelmingly to leave. London, Manchester and Leeds (just) voted to remain. There is a huge social divide, and this will dramatically impact the arts. Already we see most prominent artists as strong proponents of the EU, including Courtauld alumni Jeremy Deller, or Wolfgang Tilmans and his forthright Anti-Brexit campaign. Steve McQueen’s year 3 project currently showing at the Tate Britain encourages us to look at individual differences and appreciate unity across the country. The promises of the Brexit campaign convinced those in rural towns that their local issues could be resolved. The death of the high street has plagued remote locations and is creeping into larger cities; immigration hysteria and unemployment issues are what charge Brexiteers. Brexit is unlikely to solve these issues, neither will art. But a little bit of enrichment and a more focused cultural exchange is a healthy experience for all, and not appreciated enough by the Conservative government. Already arts education has suffered in schools as coursework and creative subjects are pushed out of the curriculum.

My personal experience of smaller commuter towns, having attended a school in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire gave me insight into what can be gained from an art injection. The latest edition of Art Licks magazine features an article by artist, Sean Pearce, who describes being ‘spat out of London’ and moving to Letchworth where rent is cheaper and inspiration can be found in the everyday. Letchworth was the first Garden City founded by planning visionary Ebeneezer Howard. The town is quiet. I used to walk up the Broadway each day from the station and see the same charity shops and cafes filled with familiar faces. Pearce says ‘Hertfordshire isn’t Hackney’. It certainly isn’t, there is nothing like the energy of Hackney to be found in the streets of Letchworth. But there doesn’t need to be. Pearce describes the new Broadway Gallery as an emerging artist scene in the town. Small exchanges where people are invited into the gallery and studio space brings something fresh to the town, and something palatable for the populace. 'Hipsterness' is unhealthy and divisive in these places.

Cultural activity provides community and meaning to a place. We can't predict the future and it’s uncertain if art will be encouraged as a tool for thought-provoking exchanges across the country. It seems that despite wanting to break-free from the shackles of the EU, we haven’t done much thinking about what’s next for British arts and culture. If we look at each corner of the country there’s a whole load of people leading normal lives; put simply, art can provide some excitement and interest - it’s about accessibility. I’m far more interested in what someone from Bradford has to say about the Tate’s William Blake or the Royal Academy’s Lucian Freud exhibitions, than someone who can recount for you the artist’s life story. When will art be formed organically for and by those in smaller communities and towns? We’re going to need a massive shift in how we think about arts and culture before it can become truly accessible nationwide.


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