The state of regional art was debated in Birmingham yesterday at the launch of another of the city’s festivals.
Organised by The Birmingham Post, the debate considered whether regional arts is continuing to suffer from the London-centric attitudes of funders, the media and audiences.
Helping to kick-start the New Generation Arts festival, billed as Europe’s largest showcase of new talent, the discussion threw up a few interesting talking points.
But arguably the biggest feature of the discussion was the desire to please London, which sometimes feels as if it is bordering on desperation.
It is true to say that Birmingham, the wider West Midlands and other major cities around the UK get a pretty raw deal from the London-based media in terms of arts coverage. But that is a criticism that can also be levelled to just about everything else – business, education, sport et al – as there is still a sense that if it doesn’t happen in or around London it simply isn’t worth bothering about.
The finger was also pointed at the way in which London-based arts groups seemingly take the lion’s share of the funding available – a complaint likely to intensify in coming years as many expect money earmarked for “culture” to be increasingly directed towards the 2012 Olympics.
It is not often that I agree with Germaine Greer and yet at yesterday’s debate she hit the nail on the head and reiterated many of the points she made in her regular column in The Guardian – namely that there most certainly is life outside of London, whether the capital likes it or not, but it is up to the “regions” to start celebrating their own achievements more enthusiastically and effectively.
Just as many criticise the London-based media for ignoring regional arts, so one could criticise those involved in the regional arts for building up “national” coverage as being all-important.
This is especially true in Birmingham and the West Midlands. Too often regional arts gets bogged down in navel-gazing and paranoia about the failure to secure coverage from the London-based media.
Does it matter?
There is a great deal of value in securing coverage from the London-based media in so many respects. But we shouldn’t have to go cap in hand to secure it as surely that devalues the coverage.
Other cities around the UK appear to be far less hung up on pleasing London and far more inclined to simply get on and provide a high standard of arts provision for local audiences.
Invariably, as can be seen in cities like Newcastle and Manchester, a sufficiently loud buzz is created on a local level that London comes calling (often uninvited) to see for itself what all the fuss is about.
In Birmingham, however, the priority always appears to be staging inquests into why London keeps ignoring the city.
The futile debate on the title of “second city” and the desire of so many influential people in Birmingham to beat off the challenge of Manchester for such a dubious honour is the perfect illustration of this pointless fawning to the nation’s capital.
Birmingham and the West Midlands has far more pressing concerns on its own doorstep, particularly in terms of the arts.
It is refreshing, for example, to know that those organising the Lichfield Festival are making concerted efforts to attract more people from Birmingham to the annual event. It is only a 30-minute train or an even shorter car ride from Birmingham to the Staffordshire city and yet Lichfield is not on the cultural map as far as many in the “second city” are concerned.
Equally, it would be interesting to know how many are prepared to travel from Birmingham to Coventry, Wolverhampton or Walsall for an arts event – and vice versa. Or, rather, how few are prepared to make such short trips.
Surely regional arts in the West Midlands would be better served by ensuring people living in the area travel more extensively on their own doorsteps to enjoy the wealth of talent and the international standard performances that take place here week in and week out?
If they did, then just maybe Birmingham and the West Midlands will create the type of buzz that will get London travelling north out of curiosity.
It is time to play hard to get.
More importantly, it is time to start ignoring what London thinks and get on with the job of proving just how much life there is in the regional arts.