Stoke, the City of Culture?

by JONATHAN WARD

How can a city present a confident vision of itself and its role in the social, cultural and economic life of contemporary Britain when its reputation, even among some of the people who live there, is so dire? That’s the task that Stoke-On-Trent has set itself. Should it be awarded UK City of Culture 2021 then it will face a number of competing priorities and tensions, Jonathan Ward comments on the recent shortlisting, and the city should take it seriously.

Love Ties, Hanley Park, Stoke-On-Trent :: Artwork by Emily Peachey / www.emilycampbellpublicart.com :: Photo © Jon Ward

In the words of a musician and lifelong resident of the city, Stoke-on-Trent is “a fucking dump […] It’s ugly. It’s culturally deprived.” Other people we have spoken to around the city haven’t always been quite so blunt or forthright, but it’s not uncommon to meet people who are quick to talk their city down. Here, then, is a problem: how can a city present a confident vision of itself and its role in the social, cultural and economic life of contemporary Britain when its reputation, even among some of the people who live there, is so dire?

But that is just what Stoke wants to do as it aims to be named UK City of Culture 2021 and demonstrate that #StokeIsOnTheUp. Also on the shortlist are Coventry, Paisley, Sunderland and Swansea who no doubt, like Stoke, will be looking to previous title holders.

As the current title holder, Hull is offering an exciting programme of arts and cultural events through 2017, and enjoying reams of good press that is helping to dispel its image as a “Crap Town.” The first UK City of the Culture, Derry-Londonderry was praised for being “creatively edgy, subversive, joyful and new” and, perhaps more importantly, for using it as a chance to engage with the Troubles and offer a space where reconciliation can progress. They both also boast some impressive sounding economic impacts, Derry-Londonderry claiming £5 return for every pound spent, while Hull aims for a £1 billion boost to the economy.

Like many places across the UK, Stoke’s traditional industries have shuttered – all the mines have closed and the ceramics industry, though currently undergoing a resurgence, remains something of a shadow of its former self, employing under 10,000 from a peak of 100,000. The loss of ceramics as a mass employer not only robbed the city of its economic base, but also a whole way of life focussed on “pots or pits.” Being UK City of Culture is perhaps a way to engage with the past and present a modern image of itself.

Stoke’s local newspaper, The Sentinel, has been vocal in backing the bid, and looks forward to “the ultimate prize, which would mean millions of pounds of investment, thousands of new jobs and international exposure for its culture.”

The city’s bid must be buoyed by the recent success of BBC 2’s The Great Pottery Throw Down, filmed in the beautifully renovated Middleport Pottery, and other good news comes as two local arts organisations, B Arts and the British Ceramics Biennial, have been granted National Portfolio Organisation status by Arts Council England, providing significant funding until 2022 and, perhaps most importantly, demonstrating the national significance of their work.

Speaking with cultural workers from around Stoke there is a buzz about the place and what it can offer. Stoke has a sense of excitement that comes from having the potential to create something new and interesting in a place that hasn’t already been colonised by third-wave coffee shops and identical looking high-end apartments. They compare Stoke favourably with cities like London and Manchester where being able to live well is increasingly something only affordable for the most well off. Such is the optimism that in spring this year a group of artists from Stoke-on-Trent set up Estate Agency in Stoke Newington in East London, promising that a move from the unaffordable capital to the Potteries would be “Your life but better.”

Stoke, then, is full of ambition, even if the “London media” continue to ignore it. Becoming the UK City of Culture 2021 would be an opportunity for the city to present itself through a positive lens.

However, it is important to remember that Stoke is not Hull or Derry-Londonderry (or Glasgow or Liverpool whose successes as European Capitals of Culture informed the development of the UK version) – it cannot follow a cookie cutter approach to success because policy has to respond to place and its people.

The city of Stoke-on-Trent is actually six towns, each of which was an independent centre of ceramics production, that through the late 19th and early 20th century sought to define themselves through common interests as the Potteries, independent of wider Staffordshire. Each town retains its own identity, something the Stoke bid casts as a strength: “The city is uniquely polycentric – six distinct towns, one city – a radical idea of place.” But we know that this polycentrism has also led problems, not least of which is the lack of a single centre around which focus. In the past, this balkanisation has expended much money, time and effort on arguments about which town to site an intervention, or has meant resources have been spread too thinly across all six.

The heritage of ceramics production provides another mixed blessing. The towns can trade on household names like Wedgewood or Royal Doulton, and a new generation of producers, notably Emma Bridgewater, are creating jobs and raising Stoke’s profile. But, for some, there’s a tendency for a lot of cultural activity to keep returning to the symbols of the past. One young graduate told us how “anything cultural that goes on in Stoke-on-Trent” is almost always linked it back to its industrial heritage, and that it “becomes a bit tiring after a while.” A ceramicist with her own small but growing business also complained about artists’ depictions of the towns, that they concentrate on decaying factories, bottle kilns and falling down houses, engaging the on-trend fetishisation of ruined buildings that goes down well on Instagram, but doesn’t present a glowing image of place.

More generally, a wealth of research highlights the numerous problems with culture-led urban regeneration schemes such as these where success is often measured in rising property prices and the opening of upmarket shops, bars and restaurants. While these are desirable for the consumers who can afford them and the landlords that can charge higher rents, they can often force out extant poorer residents and businesses. This process of gentrification superficially solves issues of poverty and urban dilapidation, but the reality is that the problem is simply shifted elsewhere with some of the poorest and most marginalised groups often disconnected from networks of family and friends.

We also need to look at the kinds of work being promoted. Margate in Kent is held up as an example of how culture can turn around a town – the opening of the Turner Contemporary in 2011 has spurred a wealth of arts activity and established the fading seaside town as a desirable destination again. But the council’s own report from March 2017, while trying to paint a positive picture of what’s been happening, shows that nearly a quarter of business have an annual turnover of less than £5,200, and for over 60% turnover is less than £21,000. There must, then, be serious questions about the sustainability of such businesses.

Should Stoke be awarded UK City of Culture 2021 then it will face a number of competing priorities and tensions. For their year to be a success then it needs to engage with local identities but not slip into parochialism; it needs to engage with a strong heritage, without being bound by it. But it also has to think about what success looks like, and that the people of Stoke that are able to benefit from it.

Jon is a CUSP research fellow, based in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. He is exploring with us the role of art and culture in sustainable prosperity.

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