A big year beckons for a “background organisation” that aims to put culture front and centre. Matthew Jarratt tells David Whetstone about challenges ahead
David Whetstone talks to Matthew Jarratt of the North East Culture Partnership, originally published on Cultured North East and in The Journal.
You might not have noticed the 10th anniversary of the North East Culture Partnership (NECP). There were no balloons or flying corks to mark the landmark year of 2023.
As Matthew Jarratt, who shares the managerial role, puts it: “We’re very light touch… a sort of background organisation really, so a lot of what we do isn’t seen publicly.
“But there’s a lot we do that helps to sustain commitment to culture in the North East and, if nothing else, I think we’ve helped to keep it at the forefront of attention.”
The NECP is a unique grouping of local authorities, universities, colleges, businesses and cultural organisations that works closely with the likes of Arts Council England, Historic England and National Lottery Heritage Fund.
It shows that across the North East, despite political differences, many sing off the same song sheet when it comes to culture.
The anniversary was acknowledged this month when co-chair Jane Robinson, pro-vice chancellor, engagement and place, at Newcastle University, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 arts programme Front Row and pressed about the progress of its ambitious Case for Culture (C4C).
This was launched eight years ago, with a bit of razzmatazz, as a “statement of ambition for the development and celebration of the region’s arts and heritage sector from 2015 to 2030”.
C4C encourages people to regard investment in culture as a stimulant to growth.
Responding that we could be “very positive about what the region has achieved”, Jane cited “significant investment” in Bishop Auckland, where the new Faith Museum opened this year, and in Blyth and Berwick where new arts centres are planned.
She mentioned the region’s film and media sector with production company Fulwell 73 aiming to open studios in Sunderland with the potential to create 8,500 jobs.
It had been a tough decade with the impact of austerity, Brexit and the pandemic but partnership working through the NECP, she insisted, had made the region’s cultural sector more resilient.
C4C was refreshed in 2022, in the wake of the pandemic, with these five priorities to drive it forward:
- Improving opportunities and diversity in arts and heritage.
- Harnessing opportunities arising from devolution and levelling up funding.
- Improving terms and conditions for arts and heritage employees.
- Responding to and raising awareness of the climate emergency.
- Working to forge international links while showcasing the region’s cultural excellence and innovation.
Matthew Jarratt adds to Jane Robinson’s list of capital projects the forthcoming new arena and conference centre on Gateshead Quays and Sunderland’s Culture House which is to accommodate the city library and archives along with exhibition spaces.
Matthew believes there’s public support for investment in culture which embraces heritage and the arts.
“There’s definitely an argument for having ambitious plans.
“All those cultural projects will contribute to community cohesion and regeneration in many ways.”
He sees progress already in terms of the five priorities, with the NECP working with North East Cultural Freelancers, the campaigning network established by Leila D’Aronville to improve conditions for an often overlooked band of workers.
Together they conducted a survey to assess what needed to be done.
“One thing highlighted during the pandemic was that while loads of employed cultural workers got furloughed, freelancers were cut off,” says Matthew.
“The survey showed that about 63% of organisations give freelancers a contract which means the rest don’t.
“It also showed that a lot of organisations are completely dependent on freelancers to deliver their programmes.”
The stated aim of North East Cultural Freelancers is: “We want the North East to be the best place to be a cultural worker.” A checklist of best practice now on the NECP website is seen as a step in the right direction.
But in terms of realising C4C ambitions, 2024 will be a big year with the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority coming in following the mayoral election in May.
This will mark a new era of governance for Northumberland, County Durham and Tyne & Wear and activate a devolution deal bringing new decision-making powers and billions of pounds of investment.
Matthew predicts the new administration will face “a huge queue of people wanting to pitch ideas for all sorts of things… everything from car manufacturing to wind farms. It’s going to be frenetic”.
Aiming to be well placed in that queue is NECP putting the case for culture and pressing the social as well as the economic benefits it can bring.
In particular, says Matthew, it will be showing how the cultural sector can help with the “really shocking figures around child poverty in the North East”.
He cites the three-year Culture Start programme in Sunderland, a £1m project starting in 2024 that will use arts and culture to benefit an estimated 8,000 children and young people living in poverty on Wearside.
Funded with Arts Council England lottery proceeds and run by a partnership led by Sunderland Culture, it will offer free creative sessions, leading possibly to work experience and even careers.
“These are kids who don’t have much support around them,” says Matthew.
“Across the region other organisations are doing brilliant things and it’s not all about jobs in the arts. It’s about confidence building and being able to communicate.
“With more funding we could do much more of that, supporting young people and setting them up with skills valued by employers.”
NECP, he says, will also press for better promotion of what the whole region offers from a cultural perspective.
“Probably since One North East (the regional development agency, abolished in 2012) there hasn’t been anything that says the North East is full of great cultural stuff so come and visit.
“Nobody’s promoting the cultural sector as a whole.
“The individual ingredients are brilliant but the promotion is in bits, and we’re up against Yorkshire and Edinburgh and Scotland who are very good at marketing their whole cultural offer.
“Our tourism websites tend to show hikers on the hills. It’s not so much about festivals, theatre, art.
“If under the new mayoral authority there’s more joined up destination marketing, we want to see culture there as a brilliant selling point, nationally and internationally.”
And on that last point, Matthew explains how the region’s cultural links with the rest of the world have been depleted.
He says recent NECP surveys on international working have shown how “a strength has become a real weakness”.
“The new mayoral authority will want inward investment and I think we can lubricate that process. Culture can be a very important card in international working.
“When we did our first survey in 2015 the North East was the only area that exported more than it imported. Mainly that was because of Nissan but the region was doing well internationally.
“Responses from the cultural sector showed we had partnerships with about a third of the world, whether that was theatre companies touring or people coming to perform.
“Then Brexit brought difficulties with visas and Covid happened and there was no international working.
“A more survey shows signs of recovery but much of the support for the cultural sector working overseas has gone.
“Help from the British Council is down 72% and from Arts Council England 27%. From the Department of International Trade, which offered some support, it’s down 100%.
“We’ve organised a Thinking International event for the new year and will make the case that we could be working with all sorts of people internationally, bringing artists in and sending artists out.”
Ten years on, there remains much to be done.
“We want to raise our profile and shout culture in this interesting time,” says Matthew.
“There are lots of opportunities if we set out a positive case.”