Seaside art leaves locals beached

I spent the end of last week at a conference at Butlin’s in Skegness which, as an academic interested in tourism and regeneration, seemed to me to be the perfect conference destination, despite the jibes of colleagues used to having to make the case for their attendance at conferences in sunnier and more glamorous climes.

The conference was the UK leg of what the organisers assured us was ‘not a travelling circus, even if it might feel like one sometimes’.

The SEAS project is a trans-European cultural initiative to foster international collaborations between artists; creating works in coastal towns and cities surrounding the Black and North seas since 2002. This conference, called ‘Seascape’ was showpiece for the SEAS approach and also aimed to be a forum for exploring ‘culture as a regenerative force for coastal communities.

Seaside towns contain some of the most deprived urban areas in the UK. Across the UK, seaside towns are turning to cultural strategies of regeneration and this conference seemed well-timed to play a role in these developments, especially with the review of the government’s ‘Sea Change’ programme shortly to report.

There was some exciting artistic work on show as part of the seascape event, and reports of fascinating research. But it seems as though the vogue for coastal cultural regeneration is in danger of repeating the rhetorical and ideological mistakes of the now not-so-novel approach to cultural regeneration taken by inland cities over the last 15 years, concentrating on attracting high-spending cultural tourists and viewing communities as a problem that needed to be solved.

We heard how ‘communities need to open their minds to the arts’, how culture can ‘weave the textile of the community together’; how artists, by ‘provoking and challenging’ local people could ‘empower’ them as citizens. This discourse was based on a largely shared assumption that cultural regeneration was an unproblematically positive thing and that artists, by virtue of their training and aesthetic sensibilities, would ‘do no harm’ like Star Trek’s benevolent Federation, touring the galaxy to promote intercultural exchange.

We also heard however, about projects that had taken steps to involve communities in decisions about the cultural regeneration of their towns and regions. In Hastings, local authority officers have taken to the stage alongside police officers in stab-vests during hostile consultations, leading to support of over 85% of local people for the culture-led re-development of their harbour.

In Margate, a local pressure group has become a strong campaigner for the regeneration of the town as the ‘Save Dreamland’ campaign has evolved into the ‘Dreamland Trust’.  On the Lincolnshire coast, a mapping of cultural assets has recommended the promotion of ‘local champions’ and supporting pre-existing local cultural networks.

This bottom-up understanding of cultural practice contrasted with the dominant view that there was an opposition between the valuable culture of the high arts and the misguided and insignificant cultural activity of the working classes. Over the course of the two days I heard the popular culture of the seaside linked to obesity and drunkenness on four separate occasions.

Somehow, the excellent but unglamorous work of involving, persuading and listening to local people is easily lost in the self-convincing rhetoric of artists, cultural policy makers, architects, funders, consultants and entrepreneurs who make up this inter-dependent cultural regeneration complex, moving from project to project and country to country.

The SEAS project is fascinating and its aims are far-reaching and bold. But the lack of voices of those impacted upon by SEAS was worrying and the arguments for the project would have made a greater impact if we had heard about the difference these artistic interventions in areas of great socio-economic decline had made to the lives of local residents. But, as we were reminded at the close of the conference, ‘this is not a case of helping poor people, it is about economic development’. Oh dear, here we go again.


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