Town and city centres all over the UK are facing huge challenges.
Shopping habits have changed. Disruptive technologies like e-commerce have emerged. And the role of our high-streets is less certain than ever.
Putting life and purpose back into these places – which are suffering from fewer shoppers and fewer shops – will be hard.
But it’s something we need to figure out.
A lot of towns and cities are trying to find an answer, and one idea in the mix is the arts.
In other words, there’s a belief that arts and culture can have a real impact on urban regeneration.
Now that might sound very light and fluffy (and public sector). But there are some huge success stories out there. Read on…
from liverpool to bristol…
Governments and councils have supported arts projects for a long time with a view to encouraging economic and social improvement.
Famous examples include the Festival of Britain in 1951. The Millennium Dome. And the cultural aspect of London 2012.
Did they make a difference? Well, it’s much-debated. But you don’t have to look too hard to find solid examples of return-on-investment.
Take the Albert Docks in Liverpool.
Built for sailing ships, the docks struggled to stay relevant in the 20th Century and fell into decline. Abandoned buildings, silted-up beds and job-losses to boot.
But in the 1980s Liverpool turned things around and created a cultural hub – with the Tate Liverpool arts centre at its heart.
It rejuvenated the docks (very few people will argue otherwise), helping to stimulate economic growth and create community and educational benefits for the city.
The Arnolfini arts centre is another example. It set up shop on Bristol’s waterfront in 1975, in an area that was a wasteland of disused warehouses (left over from when it was a thriving commercial port).
Again, it’s generally accepted that the Arnolfini played a key part in turning the harbour into a buzzing cultural hub. An economically important part of the city, full of cool cafes and trendy start-ups.
And Hull is in the news right now.
Chosen as 2017 UK City of Culture, Hull is hoping to reap big economic benefits – including inward investment (and they’re already doing brilliantly), jobs, tourism and skills opportunities for local people.
And if the experiences of Derry-Londonderry (City of Culture in 2013) are anything to go by, there’s no reason to think it won’t happen.
Here in Wrexham, we’re also looking to the arts to help us manage the impact of economic challenges.
Welsh Government, Arts Council of Wales and Wrexham Council have committed £5m to help transform one of our indoor markets and multi-storey car-parks into a buzzing cultural centre.
Work on the People’s Market Arts and Cultural Space is set to begin in 2017. The building will offer space for touring exhibitions, work-shops, creative start-up businesses, events and performances.
And as the name suggests, it won’t just be an arts centre.
The market will continue to trade in the building, with stall-holders embracing the challenge of being part of something new. The market will feed-off and compliment the cultural offer – blending the life and vibrancy of stallholders with the creativity of artists. How good is that?
The reason we’re doing this is simple. Like everywhere else, we have fewer shops and fewer shoppers. And unless the internet breaks, there’s not much chance of winding the clock back to the noughties and 90s, when high streets were all about shopping.
So we need to find new ways to keep our town centres relevant. And we think arts and culture is part of the solution.
As well as providing a home for creative entrepreneurs and start-ups, our new arts centre will help us attract tourists and other leisure users.
In other words, it’ll help us attract more people for different reasons, helping to prolong their stay and increase what they spend in the town centre – supporting the businesses that remain.
not all about money
And there’s another benefit we’re hoping to reap.
Projects like this usually bring big social and educational opportunities – helping people experience new things and grow their confidence.
Engaging local people in the arts – particularly the young – can really open doors. And that doesn’t have to mean creating art.
There’s all the other stuff that goes on around it – the curation, venue-management, event-management, marketing and so on. Lots of opportunities to develop skills and get experience.
The facilities will also be available to local groups for activities like dance, providing an inspiring rehearsal space.
Of course, our project is nowhere near the scale of the Albert Docks – or the Bristol docks.
But the People’s Market Arts and Cultural Space is a massive project for Wrexham. It’s huge.
We’re not expecting art to solve all of our town centre problems. But it’s going to be a really important – and really exciting – part of the solution.