Is Sunderland on the cusp of a cultural revolution?
Darren Henley, chief executive of Arts Council England (ACE), says arts and culture could be key to a bright future for Wearside.
He joined Culture Minister Matt Hancock, as well as culture partnerships and groups from across the city at National Glass Centre to discuss the arts’ vital role in building community engagement and powering investment in Sunderland.
“We’ve had an industrial revolution, we’ve had a digital revolution, now it’s time for a cultural revolution,” he said.
And he says a launchpad of the city’s post-industrial future as a thriving hub of creativity and the arts is the bid for City of Culture 2021 - whether we win it or not.
“Sunderland has a very realistic chance of winning the title,” said Darren. “Like all the candidate cities it’s working very hard and there’s every chance Sunderland could win.
“There’s a ground swell of local leadership and determination here and it has an equal chance as anyone else.
“The bid in itself, however, can be hugely beneficial. Leicester, for example, lost out to Hull for City of Culture 2017 but the bid itself has sparked a debate about the arts.”
In his eighteen months since taking over at the helm of the Arts Council, Darren has visited Wearside no less than nine times and says he’s impressed by the work being done to change the face of culture in the city.
He said: “There’s great local leadership here with the University, Council and Mac Trust all coming together. The university is a brilliant example of one that understands its role as a place maker, and a place shaper, and the arts activity it offers is exemplary, some of the best in the country.”
In recent months the Art Council has been a key funder in the transformation of the Old Fire Station into a culture hub. An initial development grant of £250,000 has allowed for work to begin on the £3million project to create a restaurant, cafe, heritage centre and dance and drama studio, due to open next autumn, on the site.
Meanwhile, the Mac Trust has applied for £6million from ACE to build a 450-seater auditorium on to the side of the Old Fire Station, which would host local and national performers.
ACE also funded the three-year Cultural Spring project in Wearside and South Tyneside, which has sparked a host of arts activity in communities with previously low cultural engagement.
Speakers at today’s event say that in a post Brexit-vote Britain arts and culture has an even more pertinent role to play.
Matt Hancock, Minister of State for digital and culture, said: “After the Brexit vote cultural institutions have a huge role in defining what Brexit Britain is, how we see ourselves and how the rest of the world sees us.”
Darren said: “We have an ambassadorial role as Britain redefines itself upon the international stage; and an economic role. Our national culture has long been a source of soft power, the means to make friends and build relationships.
“It shows the world we are open for dialogue, and open for business. While the creative industries are the fastest growing area of the economy and a driver of growth: we have a truly international reach and are major exporters. This was underlined by the recent figures from the music industry – which saw exports rise to 2.2 billion pounds in 2015.”