Professor Katy Shaw says the Northern Powerhouse is more than trains and technology and culture must recover too

In the last year or so, thanks to the wonders of technology, Katy Shaw has watched nearly as much theatre and heard as much live music and comedy as she would have done in person pre-pandemic.

Cultural organisations from theatres to galleries and groups of musicians have attempted to defy the stifling effect of lockdown restrictions by making their work available to new audiences online.

"In many ways, it's opened up opportunities for me in the North," says Professor Shaw, Director of Cultural Partnerships at the University of Northumbria, "because if I want to go and see a show [in London] at the Globe, or the National Theatre, it's going to cost me a lot of money to get the train down there and navigate the train system and then get a hotel and get the tickets."

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But with lockdown restrictions now being phased out - albeit not as quickly as many would have hoped - she wants audiences who have become accustomed to consuming culture from their sofas to have the confidence to return to live events.

Professor Katy Shaw, Director of Cultural Partnerships at the University of Northumbria
Professor Katy Shaw, Director of Cultural Partnerships at the University of Northumbria

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"That's been the thing on the lips of all of the leaders of major organisations that I've been working with over the last year," she says. "That idea that you can sit back in a theatre, and have that sigh of relief and look forward to being in performance.

"The sense that people are comfortable walking into art galleries again, the sense that people are looking forward to going to see that stand up comedy gig, or they've got their festival tickets, and they know how it's going to work.

"And I think with cultural confidence comes a degree of habit and comes a degree of repetition. The more we go, the more normalised this becomes again, and the safer it feels and is experienced, then we will all feel confident and comfortable in engaging with culture."

Part of that process, particularly in the North, is working with policy-makers and artists, "to support local culture in the North in a way that's going to be sustainable and resilient for the years to come."

The former Leeds Beckett University academic says the pandemic was "devastating" for culture, with so many sectors put on an extended pause, but hopes a forthcoming piece of work she is involved in will help northern culture "rebuild, rebalance and recover".

The Northern Culture All-Party Parliamentary Group is holding a major inquiry, with a 'State of the North' report co-authored by Prof Shaw, offering solutions to the post-Covid challenges and identifying the best ways to proceed.

Conscious of the need to include areas other than the "big boys" in the cities who dominate conversations about the so-called Northern Powerhouse, she wants to hear from groups "across the cultural sector, in our countryside and our coastal regions, in city regions as well as cities".

"In my own books and research I have written about the culture of the North for more than a decade," she tells The Yorkshire Post. "But I got very tired of hearing about the Northern Powerhouse only in terms of trains and technology, business and brokerage.

"The inquiry offers a vital opportunity to think about how we work together to build the sustainable creative skill sets in education, the infrastructure in capital build and digital connectivity and the culture of participation and inclusion across the many and varied geographies of our regions that we need to super-charge the North as a cultural powerhouse fit for the future.

"And that means listening to a diverse range of voices and ideas. The strength of the North lies in its diversity."

The insights she has gained so far from the many contributions submitted to the inquiry for the APPG, which includes Yorkshire MPs like Labour's Alex Sobel and Tory Jason McCartney, have been "incredibly revealing". Further evidence sessions will be held on July 9 and September 23.

"I think everybody knows some of the challenges facing culture at the moment," she says. "But in a way we can always kind of be cursed by familiarity when it comes to that because we all think OK we all know the challenges of reopening, we all know the challenges around access, we all know the challenges around cultural value, and its role in the economic sector and its role in wellbeing.

"We all know how we've all drawn down on culture more in COVID, and in the pandemic, and therefore are rethinking our relationship with it going forward and the role of the digital.

"But actually, through hearing from that real cross section of audiences, producers, leaders, we're getting a real sense of consensus about what models of best practice are working in the sector, what the challenges are, but also importantly, some potential solutions to those challenges.

"And the way in which we can actually work together and collaborate on a post COVID action plan to help us rebuild northern culture, and not just rebuild it to where it was, which is really important but to rebuild this for the future in a way that is sustainable, and resilient, and has a model that can be flexible around future challenges, and also have some give in it.

"I think we can't have a cultural system that is so fragile, that with a particular trauma or challenge it folds, we have to look at more resilient models of working for culture. And that involves protecting everybody from the freelancer, the audience member all the way up to the major CEOs."

When people think of the North often the first images that come to mind are of culture, whether it's the sculpture of Henry Moore, the art of Sheffield, TVs shows produced in Yorkshire or the music of Manchester and Liverpool.

And Prof Shaw argues that while it's easy to see culture as simply a nicety, the arguments for preserving it need to be made around the social, cultural, and economic benefits, such as the number of people it brings to city centres and its role in education.

"The North has always been a powerhouse for culture," she says. "The challenge for northern culture is how we preserve what we have, and create a new culture, as well as ensuring that all culture is both by all and for all going forwards.

"But that necessitates us having the resource and the power to do that. And northern culture, yes, has many of the shared challenges of for example, cultural organizations in the south of England.

"But to have the same roadmap, to use government lingo, is not appropriate, because we are not on a level playing field, the pitch is not level for northern culture, we are starting lower down on that snakes and ladders board. It's not a case of leveling up, because leveling up implies that everybody is moving equally.

"There's a potential for disproportionate investment, there's a case for strategic over investment compared to other areas, to do things like enhance access to culture, to think about understanding truly the way in which culture is an economic driver."