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It’s Great up North

A promising future for local audiences ahead of the Great Exhibition of the North
21.10.2016

Last week’s announcement of Newcastle-Gateshead’s successful bid to host the Great Exhibition of the North in 2018 couldn’t come at a more exciting time for the North East.

Having worked with AV Festival on this year’s economic, social and cultural evaluation, I, along with thousands of visitors to the month-long film and visual arts festival in March, was struck by the innovative fusing of global and local in the programme.

The festival theme of ‘Meanwhile, What About Socialism?’ was bold and challenging, striking a chord between the local history of the Tyneside region and the role of socialism in contemporary global art and politics. With near 100% audience satisfaction ratings and 90% of visitors indicating that it was ‘important that it’s happening here’, it was clear from the evaluation that this was both a high-quality and very place-based cultural experience.

The need for arts and cultural organisations to respond to local identity and need was also a key theme at the What Next? conference in Manchester’s Home on Monday. The implications and opportunities of increasing regional and metropolitan devolution for arts and culture was writ large throughout the day, as was the plea for greater collaboration across cultural organisations and shared strategies to make the most of these new arrangements.

The idea that arts and cultural organisations have a civic duty to their localities was also a strong theme. Although some of the discussion seemed to drift straight towards extending outreach and participation programmes to meet explicit health, social care or education agendas, it was also clear that meeting local civic responsibilities is linked as much to thoughtful programming as it is to ‘reaching out’ through special initiatives.

The current Playground Project at the BALTIC is a case in point. Understanding how to appeal to local audiences (as broad and diverse as they are local), without compromising on the uniqueness and quality of a liminal artistic experience seems to be a key driver of this hugely successful exhibition. BALTIC are literally opening up their gallery as a space for exploration and play by a local community of all ages and backgrounds.

Across the water, Tyneside Cinema have recently relaunched their three-year Learning and Participation programme, including Young Tyneside which has seen hundreds of 16-18 year olds across the region signing up for discounted tickets and special events. Working to engage this audience introduces independent cinema as a source and space for out of the ordinary cultural experiences, but also makes this unique city space feel like it’s theirs (as much as anyone else’s).

What’s really interesting about each of these examples is that there has been no attempt to ‘dumb-down’, or to introduce initiatives that seem out of place alongside the regular high-quality arts experiences on offer. Instead they have been developed through thoughtful consideration of how local audiences may be intrigued by the cultural offering on their doorstep, relevant to the everyday experience of the area, but interesting, exciting and international.

With the funding boost that comes with the announcement of the Great Exhibition in 2018, and the central role of the North East Cultural Partnership in making it happen, it looks like great things are on the horizon, with much for rest of the UK to learn from in the process.

- Douglas Lonie, Senior Consultant