Monday, 29 September 2014

The art of regeneration

What does the city centre need to blow away the cobwebs of neglect and turn it into the place to be for groovy metropolitan types? A chumbrella of course; no I’d never heard of one before either.

This is less of a surprise than maybe it should be since the chumbrella has just been invented by Stone based artist Sarah Nadin. It’s all part of the Beneath the Pavement project, a clever wheeze costing £11,000 and funded by Appetite to involve the city’s burgeoning arts industry in driving regeneration.

As part of this a team of artists have got together to put forward a slate of proposals including creating a city garden housed in ‘geo-domes’ for visitors and shoppers to enjoy, offering vacant shops in the town centre to artists on short term lets and siting large photographic installations around the city to celebrate its distinctive architecture.

Sarah Nadin told the Sentinel on Friday that she got the idea for the chumbrella from sharing an umbrella with a fellow artist, an experience that made her realise had ‘something about it as a way to make people talk with each other more.’

Also speaking to the Sentinel Anna Francis of the AirSpace gallery said of the project, ‘we need to see artists included in the conversation about what’s being done in the city centre,’ adding that if regeneration is left to ‘developers and money men city centres can end up looking like anywhere else,’ and that ‘artists have a different way of looking at things.’

Public art; don’t you just love it? There is nothing better for stirring up a little light controversy; you can just imagine the massed spluttering of outrage prompted by project chumbrella. Disgusted of Heron Cross won’t know what to get into a tizzy about first, the waste of £11,000 or the mangling of the English language involved.

The thing about public art of course is that yesterday’s hideous carbuncle is often tomorrow’s cultural icon; either that or it just gets forgotten. Consider the fuss made way back in the long ago about ‘A Man Can’t Fly’, not least because his failure to achieve take off might have had something to do with the drag factor coming into play, these days both the man in question and his most prominent feature are routinely ignored by passing motorist.

That will probably the fate of anything that comes from the Beneath the Pavement project, some of their ideas are good, others will never get off the drawing board; which is a shame since I’d love to see a geo-dome in Hanley.

I wouldn’t though dismiss what they’re trying to do out of hand, not least because I agree with Anna Francis that we need voices other than those of business interests involved in the conversation about regeneration. Otherwise we really will end up as just another clone town, actually that may be happening anyway.

Turning the conversation about regeneration into a monologue involving what we might call the money interest alone has given us the expensive money pit that is the Smithfield project and a civic centre the public didn’t want; but will pay through the nose for anyway. Nationally it has led to the building of two huge aircraft carriers to project a power we no longer possess around the globe.

Projects like Beneath the Pavement have the virtue of at least trying to work with the public, because, after all, without an audience art doesn’t exist. Where I would criticise it is that, like so many regeneration projects it seems to have been created by people who believe Hanley to be the centre of the universe.

As the city’s economic centre and soon to be its political one too Hanley will always do well, at least it will if business is left to get on with things and take its own risks as with the successful expansion of the Potteries Centre. What a contrast to the City Sentral fiasco, over which the council have fussed like a mother hen producing, so far, nothing at all in the way of results.

Where the ability of the arts to bring people together from all sections of the community to express their views and creativity is most needed is in relation to the other five towns. The conventional wisdom is that they should be side-lined at best and at worst ignored altogether and everything should be focussed on one centre; that is dangerous bunkum.

It means ignoring our unique selling point, that we are six towns brought together into one city, we are proud of our shared identity and those things that make us unique. That as much as handing things over to the bean counters and money men is the royal road to making our town into a clone town.

It’s hard not to warm to Appetite, not least because much of what they do is engagingly eccentric, but I would suggest to them that the secret to being creative often lies in being willing to rip things up and start again. That’s what we need to do with plans to revive all six towns making up this remarkable city.

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