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Abigail's Blog: New Horizons

Posted on 22 May 2020

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Last week there was stark data that in cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 population, Gateshead, Sunderland, South Tyneside and Middlesbrough are top of the leader board. As a nation we collectively toyed with the idea that Covid-19 was a great leveller and then came to our senses, as the irrefutable evidence about the profile of those who had the virus and those who had died, presented itself. The most vulnerable and those with the least are being hardest hit by the virus itself, as well as being hit by the social and economic consequences of us handling it.  Hit from every angle.

It can affect anyone in any walk of life and fatally, tragically, of course. But that’s not the same thing.

This is sobering reading about the North East when you care about a place and its people. And it’s particularly sobering when the government is announcing a gradual easing of restrictions so that we can all move towards a new world. It makes me think about what kind of new world we want this to be. And specifically what kind of region do we want ours to be on the other side of this.

At one level it’s easy to over-egg the new dawn rhetoric. But at another level, when did the whole world last – simultaneously – experience the same thing with such negative implications? It ended 75 years ago. Of course that was in a different league and this is a totally different kind of situation. But even if a new dawn isn’t inevitable, perhaps we might want to make one. Last time round we got radical thinking and action on healthcare, international relations, education and culture.

How about another round of radical thinking about these four areas this time round, and let’s add environmental action into the mix. Can health and social care become fully integrated? Can we properly take mental health seriously? Can we redefine international relations through digital, environmentally sound means? Can we finally reform the education system so that it’s fit for the 21st century and can we explore and honour the culture of our past and acknowledge the culture of the future as belonging to everyone? That’s my shopping list anyway.

And now is a perfect time to think about what this means for our region – as we’re starting to think about return to the world from our individual homes. Within our region, what gives me hope is that we can easily pull third, private and public sectors together, we have the perfect sized capital city, we have a profoundly rich regional culture, we have huge spirit and a capacity for graft. If people are not going to need to gravitate towards the capital or even the biggest cities to work, cities of our size will come to the fore. And if people are going to travel less internationally for leisure, our region is full of riches for the rest of the UK. The scope for the inbound is significant. And this is a crucial factor in improving things for those who are already here, which has to happen so that we can address the reasons why we’re top of the tables for Covid-19. But the area’s future should be defined by its people and post-lockdown it’s a perfect time to work on that – this has to involve everyone. If we don’t make a new world happen in this way, it’s possible that what happens won’t be any fairer, any more inclusive, any more long-term.

So where do culture, music and The Glasshouse International Centre for Music sit in a new world for the UK, for the North East? Across the whole gamut – as part of a 21stcentury healthcare system; dove-tailing with formal education;  as one of the most effective aspects of soft power in international relations;  it is culture – in great diversity.  And crucially as a way of making sense of and representing the world.
What makes the world understandable and better for its people? Culture. What defines an age for future generations? Culture.  Musicians, artists, cultural institutions are all already in all of these areas and there’s a chance out of this to take a bold step forward.

Sure, our sector is affected by this crisis. Take Sage Gateshead: the charity has lost 60% of its income and a further 20% is under a lot of pressure – we face a financial cliff edge and alongside everything we’ll do to help ourselves, we’re going to need financial help to navigate this. But we also know we’ve got a vital role to play in lockdown – offering as much as we can online to as wide a range of people as possible – and just as importantly in recovery and in thinking about a new world. Musicians, music, the arts, culture will be part of what takes us through and what helps us shape the future.

But we’ll need to be really clear about the profound role which culture can play in our new world. It seems possible that the next generation will naturally turn to economics and science. Both important, but it would be a miss not to turn to culture with the same level of purpose. The world is complex and it needs culture and the creativity which it embodies for us to stand a chance of finding a new way  – if we are to divert ourselves for inequality and short-termism, we’ll need them to find our way.

Here’s hoping we will think big for our region and our nation as we venture out of our houses again.