On Monday 19th October, delegates from across the region gathered at the Dolphin Centre’s Central Hall to debate and shape an engaging, inspiring and inclusive cultural offer for the future of Darlington as it looks towards the 2025 celebration of the birth of the railway and the Tees Valley bid for capital of culture plus nearer opportunities like the refurbishment of the Civic Theatre and the ongoing success of the Festival of Thrift.
Following an introduction from Councillor Nick Wallis - Cabinet member with Leisure and Local Environment Portfolio - in which he acknowledged the challenging times facing Darlington and explained that he is looking to the event to help him understand what he needs to fight for on Darlington’s behalf, Wayne Hemingway was welcomed to the stage.
Wayne, co-founder of Red or Dead, is acknowledged as an authority on culture and has a wealth of experience in culture-led regeneration including projects which have seen Boscombe and Margate turn from dying seaside towns into flourishing destinations which have improved the quality of life and local economy. The fall of the Berlin wall and the way culture has brought communities together and improved areas was described.
His belief, he explained, is that every part of a town and city – down to every brick - can be touched by culture. Places like Woolworths and Blockbuster no longer have a place on the high street and so it is time to wipe the slate clean and replace such things with culture. Several deprived areas which have been turned round by cultural regeneration were cited and Wayne impressed on the group that one thing needed to make this happen is bravery – councils need to allow an absence of governance which is critical for flourishing artistic areas.
Wayne went on to explain that while Darlington and the country as a whole is facing hard times due to austerity, creative industries are well placed to get through this. The Creative industries are valued at £72bn with digital creative accounting for 42% of this. This makes them the second biggest industry behind the banking sector making creative industries the second biggest driver of the economy.
Comparing today to when he first set up stall on Camden Market, Wayne acknowledged that the world was a more favourable place back then – leases weren’t needed, costs were low and business plans weren’t required. Now, aspiring artists and entrepreneurs face red tape and high costs and Wayne urged councils to change this, to offer low cost and free work and exhibition space and to allow a ground up revolution. He listed Hackney as an example of an area which has improved and said that the council is just letting people get on with it.
One thing which Wayne feels has a big negative impact on attitudes is media reporting – the focus is usually on negative stories and the bad things going on. He suggested that positive reporting would lead to positive attitudes and a happier society.
When asked by an audience member whether it is possible to recreate a process such as those used in Margate and Berlin, Wayne said that different generations will do things their own way – there will always be areas that need a pick-up and people need to feel that they can get on and have a go. He urged people to have a can-do attitude and to stop blaming the councils and government.
Another audience member pushed for a definition of culture – Wayne responded that culture is about people, it’s in all of us. Multicultural is good and the focus should be people not process.
Wayne was followed by a presentation by Sharon Paterson, Assistant Dean for Business Engagement in the School of Arts and media at Teesside University, who said she believes Darlington is a place where ingenuity is in the DNA – it’s a town that dares to be different. A strong cultural offer can deliver significant health, wellbeing, educational and economic benefits and she referenced a quote from a report by the Warwick Commission:
“The key message from this report is that the government and the Cultural and Creative Industries need to take a united and coherent approach that guarantees equal access to everyone to a rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life. There are barriers and inequalities in Britain today that prevent this from being a universal human right. This is bad for business and bad for society” - The Warwick Commission, Enriching Britain: Culture and Growth 2015
Sharon emphasised how it is important now to engage with the community to get collective ownership in preparation for the City of Culture bid. She said there is pride in the things that Darlington is doing and that there is lots in terms of place-making and place-shaping going on. While acknowledging that culture is not a panacea to heal social problems it does bring communities together and fosters a sense of civic pride and celebrates history.
Noting some achievements in Darlington, Sharon outlined that the Festival of Thrift brought 45k visitors to Darlington this year and that the organisation Darlington for Culture is well-recognised as one that doesn’t just talk, it makes things happen. She said that a commitment to young people and the subsequent investment will mean that families living and working in Darlington will have access to fantastic cultural facilities.
There is a need, she said, to recognise the issues around resources and to look at new ways of working and thinking and at new business models. Noting that Darlington seeks solutions, she explained how Creative Darlington was set up to facilitate culture and arts.
Sharon referenced the recent Case for Culture which was launched in July which states:
“Ensuring access to a creative education and cultural experience will enable our region to grow a population that is more economically and socially active.” - Case for Culture July 2015
She said that the potential to invest in our cultural industries is huge and that there is a need to attract to the area creative people who are adaptive.
As part of research work for the Creative Fuse North East which is a £3m, two-year project involving the five North East universities, Sharon recently visited Dundee who had bid to be Capital of Culture and in closing she challenged Darlington with the questions that Dundee were asking:
What are you most proud of?
What would you like to see happen?
Echoing and building on many of the points already made, Ada Burns – Chief Executive of Darlington Borough Council – talked about the cultural vision for Darlington and the Tees Valley. She explained that austerity had given birth to Creative Darlington who has a vision that:
“Darlington will be a place where art happens, where the arts matter and where the arts and creativity are central to Darlington’s future identity and economic success”
She explained that the aim of Tees Valley Unlimited is to build Darlington and the Tees Valley into a destination that people know about, like living in and want to move to or visit.
The times ahead, Ada acknowledged, are bleak for local authorities in this area where services are being cut to the minimum core things that have to be provided and as arts and culture is not a core statutory obligation, funding had been massively reduced but Darlington Borough Council remain committed to supporting culture in the area. She emphasised that it is important to support people but not do it for them.
Ada pressed the need to attract new industries and jobs to the area. Investors are thinking about business need and place and business are looking to recruit the right staff. She explained that as a sub-region, the Tees Valley will be working together to make the area appealing to retract and retain good staff.
She recognised that there are lots of micro-businesses and artists located in Darlington and encouraged artists to join together and submit proposals to the council and for arts organisations to also get in touch. Darlington Borough Council’s ‘Pop Up Shop’ scheme was outlined where organisations can have a free stand within the Town Hall and the Covered Market.
During the break, delegates were treated to a performance of #Steam, a dance production from local company The D Project who have commissioned the piece which tells the story of wartime Britain and the transition of women from housewife to rail worker. The performance has been designed to be performed on station platforms and other venues.
Following the break, the three speakers took part in a panel discussion where they addressed questions from the audience.
“What practical resources can you offer to artists now – pop-up shops, venues for workshops, etc”
Ada responded by encouraging artists to approach Darlington Borough Council with proposals. The council currently offer pop-up shop opportunities within the Town Hall and in the covered market.
Wayne assured the delegates that the issue of vacant properties not being used or being very expensive to rent is a national problem due to pension funds investing in property. To keep the value of the pension funds up, properties are valued high with the price not reflecting the fact it is an empty unit. He suggested that a solution would be the government imposing a requirement for vacant properties to be made available after 12 months.
It was noted that there are a high number of independent shops in Darlington and that this is a surprise to outsiders – Wayne said that this is something Darlington should be shouting about as it would encourage cultural organisations to join in. He praised Darlington for resisting an out-of-town shopping development.
“Wayne, what is your key message/advice for young designers and entrepreneurs to get their foot in the door in the creative industry in a world where the cost of living can be so high?”
While the internet is not the only answer, social media enables people to establish a lot of contacts. Young people need portfolio careers. Designers could start off small with part-time jobs while developing their personal career at the same time. People should get stuck in and look at all of the opportunities.
Sharon agreed with Wayne’s advice and added that universities recognise that they need to work with students to help them start up. Teesside Launchpad offers space and equipment to help entrepreneurs and graduates.
Wayne added that mentoring is very important but that more people are needed to provide mentoring support.
One issue, in Wayne’s view, is the negativity of newspapers. He questioned why we have a media that spreads negativity as it puts people and councils off from taking risks. Local newspapers need to be more positive instead of being negative about small issues. People should be allowed to try and fail but the press and nay-sayers are preventing this.
“All the case studies seem to have been at rock-bottom with a ‘nothing to lose’ mind-set. How might we instil the same courage and willingness to act before we hit crisis point?”
Wayne responded that Ada is thinking in the right place in terms of developing the town but that it is important to have the right people on the council – he suggested that these should be willing, knowledgeable and often young. He asked how we can persuade young people to be more community minded.
Ada added that Darlington is blessed with elected members who will take chances. She challenged the students from Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College and Darlington College to approach the council with their ideas and plans adding that it would be great to get that fresh energy.
One problem, Sharon suggested, is engaging the apathetic and disengaged. It is important to give communities ownership of the agenda and to access the right people with special skills and influences.
Wayne warned that the equality gap is widening and more people are feeling disengaged – a fairer society is needed and the issue is political. Previously, he explained, you didn’t need much money to have a go but the economy is no longer there for people.
“Do creativity and imagination have a value in their own right or in the end is their value only measured by economic return?”
Ada confirmed that she does believe that creativity and culture have a value in their own right and that having fun is the bottom line. She outlined that the Case for Culture struggles in economic terms.
Wayne explained that people are now recognising the benefits of creativity, particularly now it has been quantified.
John Dean from Darlington for Culture stated that if this event leads to action, it will be brilliant – if people want things to happen they need to go out and make then happen and should encourage others to do so too. He suggested that businesses should contribute, perhaps as part of their CSR.
Ada urged people to talk to the council adding that Darlington and the Tees Valley need networks. They are, she said, looking at how they can facilitate conversations and that Creative Darlington is a key way to support community arts in Darlington. She confirmed that an immediate action for the council was to look at the use of vacant spaces.
Sharon praised Creative Darlington saying that it is an enabling organisation. She explained how Teesside University is looking to help organisations apply for funding and recognised that arts organisations want a bottom-up not top-down approach.
Making connections is key, said Ada – the Tees Valley is working together and its relationships are one of its key assets.
In closing, Wayne wished Darlington and the Tees Valley well with its bid for Capital of Culture and advised them to ignore any press negativity around it.
"I believe this will be a thought provoking and important event and we will look back on today and recognise that this is where the seeds of Darlington’s cultural renaissance were sown!" ~ Councillor Nick Wallis
"Every part of a town and city – down to every brick - can be touched by culture." ~ Wayne Hemingway
"Culture is about people, it’s in all of us." ~ Wayne Hemingway
"What are you most proud of? What would you like to see happen?" ~ Sharon Paterson
"Why do we have a media that spreads negativity? It puts people and councils off from taking risks. Local newspapers need to be more positive instead of being negative about small issues. People should be allowed to try and fail." ~ Wayne Hemingway
"The town is friendly, welcoming and diverse. Lots of people from outside are surprised when they visit" ~ Colin Fyfe
"if you want something to happen, go out and make it happen - and encourage others to do so." ~ John Dean
"Creative Darlington is a key way to support community arts in Darlington. " ~ Ada Burns