How arts have power to save our high streets – Pete Massey

THREE weeks ago I attended, in my Arts Council role, my first live event for a long time. It was in Hull, on Whitefriargate, the former high street of this proud maritime city.

Arts and culture are integral to the revival of towns and cities like Hull.

Prior to the pandemic, changes in our shopping habits had already begun to shift, reducing footfall in towns and cities, but this change has accelerated over the last 18 months.

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Yet, while the pandemic had not been kind to Whitefriargate, there was a buzz of excitement and crowds of people gathered around half a dozen recently vacant retail units which had been turned into art galleries and workshop spaces for the weekend.

Hull was the 2017 UK City of Culture.

Though temporary, it illustrated the power of culture to transform the way a high street looks and feels.

This transformative effect of culture on our towns and cities is explored in A High Street Renaissance, a new report commissioned by the Arts Council and published yesterday.

It not only highlights both the value of arts and culture to our cities, towns and communities but also sets out why the future success of our High Streets lies in their development as multi-functional spaces where cultural experiences sit alongside retail and leisure.

Because, as the report makes clear and as I saw in Hull, evidence shows that culture and creativity within the heart of the High Street can help defend it against decline, drive footfall and spending while building a sense of civic pride.

High streets like Whitefriargate, Hull, have been counting the cost of the Covid pandemic - but innovative new uses are now being found for vacant shop buildings.

Although you can shop for almost anything online these days, there’s still something extra special and memorable about experiencing art, culture and creativity in person. And the recognition of and appetite for this in the report is really encouraging.

Seven out of 10 people surveyed as part of the report believe cultural experiences make their areas better places to live, and half of adults say they would like to see more such experiences on their high streets.

Meanwhile 68 per cent of people in the North – more than anywhere else in the country – say culture makes them proud of where they live. Living and working in Yorkshire, this comes as no surprise to me.

Many arts organisations are already in an ideal position to play their part – research shows 75 per cent of cultural venues are either on or within a five-minute walk of the high street.

Pete Massey at the Thackray Museum of Medicine.

In Goole, the Junction sits among shops and cafés in the heart of the town centre. It operates as a busy mixed-use arts facility offering theatre, cinema, music and workshops, and its programme is focused on inspiring and developing the way the community enjoys arts, embedding cultural activity into the life of the town. It is always a hive of creative activity right at the heart of the high street.

And in Pocklington, the arts centre, one of almost 80 Arts Council regularly funded organisations in Yorkshire – and where I attended my very last live gig before the first lockdown – celebrates its 21st birthday this year.

It’s based in the old Ritz cinema, in the centre of town and, along with a great programme of events, it is also well-used by local charities and community groups. It is especially well loved by residents, but also punches above its weight when it comes to attracting visitors to its corner of East Yorkshire.

One of its first initiatives after reopening has been a pop-up exhibition of portraits of NHS workers, Tent of Hope, at York’s vaccination centre.

Great efforts have been made to keep culture alive during the Covid crisis – Yorkshire cultural venues and organisations have together received more than £62m from the Government’s £1.8bn Culture Recovery Fund.

And as we transition out of the pandemic, culture will play a vital role in the nation’s recovery.

This fresh focus on town centres comes in addition to other initiatives aimed at encouraging regeneration.

They include Historic England’s High Street Heritage Action Zones – Huddersfield, Skipton and Sowerby Bridge are three. It is also encouraging to see so many places in Yorkshire include cultural projects in their Future High Streets, Stronger Towns or Levelling Up bids to the Government.

Next week, on August 9, the Arts Council marks its 75th birthday providing a chance to look at the difference public funding of the arts has made to people and communities, including those across Yorkshire.

But while we celebrate those achievements, it’s also important to look to the future.

With town and city centres facing perhaps their biggest challenge yet, I believe that making room for culture and creativity to set out its stall on our high streets – from Barnsley to Bridlington, and Halifax to Hull – will help the traditional heart of Yorkshire’s villages, towns and cities beat strongly for many more years to come.

Pete Massey is the Arts Council England’s Northern Economy and Partnerships Director.

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