Here’s a question: is regional art a good thing? It’s a conundrum that seems to be troubling the national press of late. On Sunday, we spotted this report in the Observer: Rachel Cooke writing up new galleries and ‘swanky’ architecture in some of the country’s least fashionable seaside resorts. Margate is soon to open its Turner Contemporary art centre; Eastbourne has its £8.6m Towner Gallery; Folkestone a new £4m performance space.
And last month The Guardian reported on the opening of the £19m Nottingham Contemporary, which launches in November. Nottingham Contemporary is a coup for a city that, until now, had no contemporary art scene to speak of – its only other gallery, the Angel Row, closed in 2007. Nottingham Contemporary joins a raft of recent-ish openings: Mima in Middlesbrough, the Baltic in Gateshead. Here in Manchester, we already have our new cultural palaces: Urbis, Imperial War Museum North, The Lowry.
But the opening of galleries such as that in Nottingham raises questions. Matt Price (writing about another proposed gallery, this time in Birmingham) asked, ‘does England really need another contemporary art museum?’ The problem, he argued, is that all these flash new museums mask a problem: that the exhibitions they house aren’t up to scratch. ‘Although many cities and towns are showing strong exhibitions, most of them don’t actually own much of the art they show; public collections of contemporary art around England simply aren’t as good as they should be.’
The argument centres on sustainability – none of these places can afford a white elephant (think of The Public in West Bromwich, whose gallery closed before it even opened). But what that argument misses is this: regional cities across Britain already have star-studded collections of art, painting, sculpture and more, some of it modern, some of it historic. Southampton Council know it – in a move that can only be described as short sighted, the coastal town is considering flogging its historic collections in order to raise funds. And here in Manchester we know it. We are blessed with collections that range from Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces (Manchester Art Gallery) and the world’s largest collection of Lowry artworks (The Lowry) to the ‘Baby’ (MOSI) and one of the UK’s largest collections of Egyptian artefacts (Manchester Museum). And there are active acquisitions policies at many of these regional museums and galleries, too – the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery are just two that continue to collect modern and contemporary art.
The collections exist – what is often lacking (and is why cities like Nottingham are busy topping out their new builds) is the infrastructure. Imagine Manchester without Urbis, Imperial War Museum North or The Lowry. Think of it without the scrubbed up versions of Manchester Art Gallery and Manchester Museum (both of which underwent multi-million pound improvements a few years back). Tell Cornerhouse and the Whitworth not to think bigger, to forget their planned expansions and be content with what they’ve got.
The Manchester we know and love wouldn’t exist. It wouldn’t be the second most important cultural destination in the UK (and we wouldn’t have bothered coming up with creativetourist.com). It wouldn’t support hundreds of jobs and generate much-needed income for the city, or provide free education and activities for thousands of children and community groups every year. It wouldn’t have the venues and the back-up to stage Manchester International Festival. It would be like Nottingham before its art gallery – a place where I grew up; a cultural vacuum that I couldn’t wait to get out of. Yes, we need to be careful about what we build, and to ensure that any new cultural centre serves its community alongside the staging of seriously good shows. But we also need more investment, not less, in our regional museums and galleries – if only so that kids the length and breadth of Britain don’t forever feel they are missing out by not being in London.
Susie Stubbs is the editor of creativetourist.com, a collaborative project between nine museums and galleries in Manchester, the Northwest Regional Development Agency, Renaissance in the Regions and Visit Manchester. Susie also writes a have-baby-will-travel blog.