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Devo meets Culture at OGS
Kasper de Graaf, 14 June 2016


June 14, 2016. What will Devo-Manc and the Northern Powerhouse mean for the cultural economy? This question was explored at The Art of Devolution: Culture and the North, a conference of arts and cultural organisations, researchers, funding bodies and local authorities brought together by the University of Manchester at Old Granada Studios today.

Culture is at the heart of the newly developed Manchester Plan, said Maria Balshaw, the city’s culture director, because “Manchester sees culture as part of its growth strategy.” She outlined four key challenges:

  • Structural: many cultural organisations are stretched and lack the capacity to grow.
  • Economic: will emerging art and creativity be pushed out by rising prosperity and cost? How in a growing economy can we keep our creative edge? This cannot be achieved with top down action: the key is partnerships.
  • Local: can we start thinking less about our own local authority boundaries and more across the Northern Powerhouse region with a new pattern of regeneration along nodes? How can we do this?
  • Change: to achieve progress we must learn how to work and think differently, in an agile and organic way across multiple local authorities.

The simple rules for success are: do brilliant things, include everyone, tell the whole world.

Arts Council England is heavily involved in supporting art and culture across the north, often working in partnership with local government, said CEO Darren Henley. This commitment is illustrated by the distribution of funding between London and the rest of the country, which is moving to 25:75 from the traditional pattern of 40:60. Henley underscored the importance of culture in placemaking: “Arts and culture enable us to tell stories about places.” The Arts Council’s growing involvement with the creative industries is also seen in the appointment of a new Executive Director for Innovation and Enterprise later this year.

Significant support for culture in Manchester and across the north is also coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund, whose North West chief Sara Hilton emphasised the importance of skills for the future and stated that for HLF, one of the key questions is always “What are you doing to connect?” to other organisations and the wider community.


Annie O’Neil of Gallery Oldham outlining plans for cultural regeneration

Experiences from Liverpool, Newcastle and Gateshead were presented alongside case studies of ‘poor theatres’, art for prisoners and the role of museums and culture in an age-inclusive society. Annie O’Neill from Gallery Oldham outlined Oldham’s ambitious programme of cultural regeneration and Virginia Tandy, Manchester’s former culture director, raised an intriguing question: is one possible side-effect of devolution to move local commissioning decisions up from the local boroughs to the metropolitan mayoralties, i.e. a centralising rather than a devolving outcome?

Manchester University’s Abigail Gilmore, the organiser of the conference, concluded that there is a continuing need for “a generous, open and critical space for discussing devolution and the Northern Powerhouse.” The event concluded with a funny and provoking performance by Manchester Left Writers on the theme of being realistic, which you can check out here.