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The New North?

7 September 2013

The dark north has had a tough time trying to shed its dreary image; L.S. Lowry’s depictions of smoking chimneys, terraced houses and looming grey skies continue to exert a powerful influence on how the region is viewed. Yet in a two-part BBC Radio 4 documentary titled ‘The New North’, first broadcast in May, the north is shown to have acquired a more contemporary public face.

This search for a new north is led by Martin Goodman, professor of creative writing at Hull University, who tours some of the region’s iconic public buildings – including The Sage in Gateshead, Middlesbrough’s MIMA and The Hepworth Wakefield – many of which received heavy investment from Lottery funding. Representative of pivotal moments in the region’s cultural regeneration, they stand as not only architectural, but also culturally aspirational symbols of the north’s gradual transformation.

Is there a more potent emblem of this transition than Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North; iron – hero of the industrial revolution – boldly reincarnated? Which begs the question, is it possible (or indeed desirable) for these visions of modernity (all glass fronts and sharp angles) to distance themselves completely from the more accepted industrialised image of the north. The past, it seems, is inescapably woven into the region’s contemporary present.

The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art is a shining example of this idea that the new is forged from the old; standing tall, this former flour mill attests to the north’s changing landscape, a reminder that although shipbuilding and the other heavy industries are gone they are woven into the fabric of the city. Similarly, the Victorian edifice that defines the Manchester Art Gallery ostentatiously carries its history with it. Remnants of the grimy north remain, but they have been recast. They are attempts at reinvention that also crucially question what role culture plays in a contemporary northern city, rather than merely being a cosmetic remodelling of the old.

Although perhaps haunted by its past, it is clear that the north’s aspiration to compete with the centre means investment in a different sort of capital – cultural capital – and thus a move from industry to idea. Architect Ian Simpson reinforces the north’s need to assert its identity and become a powerhouse that people will want to invest in. And in so doing, it must be taken seriously – culturally – and not seen as the south’s poorer relation.

And yet, as Simpson also states, the north has everything but it doesn’t have enough money. While Goodman’s interviews reveal unfettered enthusiasm for the region’s recent cultural flowering and a real sense of belief in the community building potential of these new builds, many of the conversations return to the damaging effects of austerity on the north’s ambitions.

The lavish spending on the arts in Tyneside, for example – which began with Gormley’s Angel in 1998 – acts as a reminder of a more bountiful time. In the subsequent 10 years, over £350 million was invested in established and new arts venues, including both The Sage and BALTIC. In Goodman’s interview with The Sage’s Director, we are told that currently this venue is funded at 1.5 million less than what the Arts Council suggest the funding model should be. And in February, Newcastle City Council confirmed a 50% cut to all arts funding, launching instead a cultural fund of half the amount.

Consequently, sustaining development and retaining momentum remains a challenge to these cities of the future, and the underlying sense from Goodman’s search is that ultimately the north will be unable to keep making it new without the necessary funding structure.

Yet by the end of this illuminating programme, Goodman manages to convince that, whilst the new north might look over its shoulder at a very tangible past, there is, in fact, no going back.

‘The New North’, presented by Professor Martin Goodman, was broadcast by BBC Radio 4.

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