The town of Blyth has a long proud history built around its port and its shipbuilding, coal mining and fishing industries. It has been in decline since the 1960s and by the 1980s most of the industrial might had vanished, leaving the town to attempt regeneration. The port is still critical to the local economy but the smoke belching power station has been replaced by state of the art wind farm manufacturing and transport links have never recovered since the closure of the train line to the town. This is a story typical for much of the North East of England. A tale we local artists have all lived through or heard about at school. But, whilst areas in Newcastle and Gateshead have been widely cited as exemplars for regional regeneration and much of this based around art and culture, places like Blyth have not been so fortunate. A recent public confession by the leader of Northumberland County Council and Blyth resident that the town was ‘a dump’ where he wouldn’t shop were the last thing this beleaguered place needed. Yes there are many empty shops but Blyth is the largest town in Northumberland with an amazing heritage and many exceptionally committed and proud local people.
Enough information; but I feel it’s always important to contextualise. What about arts and culture? Blyth (and the rest of the surrounding area) has very low levels of engagement in arts and culture, without a permanent cinema or art gallery. Because of this disengagement with arts and cultural under-investment, the area has been awarded several million pounds of funding from Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places initiative. This is undoubtedly good for the area. Early signs are that the consortium will invest most of this money in engaging new audiences. The town doesn’t need an ‘Angel of Blyth’ or a white cube gallery space. It needs real people expressing their past experiences as well as future hopes and fears creatively in real places where everyone can visit. Where better than the town’s main streets where local people (excepting the Council Leader) still do most/ some of their shopping?
We at dot to dot active arts believe in community engagement and creative place-making through participation in contemporary arts projects; activities beyond audience engagement and outreach work that activate local people’s narratives and things and places that matter to create strong new works of art by the community. We know our role. We are facilitators: people who help other people explore their creativity. We never lead. The projects and art created in our sessions are not ours. They belong to the communities we work in. We also know that people who do not normally visit art galleries or other cultural venues are much more likely to wonder what has filled the window of that empty shop; ask why strangely familiar yet slightly disconnected sounds are filtering from that once shuttered doorway; and who are those people acting strangely in the marketplace and dancing down the beach in the pouring rain? Residents may recognise some of the objects in the shop window; know some of the stories and voices drifting in and out of earshot; see their friends in costumed faces. This is what we want to help the people of Blyth explore.
We know that art will not change Blyth on its own. It must be part of a plan. Not a Mary Portas plan or a government plan. A real plan by the people for the people where creativity and participation sit alongside economic, environmental and other community needs. We hope we can help. We hope our project will be fun. We aren’t sure how we can help the local community sustain similar popup shops in future. But we will try and we will engage real people in real settings, always seeking help the community find what it needs or might need. This is what old-new curiosity shop is about.
This is a guest post from dot to dot active arts, a social enterprise. They are non-hierarchic; a member-led network open to anyone who shares an ethos and modes of practice. They are artists and arts and community professionals and all believe that people can feel better about their lives by participating in things. They support each other to do more. They are all individuals (and freelancers) who come together as dot to dot active arts to provide better outcomes for everyone.
Stephen Pritchard is founder of dot to dot active arts CIC and executive director. This means he does stuff for the network but asks what needs doing and does what is decided (most of the time!) He is an art historian, arts professional, artist practitioner, writer and self-styled participatory arts evangelist. He loves creativity that happens outside traditional venues, in unexpected (i.e. normal) places. He has made many a pact with many a devil and that is what he likes.