Urban regeneration: art’s new avant-garde

Assemble have won the Turner Prize. A lot is being made about their win. This is largely because they are not artists in the ‘conventional’ sense but rather a collective of architects concerned with urban renewal. Regeneration is their movement, the derelict estate their canvas.

What may have been a factor in giving the award to Assemble is that one of this year’s judges, Alistair Hudson, is director of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, or MIMA, a gallery with regeneration as the core impetus for its existence. Since taking the position last year, Hudson has talked about his desire to create a “useful museum” – or to find ways that art can impact upon people’s lives in ways it does not now and architecture clearly does.

Perhaps it is the result of a postmodern malaise or of the mentality required by austerity, but there is a growing desire among the public for art to be justified – as something with measurable gains, not supported merely for its less tangible benefits. Putting aside the question of whether architecture can be classified as art, this new focus on art as urban regeneration is a much larger picture than the Turner.

Museum frenzy

Museums and art galleries are a convenient way of measuring the ‘success’ of art in real terms; visitor numbers can be recorded, among other things. And when more people per annum go to museums than football matches, having a local gallery can appear as suitable for a town as any stadium.

MIMA is one of a score of new galleries to crop up across Britain in the past decade; the Turner Contemporary in Margate, the Hepworth Wakefield, the Jerwood in Hastings and the MIMA itself have all emerged within five years of one and other. They are at the heart of redevelopment schemes, particularly in England, with the trend set to continue north of the border.

By 2018, the V&A Dundee is to open as part of the waterfront redevelopment, which also includes new office space and a revamp of the train station. Rather than hosting modern art, the V&A is the first ever design museum to be opened outside of London, in a grand building designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, his first on British soil.

“V&A Dundee is much more than just a building” according to the official website. As well as exhibiting collections from the V&A in London, the museum will host a series of programmes and talks on design aimed at local residents, young to old.

Despite the pioneering claims, Dundee shares much of the same characteristics as other British towns to enjoy a grand new museum. Most are coastal towns with either formerly industrial- or tourist-based economies, now long since in decline with resulting large areas of deprivation. In other words, these galleries tend to be built in areas that can struggle to afford them.

Five years ago, Middlesbrough was ranked as having the least economic resilience to public spending cuts in the UK, with the MIMA handed over to Teeside University this February to save it from the council’s diminishing budget. The Jerwood Gallery in Hastings opened, late and over budget, amidst huge protest from local residents. The V&A Dundee, already late, appears to be going down a similar path. In what is becoming a truly Scottish tradition, the estimated costs of the gallery have ballooned from £46m to £76m, making it the most expensive gallery project ever undertaken in Scotland. That is an accolade they are, perhaps, less likely to cheer for.

The Glasgow miracle

Museums are important, but too much emphasis is being put on them as beacons of reinvigoration. More cynically, there is a sense that recent endeavours have been not much more than an attempt to inject a little bit of London into the uncultured, industrial provinces.

By their very nature museums are archives of the past – they are collections of things already been and done, rather than of what the future holds. We can observe and learn from them, but not participate in a more real sense. A community can only be transformed by what it creates, not by what is merely displayed.

Of all post-industrial cities the real star of reinvention as a major arts hub is, irrefutably, Glasgow. Five Turner prizes (three in a row) and countless nominees, not to mention the plethora of musicians, writers and actors to come from the city have meant the culture of Glasgow is not only vibrant, but also Scotland’s primary output. Edinburgh might have the national museums, but Glasgow has the people who continue to fill them.

This success has not been down to big new museum projects – no major galleries have been established in the city since the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in 1996 – but on much more pragmatic terms. An experimental new course in environmental art introduced in the late 80s singlehandedly produced the likes of David Shrigley, Douglas Gordon and Jim Lambie. Cheap rent and plenty of space meant that artist-run galleries like Transmission could be opened, as well as studios to work in.

Another Tay disaster?

Glasgow’s reputation in the arts is much older than the past 20 years, of course, but some of the characteristics that nurtured its contemporary art scene in the 80s and 90s can already be found in Dundee: namely cheap rent, lots of space, and a growing community of artists and designers. Abertay University created the world’s first degree in computer games technology in 1997, and now 40 video game firms are established in the city. With the price of rent continuing to hike in the likes of Edinburgh, London and now even Glasgow, Dundee is becoming an ever more appealing location for mobile app and game designers. So how does the V&A at Dundee play into this? It is yet to be seen, but this is the time to tread carefully.

Gentrification happens when poor areas become affluent through artificial means. Places become more expensive as opposed to liveable, with the former poverty displaced elsewhere. Economic barriers remain the largest obstacle for those in deprived areas getting involved with the arts. The V&A has to reach out to ensure it does not exist in a vacuum of its own making.

The inherent problem with arts funding is that it can encourage and promote, even enable, but ultimately cannot create. The cost of the arts will need to be forever justified in the face of cuts, unless we change our approach to how that money should be spent.

What makes Assemble so refreshing is how a lot of their projects, like the Blackhorse Workshop or their prize-winning Granby Workshop, are about encouraging people to learn, to be curious, and to take things into their own hands.

The modern day gallery space dates back to 1883, when James McNeill Whistler created the first ‘white cube’-style gallery space. A template now so engrained, it is inconceivable to imagine contemporary art being tailored towards any other kind of environment.

The way Victorians began to feel about visual art from then onwards is much the same as many feel today: decisively ambivalent. Is now the time to start looking at art from a less white and boxy frame?

Image courtesy of the author.

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