On 21 March, 100+ local residents, artists, architects, developers and councillors gathered to discuss the role of arts and culture in placemaking and the type of city they want York to be in the future.

The lively debate took place at Bootham School, where the views were heard by city leaders and debated around the room. The gist of the conversation can be followed below and on Twitter and the group now hope to influence the contents of York's Local Plan which sets a fixed framework for the city's development over the next 25 years.

Robert Powell (Beam) opened the meeting and invited the Head of Bootham Senior School, Jonathan Taylor, to speak. He welcomed everyone to the School and in particular to the School Hall, a Modernist building designed by Trevor Dannatt which sees its 50th anniversary this year. He described how the arts are central to Bootham School, which recently completed a new arts centre. He was very pleased to be hosting the meeting as an example of the way the School contributes to the life of the city.

Robert then introduced Graham Henderson, former CEO of the organisation Poet in the City, and author of a paper designed as a provocation on the issues of culture and planning, Putting Soul in the City – Towards a Manifesto, copies of which had been distributed to participants. Graham showed a number of slides that illustrated his argument that culture is central to healthy participative process of determining how our places should be.

  • Answering the question – what does the future city of the arts look like?
  • Using Alexander Pope’s ‘spirit of the place’ idea, what makes York, York?
  • According to Potocka citizen’s behaviour is shaped by the quality of spaces and places
  • Artists can breathe life into the planner’s jargon and the developer’s rhetoric.
  • As in Breugel’s painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, there must be room in the city for mess and confusion.
  • If culture was put first, would that lead to an emphasis on Value?
  • The leadership strategy could be – to be facilitators, to let people (and artists) get on with it!

Robert then introduced the discussion, making the following points

  • The meeting was organised by an informal group representing York Architectural Association, Beam, the Guild of Media Arts, and York@Large.
  • Following the Farrell Review of Architecture & the Built Environment (2014), Beam has launched a national Manifesto for the Public Arts which attendees are encouraged to support.
  • City of York Council is currently working on York’s Local Plan, an important document that creates a framework for development and planning decisions over the next 20 years
  • The draft Plan covers a great many areas but doesn’t yet include the arts & culture
  • However the Council has expressed considerable interest in the contribution that culture can make, and has invited York@Large to meet with their Local Plan team
  • Before that happens we felt it would be helpful to gather people from a range of backgrounds - artists, architects, cultural businesses, citizens - to share views about the importance of the arts and culture in York’s future.

He invited everyone to consider the following proposition

  • That the arts and culture be included as a key Strategic Priority in the Local Plan
  • That a supporting document, in the form of an Arts and Culture Strategy, should accompany the Local Plan to strengthen the delivery of the Priority.

The following observations were made by the participants:

Participant – speaking as a University of York student felt that the contribution that students could make to York was not being realised. Students can feel quite isolated from the city both geographically and in terms of the cultural life of the city. What they are learning to practise creatively should be of interest in the city as it represents the probable future of the arts.

Participant – spoke as a previous Council executive member for culture. He thought it would be good if more student work could be seen in the city. Speaking as a practising artist he wanted to stress that artists need accommodation such as studios that permit messy work.

Participant – asked if it was reasonable to expect anyone to provide space for artists when public sector support is being cut.

Stuart Page – asserted that York is not a city, it’s a town. Referring to Graham Henderson’s citing the Guggenheim effect, he argued that a place like York needs ‘bottom up’ cultural change not top down imposition. He cited La Movida, the Spanish movement that took place after the toppling of Franco.

Participant – argued that students have little choice but to leave York on graduation due to lack of graduate level employment opportunities. Another problem is finding out what is happening in York. There seems to be poor communication between the different groups of artists and their audiences.

David Swales – had observed that there is a lack of connection between the visitors to the city and its everyday cultural life. They may not have their attention drawn to the level of creativity that exists.

Robert Teed – building on an earlier comment said he felt culture is divided among different silos with little communication. He felt that the sector requires investment. He thought it was not necessary to focus solely on tourists. The audience for culture resembles the overlap in a Venn diagram comprising residents on the one hand and visitors on the other.

Chris Steward – spoke about how the Council is supporting culture. His administration has negotiated with organisations to reduce revenue funding while supporting capital refurbishment and expansion so that they can become financially independent. He argued that the city has the assets it still has partly because of the additional income that visitors bring. That in turn benefits residents. He welcomed the idea of a statement on culture, adding that to be successful it needed to lay out the ‘tangible benefits’ of culture.

Simon Newton – urged people not to underestimate the significance of the UNESCO City of Media Arts designation. This is unique in the UK, and connects us with a global network of Creative Cities. Our base of cultural assets is already great, and should enable us to connect the city’s glorious past with a successful future….to tell the story of a ‘younger’ York.

Nick David – thought that care should be taken to ensure that the case for the contribution of arts and culture was persuasive and be based on good evidence. He could not see quite how the ‘public art’ strategy described by Graham Henderson related to the Literature Festival, but in a wider sense he was sure it made a contribution to our sense of place in York.

Marcia Mackay – used the Arts Barge as an example of a recent development. At first they had felt rejected by the Council but latterly had come to value the endorsement they had been given. A culture of facilitation and support, not just finance, is important. She argued that culture in York has a bias towards better off areas. Much of York does not think that the arts are for them. They want more opportunities to engage in culture.

Hugh Powell – contrasting York and Wakefield, the latter, nominally a ‘city’, feels like a town compared to York. But Wakefield has some excellent examples of culture that connects, from the Hepworth’s programme to ArtWalks, to art in pubs. And York has a brilliant music scene whose importance that is under-rated.

Participant - noted the recent experiment of pop-up galleries and shops, and wanted to know how relationships between developers, landlords and artists can be improved?

Jonny Hayes – thought that York needs to be more generally aware of itself and its strengths. Independent retailing on Bishopthorpe Road had quickly obtained very high levels of recognition in York and beyond. But York’s excellent creative industries, for instance, still needed to be effectively promoted.

Steve Brown – York Central, the largest urban development site in Europe, represents a huge opportunity to show how culture contributes to planning. Thus far, he felt, the proposals for the area lacked imagination. Another opportunity for the sector is to extend and diversify the use of public spaces in the city such as Shambles Market. It lends itself to installations and performance, and to competition led creativity.

Participant – to an architect a statement about culture in the Local Plan is very useful as it can help frame the conversations with developers about the brief and focus attention on issues such as design quality and amenity value. York Design Awards are a good instance of a group helping to spread awareness of what high quality in architecture and planning looks like.

Participant – York’s Mystery Plays are a jewel in the city’s heritage crown, and an underused asset. They involved 2000 people in 2012 from a wide range of backgrounds.

Participant – spoke about the interesting directions being taken by architects working with students in York currently, such as Andreas Lang (of Public Works) who uses a range of approaches to planning by communities.

Participant – hoped that the developers of properties for students, such as those along Walmgate, could be involved in future discussions.

Participant– was very concerned that York is losing much of value with some of the recent developments in the city. The process of ‘uglification’ might appear unstoppable, but our inherited assets must be preserved.

Cat Wilson – described the project going on at the Red Tower, an historic monument that is being used as a social and cultural space.

Participant – spoke passionately about the need to widen the audiences for culture, and regretted that there is currently no arts centre offering opportunities for participation.

Dave Fleming – warned that national policy on education, such as the insistence on STEM (Science, Technology, English, Maths), was causing schools to neglect creativity and denying students the chance to find their talent. He wanted to know if the provisions the Council had made in earlier times, such as Percent for Art, still applied, and if they could be used.

Participant – described how York Open Studios is a community based project involving many of city’s best visual artists each year, attracting many visitors.

Lotte Inch – referred to the York Galleries Group which has come together to promote the visual arts in York. They have taken the initiative and produced a York Art Map to help visitors and residents more easily find out what is happening.

Chris Steward – hoped that the discussion about culture and the Local Plan would include the important topic of design quality, which he felt was absent from many planning decisions, not least on housing.

Robert closed the discussion session by asking Chris Bailey to summarise briefly what had been said.

Chris said that some issues stood out for him:

Support, such as funding and the lack of it, had understandably been mentioned quite often. People had also noted the value of endorsement and moral support by the authorities. Others had given vivid examples of how mutual support can achieve results.

There were three areas that he felt the contribution to the Local Plan should be mindful of

  • The dynamism and excellence of York’s creative industries
  • The role of culture in giving life to public spaces and to heritage
  • The character of York as a city that attracts, values and retains students

Finally he noted that every speaker implicitly endorsed the proposal made by Robert at the beginning of the meeting and none spoke against.

Robert closed the meeting by thanking all concerned and inviting participants to watch out for further developments in York, and to read and sign the Manifesto for the Public Arts, currently being promoted by Beam as part of the national debate.

Next Steps:

  • A Note of the meeting to be circulated to participants so that all can be kept informed.
  • York@Large to meet with the City of York’s Local Plan team.

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Further Information