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June 6, 2018updated 20 Jul 2021 10:58am

The Great Exhibition of what? Culture, region and development in England’s north

By John Tomaney

The Great Exhibition of the North (GEN) begins on 22 June, and runs for 80 days. Culture secretary Matt Hancock told a launch event in Gateshead earlier this year that it would be “the biggest event in England” this year, and would “bring tourism and deliver growth” – although, in fact, he personally wasn’t in Gateshead, and delivered his contribution via a pre-recorded video. Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, meanwhile, has claimed the Great Exhibition of the North “will be talked about for decades”.

These bold claims raise several questions. What is GEN? How did it originate? What will be its impact? And, above all, what is it for?

Based on Tyneside and centred on three “hubs” – the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, the Sage music centre in Gateshead, and the Great North Museum in Newcastle – GEN describes itself as “a free, summer-long celebration of the North of England’s pioneering spirit”, incorporating “a programme of amazing exhibits, live performances, displays of innovation, new artworks and unforgettable experiences”. From each “hub”, walking trails extend across the city, organised around the themes of art, design and innovation, linking various visitor attractions and events. Organisers anticipate that 3m people will visit the exhibition – comprising 60 per cent in-region day visitors, 30 per cent out-of-region day visitors, and 10 per cent overnight visitors – and will collectively spend £184m locally.  Alongside these events, a Northern Powerhouse Business Summit will take place in July.

The Great Exhibition of the North was conceived by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and first mentioned, briefly, in the Autumn Statement of 2014 as a companion piece to his Northern Powerhouse initiative. Northern towns and cities were invited to bid to put on the exhibition: local actors in the North had wanted a series of events in major cities across the region, but the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) insisted upon a competition between places.

Government guidance, published in April 2016, stated that “the winning venue will create and implement an exhibition that celebrates great art, culture and design of the North of England, showcasing local artists and performers, cultural organisations and creative businesses, promoting innovative and entrepreneurial activity, and highlighting research conducted by universities in the region”. The government announced it would contribute £5m towards the exhibition itself, in the expectation this would attract additional private funding. Another £15m was allocated to a legacy fund to attract further cultural investment in the Northern Powerhouse.

Bids were assessed by a panel including representatives of the DCMS, the Design Council and GREAT, the government’s international marketing campaign. It was announced in October 2016 that Newcastle-Gateshead had won the competition – although it was noteworthy that other big Northern cities, such as Manchester and Leeds, did not bid. A national committee led by DCMS oversees the implementation of GEN.

Ministers’ claims for GEN’s impact need to be set against the modesty of its funding: £5m would not buy Newcastle United FC a run-of-the-mill attacking midfielder, but would, almost, buy a sensitively refurbished Grade 2-listed house in Notting Hill. Meanwhile “The Factory”, a £110m theatre and arts venue which will be built on the site of the former Granada Studios in Manchester, announced in 2014 by George Osborne alongside GEN, is to be funded by a contribution of £78m from the UK Exchequer and £7m from the Arts Council. GEN is small beer.

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Attempts to attract private sponsorship also led to a shaky start for GEN. The announcement that BAE Systems, a major defence contractor with a presence in northern England, would be a key sponsor generated a backlash from some artists, who claimed that BAe’s funding was a form of “artwashing”, or that it “tainted the proud cultures and heritage of the people of Newcastle and Gateshead and, indeed, the North”. A number pulled out of the programme.

BAE quickly withdrew its sponsorship. Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister condemned the critics as “snowflakes” and “subsidy-addicted artists” – an odd complaint given the GEN represents a government subsidy to artists. Local artists announced they would hold “The Other Great Exhibition of the North”.  The likely problems arising from an arms manufacturer sponsoring an arts event were anticipated locally but overruled centrally.

The most intriguing question arising from GEN concerns what it is for. According the government appointed chair of the Great Exhibition, Sir Gary Verity, it aims “to change people’s minds about it being grim up north” and dispel the idea of the region as a place of “flat caps and whippets”.

This curious trope was repeated to me in discussions with some of the architects of the exhibitions’ programme. Successive waves of politicians have attempt to give the image of the north a makeover through Garden Festivals, marketing campaigns and the like. The aim has been both to change external perceptions and raise local pride and aspirations.

But my unscientific poll of young people in Newcastle and London revealed none even knew the phrase that seems to animate GEN. Like Don Quixote, Sir Gary is tilting at windmills, and missing an opportunity for a deeper discussion about the changing nature and value of regional culture and identity.

There is a good likelihood that Newcastle and Gateshead will enjoy the party. The region was adept at putting together a bid in short order that met the requirements of DCMS. Local officials and volunteers will work hard to pull it off.

But this will not alter the fact that GEN is the latest in a line of projects that are nationally conceived and overseen, hindered by limited resources, burdened by overblown claims about likely impacts and with questionable objectives. Indeed, GEN offers evidence for Simon Jenkins contention, “There is nothing more gauche than Whitehall ‘being nice’ to the provinces.”

John Tomaney is professor of urban & regional planning at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London.

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