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The coal of the contemporary

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Orange Green Abigail Blog Tile8

Last week saw the publication of a report by an All Party Parliamentary Group on how culture in the North can drive recovery. It calls Northern Culture the coal of the contemporary – a rich seam running across the North of England which could dominate the 21st century in the way that coal dominated the 20th century.  The report notes that we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage culture as a social, political and economic asset with which to build a thriving region: a way of achieving a more even country. Unsurprisingly, I agree!

We have all seen through the pandemic how important culture is to our individual and collective identities – to our sense of value. As someone involved in an organisation with a remit across the north of the North, I can see that in towns, cities and villages culture drives the vision for these places and their communities.  It was the case pre-pandemic and it’s even more so now. Newcastle Gateshead is a great example – for over 30 years culture has been a part of what drives the identity of these two boroughs, joined by the Tyne. Our organisation, created to serve the North East, Cumbria and Teesside, has its Foster + Partners home on the banks of the Tyne and has become a symbol of cultural, social and economic ambition.   In a huge variety of forms this ambition exists across the whole of the North.

How is this potential to be fully realised? Ideally it takes a convergence of vision held locally, collaboration across a region and a prioritisation in national policy.  The report makes ten recommendations and sets out a challenge to us all to agree which to prioritise and move to action. The cultural sector is ready and willing to do so. The ten recommendations are all to some extent underway – there is evidence of them across the region.

Take just one – the first – recommendation: ‘invest in the next generation of creatives’ and look close to home.  Consider last Saturday at Sage Gateshead. Our Young Musicians’ Programme meets in the building every weekend – 250 young people learning music individually and in ensembles across genres and at all levels from beginner to music college level, aged 4 – 19. Supported by parents and carers the building buzzes every weekend with young people learning, socialising and filling the building with music.  There are about 10 centres across the UK which run these kind of programmes – most of them in large cities and most within ‘conservatoires’ which also train young adults. Sage Gateshead is one of the few places were this isn’t a higher education led environment.  This has advantages.

Once a year in January our Young Musicians Programme collides with an annual celebration of the best young adult classical musicians from across Europe. This festival called Rising Stars takes place in 25 concert halls across Europe and it is a shared commitment amongst this network of halls to showcasing the best young musicians from across the continent. It gives them exposure to audiences in over 10 different countries. Sage Gateshead, the most northerly venue in the network which includes the MusikVerein in Vienna, the Elbphilharmonie, the Philharmonie de Paris and the Barbican in London. Each year the group of six musicians is breath-taking in their quality. At Sage Gateshead they don’t just give concerts but also perform for free on our concourse and give masterclasses to our Young Musicians Programme.

For a young musician from Newcastle Gateshead learning horn or violin or piano, to hear someone just 10 or so years older performing at the highest standard can provide inspiration – a window on a possible future for them. Of course not every young person will want to pursue a professional career in music. However it is vital to be able to see the possibility. Without this it almost certainly isn’t going to happen. Sage Gateshead was founded as a centre for music with its emphasis on performance, artist development, support for young people as musicians and community music exactly to create these kind of intersections. The point of activity in all of these areas is that people can see progression and opportunity and, crucially, can see these things are for them, whatever their circumstances or background.

And layer on top of that the evening’s gig: Caribou who launched a seven-month long international tour from Sage Gateshead, setting off from the UK, via mainland Europe, through North American and back to Europe. Caribou, AKA Dan Snaith, brings world class sound and visuals – excellence of the very highest level with a commitment to making music in a sustainable way. For any young person pursuing music in our region, it’s vitally important to be able to encounter world class standards in your own back yard. This is one of the core purposes of Sage Gateshead – to bring the very best musicians to our region. For many people this is a fantastic night out. For some it’s inspiration in their own music making and the possibility they might pursue this.

Of course the APPG report had a far wider set of recommendations than investing in the next generation of creatives. They are about skills and training, health and wellbeing, digital and data capability and physical infrastructure – which is to say that they can be delivered through the widest range of partnerships and through a range of different kinds of investment. It’s a great call to action. Now is the time to look at how we prioritise in coming months and years. It won’t happen by chance or without collaboration.

But the alternative isn’t appealing – that the North doesn’t achieve its potential this century. The pandemic has shown us more than ever that culture is at the heart of our individual and community identities. So we must succeed.