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Art's regenerational realities

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An urban renaissance through art and architecture? Austin Williams attended a conference on the subject to see if art was a viable method of regenerating communities.

Battersea Arts Centre may proclaim itself to be part of an urban regeneration, but it is still a really awkward place to get to on the Tube. It is OK, of course, if you live locally but, unfortunately, those people closest to the 'regeneration' programme tend not to see the big picture. 'Can the Arts Create an Urban Renaissance?' was organised by Battersea Arts Centre and the Institute of Ideas. It was held as part of the Wandsworth Arts Festival.

The debate centred on the meaning of regeneration and set out to explore the proposition that 'public arts spaces are seen not as engines for economic growth, but as catalysts for cultural renewal'.

During the course of the discussion it became apparent that the concepts of public art and architecture were being used interchangeably, which wasn't helpful to a clear understanding of the issues.

Finger-painting in Clapham and a bridge in Newcastle are not the same thing, but perhaps the fact that they were seen as such - both aspects of social engagement - is part of the issue to be dissected.

Councillor Michael Keith of Thames Gateway London Partnership kicked off proceedings with relativistic 'ambivalence to the question'. Through regeneration, he said, 'economic activities are aestheticised'. I think that this means that regeneration creates an oppressive aesthetic as areas are gentrified. Although this was a confusing introduction to the debate, the issue of land prices, especially those detrimental to 'the poor', was taken up in the question and answer session.

Chris Westwood, coordinator of the Lansbury Festival, confirmed that her background had been in 'bourgeois arts making', but that she is now interested in 'how ordinary people can enjoy what is normally not accessible to them'. After an interminable description of the dance programme on the streets of Lansbury, she confirmed that 'when funding is tight, regeneration can be a significant employer of artists'. Wasn't this always known as state subsidy? 'Arts are good for regeneration, and regeneration is good for the arts, ' she concluded.

Dolan Cummings of the Institute of Ideas was more focused - and critical. Commenting on Peckham Library's role in regeneration, he asked: 'When have people ever read themselves out of squalor?'

Cummings' argument was that culture is seen more in terms of making people feel better, rather than actually improving their lot. 'Nobody advocates curing poverty by handing out lots of money;

instead we are told that poverty is tackled by social inclusion through the arts.' Noting that regeneration is always premised by some social policy benefit, he argued that the worthy idea that 'the arts are good for you' is a bad thing for art and a bad thing for real social improvement.

'In the '70s, the dole was seen as an Arts Council handout, ' joked Neil Cooper of the Herald.Today, this mentality has been legitimised in schemes that subsidise community arts. 'Remember, Irvine Welsh got there on his own merits, not by using the grant funding begging bowl, ' he said.

Charles Landry, the author of Creative City, suggested that there needed to be a property development strategy to curtail the detrimental effect of market forces. Thinking critically, laterally, artistically, widely and imaginatively were just some of the contortions required to involve as many parties as possible in regeneration proposals. Creative thinking is needed 'to integrate diversity'.

But isn't it odd, asked Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, that politicians are using the arts as a means of encouraging social participation?

The panel was divided. While Keith thought that school arts projects that taught about racial diversity were important in challenging racism (although he wasn't sure whether this was real art), Cummings said it was symbolic of the bankruptcy of political ideas that art, and not politics, was prioritised as a means of social intervention.

Although nothing was resolved, this event showed that the terms of the debate need to be rescued from a pervasive relativism - between creativity and culture, participation and intervention, community art and politics, art and architecture. All need a lot more critical analysis.

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