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30 January 2008

Culture and the city

Introducing a new series investigating the connections between ‘culture and urban regeneration’ and

By Dominic Cavendish

Call me partisan – as a theatre critic by trade I would, naturally enough, flag up the contribution made to ongoing political debates by some of our best playwrights – but I’d say that Mark Ravenhill is a remarkably reliable locator of the ‘zeitgeist‘.

He caught the mood of the moment, in the mid-90s, with his anatomy of consumerism’s dispossessed youth ‘Shopping and Fucking’. He regularly hits the nail on the head in his columns for the Guardian. And, a couple of months before a selection from his epic new cycle of playlets [‘Shoot/ Get Treasure /Repeat‘] arrives in London, I can’t think of a better way of introducing what this occasional column is going to be about – and why it’s here – than by giving an outline of the last, and most satirically entertaining, work in the cycle: entitled ‘Birth of a Nation’.

Addressing the audience as though it had signed up to some sort of participatory workshop in the wake of the withdrawal of occupying forces, a group of actors issues some friendly, challenging advice: ‘You want inward investment? You want tourism? You want civilisation? You want freedom and democracy?… You want all that then let some culture in, sign up for some culture, embrace some culture, let some culture into the ruins of this shattered city.’

This fervent outpouring, stressing the regenerative and redemptive power of ‘culture‘, mocks the naivety (and presumption) of do-gooding artists abroad in a war zone. But it also critiques assumptions far closer to home. For Baghdad – which we are invited to imagine is the site of this fictional colloquy – you could substitute, at certain points in the script, Hull, say, or Sheffield, or Liverpool. Any city in the UK, in fact, that has attempted, or is, attempting, after a period of post-industrial decline, to get back on its feet using enhanced cultural provision as a principal crutch.

Since the New Labour landslide of 1997 – the same year that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum opened in Bilbao, transforming that city’s reputation – it has become an accepted wisdom that ‘culture’, specifically ‘the arts’, can bring about tangible socio-economic benefits. Thanks to participatory events, to public art and to flagship capital projects, places that were once blighted, or on the wane, can, so the belief runs, reverse their fortunes.

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Ravenhill is right to pick up on these articles of faith and hold them up to some kind of mockery – but they need proper scrutiny. Is it as preposterous to think that ‘culture’ can improve social cohesion and restore economic vitality as it is to suppose that culture can, with a wave of a wand, heal the grief and devastation caused by war? It is incontestable when travelling the UK, particularly to cities in the north, that a decade of economic growth, combined with investment and infrastructural improvement, has created a renewed sense of civic pride and confidence – but how important a role has ‘culture’ played in that change; are the claims made on its behalf overstated?

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What I propose to do, over the course of the coming months, is build up a sustained examination of the subject of culture and regeneration – talking to people involved in regeneration schemes across the UK and reporting back about what they’ve said, and what I’ve seen. The questions asked will be broadly the same: what is it about ‘culture’ that’s driving urban change? Are there concrete examples of benefits? And if so, are those benefits lasting?

This can only be one person’s attempt to cut a swathe through a vast topic and anyone with internet access will know a good deal of related research material is already available. One obvious starting-point is the 2004 report to the Department of Culture Media and Sport, ’The Contribution of Culture to Regeneration in the UK: A Review of Evidence’ (Graeme Evans and Phyllida Shaw;, which I will be referring to in future articles.

On an immediate note, however, the report states: ‘We have not undertaken any primary research or site visits’ – and there, I hope, in the role of a peripatetic grassroots observer, I can be useful, bringing a touch of first-hand reportage into a topic field that can appear off-puttingly arid in complexion. I hope that Ravenhill’s wit will act as a lode-star – steering me away from sentences like ‘‘urban regeneration’ has become a regulative policy concept providing a strategic articulation of planned socio-cultural transformation in its largest sense’ – which you’ll readily find if you starting digging around in published documents.

I’ll report back, next time round, from the city that puts the issue of ‘culture and urban regeneration’ under the spotlight as nowhere else does this year, the EU’s reigning Capital of Culture: Liverpool.

Dominic Cavendish is comedy critic and deputy theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph