Why people in rural areas pay double for culture

The experience of the regeneration of the physical cultural infrastructure in rural Britain compares poorly to urban areas. In the last 15 years virtually every major town and city in the UK has enjoyed some form of rejuvenation. New commercial quarters have been supported by development of new museums, galleries and theatres. Successful artists like Tracey Emin in Margate or Banksy in Bristol have given something back to their home towns by promoting new art galleries or providing work for ‘homecoming’ shows. Free admission to museums has meant that more and more people have access to their cultural heritage. In contrast until very recently there was little appetite nor encouragement to create new facilities in the countryside. In 1995 Jonathan Brown of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations analysed how successful rural groups had been in bids for Lottery support. Of the 15,000 bids received only 1,824 were for projects in rural areas and of those only 306 were successful. [1]

 Fifteen years on, the priorities of public or Lottery funding have changed little. In recent years Regional Development Agencies offered grants to turn redundant farm buildings into businesses facilities but the Arts Council through their lottery funded capital programme, very rarely support big projects in rural areas. A community led project in Halesworth, a market town in Suffolk, transformed an old grain warehouse into The Cut, a multi use arts centre with fully equipped Dance studio, theatre, art gallery and business units. The Cut hosts the feted High Tide festival for new writing and is endorsed by acting luminaries like Sinead Cusack and Diana Quick. No capital funding came from the Arts Council. Indeed that the Arts Council England (ACE) East do not hide the fact that they have little interest in the arts in rural areas citing priority areas of the urban centres of Peterborough, Norwich, Luton, Colchester, Cambridge and the Thames Gateway. Yet over two thirds of the population living in East Anglia, the bread basket of England, do so in a village or settlement of fewer than 20,000. ACE East’s preoccupation with urban centres may not be mirrored by other regions, both the South West and North West regional bodies have a tradition of supporting artistic activity in the countryside. However the absence of a countrywide strategy or even a common approach means that people’s access to cultural activity may continue to depend on where they live.

Extraordinary cultural experiences can be found in rural areas and are inspired by its greatest asset, the landscape. In Cumbria the FRED festival brings the work of artists out of the confines of the gallery and into the landscape. FRED events are found ‘on buses, up the fells, under the lakes, in the woods, at the service station, down the pub and around a mountain. Over the past four years, over 350 artists have created 164 projects in over 250 locations.’  The FRED event is strongly linked to cultural tourism (it is supported by National Parks authority, Cumbria Tourism and the Youth Hostels Association), encouraging visitors to experience not only the art but the countryside as a leisure facility. Visitors, many of whom are from cities in the North West , get a good deal. They get to see great art in the most beautiful of ‘galleries’ – for free, benefiting from the countryside’s natural assets. Some rural businesses benefit from more tourism and welcome though these rural arts events are, there is no lasting cultural legacy for the rural community. This compares poorly to cultural activity in town or cities. New museums and performance spaces go hand in glove with economic regeneration and institutions work hard to build links with the local community. Both David Lam at the Young Vic and Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic pride themselves in the discounted tickets they make available for Lambeth residents.

 Rural dwellers who want great art where they live are entitled to feel aggrieved. Firstly because of an over concentration on temporary, place-based activities, there has been little appetite to create a legacy of new cultural amenities in the countryside. In some cases the policy of public funders has also conspired against it. Secondly, whereas urban dwellers who visit the countryside get to see great art in the landscape for free (as in the FRED programme) rural people who visit a gallery or theatre in a city, would invariably pay. Whilst visitors may benefit local rural businesses with their secondary spend, they are not paying for the upkeep of a creative programme or the building of a new cultural infrastructure. Thirdly because of expensive transport costs and being unable to enjoy the discounts available to residents, rural people are effectively paying double for performances or temporary exhibitions of high calibre when they go to the city.

[1] Landscapes of Poverty, Michael Simmons 1997 p 163

[2] During the research for this study no one from Arts Council England East was prepared to talk to me. I was informed by e-mail in early November 2008 that research into rural arts was not a priority for them and that no-one would be available to speak to me by telephone until Spring 2009.

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2 Responses to Why people in rural areas pay double for culture

  1. interesting stuff, i have a bee in my bonnet about this too!

  2. stevemessam says:

    Thanks for the kind words about FRED. It did some good things for the 5 years it ran. I take your point about legacy in rural communities though. It was something I tried hard to ensure happened when we decided to call it a day. However, making sure that the FRED project left tangible cultural legacies across the area proved too far for the funders who simply didn’t want to know. Despite how it looks from the outside, FRED was regarded much higher outside Cumbria than within. In 5 years we received not a penny from the County and the district council contributions added up to less than £3,000 combined over 5 years. What Cumbria and its sub districts got out of it was the reputation for a vibrant rural cultural economy and a blueprint event which has inspired countless other events all over Europe. However, the intangible benefits continue to be felt. Certainly the cultural community is a very different place than it was when we started. I don’t think FRED can take all the credit but I think we played our part. The biggest difference though is the acceptance of contemporary art among rural communities and a greater understanding of its value – both socially and economically.
    FRED and its organisation Fold, were set up to plug a gap in access to contemporary art in a big swathe between St. Bees near Whitehaven in Cumbria and Whitby in N. Yorks. A large area with little or no contemporary art offer. For 7 years we did our bit to fill that hole all at an annual cost of less than a Biennial curators’ salary. The saddest bit is now that’s all gone, we’re back to where we were before – other projects that came along at the same time have all closed down too. With nobody keeping check of rural proofing services anymore – including culture we’re left to trust the government will keep an eye out for us. Hmm.

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