Putting arts and culture to work for Ipswich

January 15, 2018

by Brendan Keaney,
Dance East and We are Ipswich

It would take too long to make the case for the intrinsic value of the arts here, although I do worry that, increasingly, people like me spend most of their time arguing about the economic value of the arts or the contribution the arts make to various agendas such as health, education, social, etc.

But all too often we fail to make the most important point that all societies need art and culture.

Rose Schneiderman an American socialist and feminist, and one of the most prominent women labour union leaders in the early 20th century, made an impassioned speech that inspired the subsequent poem, song and political slogan, Bread and Roses.

“What the woman who labours wants is the right to live, not simply exist, the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art… The worker must have bread, but she must have roses.”

The arts role in culture should be considered a staple, not a luxury. The role of the creative and cultural industries in the regeneration of cities, towns and neighbourhoods is well documented.

When Covent Garden market was closed in the 1970’s it was the creative industries that led the movement to retain the architectural integrity of the area. It was the artisan shops and the (then) fringe performance spaces, etc. that created the dynamic environment that initially attracted young start-ups.

The more established investors and larger commercial operations only moved in once they saw the potential of a new growing economy.

This process of regeneration was replicated in Shoreditch in the 90’s, and in Borough and Bermondsey in the early noughties. A similar pattern of culture-driving growth has taken place in Manchester, Leeds and many of the former industrial towns across the country.

At a local level, I firmly believe that a strong arts offer has a major role in turning around this town’s fortunes.

Ipswich has extraordinary potential, but it needs to identify and build on its assets. It might not have a castle or a cathedral. However it does have a growing and very dynamic cluster of arts organisations all of whom have significant status within their fields.

So a key challenge for the Vision group is how it might exploit Ipswich’s cultural assets and how they might add value to the reputation and profile of the town collectively.

Our key arts organisations lever a substantial amount of central government funding, primarily via the Arts Council. They also provide a significant amount of employment, contribute to the development of the night-time economy and generally make the town a more attractive place to live work study and play. Nevertheless, there is an issue about their status. The town remains proud of its football team but is largely unaware of the achievements of its arts organisations:

  • Gecko is one of the leading physical theatre companies in the UK
  • The Spill Festival (Pacitti Company) is probably the leading festival experimental theatre in the UK, it should be remembered that Manchester International Festival grew from a very small and equally niche market
  • The New Wolsey are pioneering inclusive practice in British Theatre • DanceEast has been at the forefront in developing high quality dance work for young audiences.

I could go on. The Vision group need to harness the national and international reputations of these organisations. We have valuable cultural assets that could be working harder for the town.

However, we also need to look at the public art offer, and consider how we might raise the standard of our summer programme.

So in my view, it’s time for some bold and ambitiously grand projects to shine a light on Ipswich to engender a wider appreciation of just how valuable our current offer is. Because if we do, any number of the town’s key sectors will feel the benefit, not just the wider public.