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British Art Museum Building Boom — Did It Work?

by Jerome Weeks 16 Jul 2012 9:45 AM

This should sound familiar: The past decade has seen a building boom in England, as art museums have been used to revive the financial fortunes of mid-sized towns. The BBC asks, was it worth it?


A question to consider for American cities that,  for at least the past three decades, have been using the arts to revive neglected urban areas, following the famous example of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain: In England, the past decade has seen a dozen towns use cultural venues, mostly art museums, for much the same purpose. And BBC Arts reporter Ian Youngs asks, did all that investment and effort pay off?

His answer — as it seems to have been in many US towns like Dallas — is a resounding “not exactly, not completely, maybe not yet.”

The “Bilbao effect” was then chased by the Nottingham Contemporary, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima), the Towner in Eastbourne, the Public in West Bromwich, the Turner Contemporary in Margate, the Hepworth Wakefield and Firstsite in Colchester. Between them, they cost £195m to build….

[In Middlesbrough,] The only indication of the gallery’s knock-on effect on the nearby row of empty shops is a sign for a pop-up “art and performance space” called We Are Open, which is decidedly not.

But there are other, subtle changes. “There’s an element of town pride that goes along with having something that isn’t Middlesbrough, known for the smoke, the pollution, the general urban decay,” says Chris Neale, a bank worker on his lunch break in the square…

High-profile galleries may offer a “very quick visible fix” for [city] councils looking to address problems, according to Professor Malcolm Miles of the University of Plymouth, but they cannot make much difference on their own.

There must be other attractions to draw in visitors, and other forms of regeneration to really improve an area, he believes.