There is a tendency in the political sphere to fail to recognise the innate value and worth of arts and cultural projects. Year on year, we see further cuts being made to such valuable assets as youth clubs, community cinemas, libraries, and arts charities; whilst development programmes overlook the value of expanding arts spaces in favour of traditional development projects, creating more housing and shops. I’m going to focus here on just one example of this occurrence: the proposed re-development of Sheffield’s cultural quarter and areas of Division Street into housing, restaurants and cafés. I’ll also argue, however, that politicians are missing a trick: the arts are in fact a valuable asset for re-engaging the public with political matters.
Developments in Sheffield
There is a current trend in Sheffield to focus city wide development projects on the creation of new houses and big businesses. One need only look at the increase in new-build housing opportunities cropping up in the city or the development of the Moor shopping complex to understand that the current focus is on larger companies, rather than smaller, community driven, local developments.
The most recent of these decisions are the council’s two latest housing proposals. The development of new housing provision in the city is not in and of itself a negative change (in fact an increase in affordable housing would be of benefit to the city). It is the choice of location for these properties, however, that has led to the creation of a number of change.org petitions which are gaining city wide support. The proposals would mean the city losing a number of beloved businesses, including book shop and cultural hub ‘Rare & Racy’.
The Value of Culture in Sheffield
The Sheffield cultural quarter and Division Street are at the heart of what makes Sheffield interesting, not only as a place to live and work, but also as a political space enabling individuals to engage with, and comment on, the issues that affect their lives: both as individuals and as members of a wider community. Many of the buildings discussed in the council’s plans are home to local artists, musicians and small businesses that play a large (and ever increasing) role in Sheffield’s burgeoning cultural scene.
Sheffield organisations such as S1 Artspace and Bank Street Arts not only offer artists a fantastic place to work and collaborate they also involve themselves in projects and exhibitions that look to utilise the arts as a medium through which to reengage the public with issues they may otherwise feel distanced from. As just one example, the Our Corner project was a collaborative piece of work bringing together The Crick Centre, Festival of the Mind and Ignite Imaginations. Such projects demonstrate the value and importance of maintaining and further establishing arts spaces in the city; not only because of the hugely successful nature of Sheffield’s artistic and musical exports, but also because they provide both a space and a medium through which to engage in political debates.
In Defence of Art and Culture
The Our Corner project is just one example amongst many of the value of artistic mediums in inspiring individuals from different backgrounds to express their views and concerns through a medium in which they feel comfortable and confident, entering into debate around issues that affect their lives. Through the use of film, poetry, sculpture, photography, paint and performance it is possible to overcome the boundaries of traditional political deliberation, engaging on a level that is both valuable and inspiring.
By closing down some or all of the spaces within the city that inspire these forms of expression and provide the places in which artists can collaborate we are not only failing to recognise the value of the city’s phenomenal cultural outputs, but also the value of these mediums in inspiring further engagement in political issues. It is on this basis that I argue the council’s plans should be challenged, not only for the damage they will do to a thriving and valuable sector but also to the ever necessary political discourse and debate that will be stunted by such a move.
Gemma Bird is a Doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield Department of Politics. She is also involved extensively in the cultural and arts community in Sheffield.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.