From Brussels to Burnley and Beyond: an exploration of arts and culture in the North West

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Julie's Brussels-based staff write about their experience touring the North West with Julie to meet arts and cultural organisations during the summer.

Julie Ward, one of Labour’s newly elected MEPs, took her Brussels’ staff on a tour of the North West. Against the horizon of rolling green moors, and a sky patched gray and blue, the Singing Ringing Tree is a striking structure, a giant sound-sculpture assembled from metal pipes of varying sizes. It is situated on Crown Point across from Pendle Hill, which offers a breath-taking view of the Pennine hills and valleys. Commissioned by Burnley-based organisation Mid-Pennine Arts, it is a popular attraction, beloved by all the local community who come to stroll on the moors and take in the view, creating a common public space.

This particular corner of England is an unlikely setting for staff from the European Parliament, but in this case we were on a mission. Over the summer Julie Ward took her Brussels’ staff on a tour of the North West, to experience and get to know the region, so that the work in the Parliament is done with the constituency in mind. Having run her own performing arts and media co-operative for the past 30 years, Julie has used the arts as a means for empowerment, education, and social inclusion, working with disadvantaged communities, people with disabilities, and young people as well as participating in international cultural diplomacy initiatives. Now as Labour’s key MEP on the European Parliament’s Culture and Education Committee, Julie continues her work as an advocate of arts and culture not just as an aesthetic human experience, but as a powerful tool for creating a better, more inclusive and more dynamic society.

Together with Julie, we criss-crossed the region, from Manchester to Preston, from Burnley to Barrow, to Workington, meeting local councillors, MPs and Parliamentary candidates, as well as arts organisations and activists. We saw how these dedicated community groups use the arts to give opportunities to those who may otherwise be left out, providing skills and direction, as well as an outlet for creative energies. We met with industry support agencies such as the Musicians Union and PANDA who provide invaluable services for individual artists and small organisations with a particular focus on emerging and early career artists.

In Manchester’s new Central Library we met with Brighter Sound, and saw how they provide musical training and facilities for young people, as a means of developing social skills and team-work. At Preston’s Harris Museum and Art Gallery we met with BLAZE, a group of young cultural producers who organise festivals and events across the town, a legacy of the recent Cultural Olympiad. Meeting Curious Minds in Burnley allowed us to explore another aspect of the connection between the arts and young people: culture in education. With each of these organisations, Julie shared Labour’s vision for a society where children and young people achieve their creative potential enjoying fulfilled lives rich with arts and culture, which allows them social, economic, and political engagement.

In Bolton, we joined education and outreach staff from the Octagon Theatre to talk about the use of the arts in conflict resolution as part of the INDRA network of international youth theatre practice. Then we joined a community workshop in one of the most underprivileged estates in the region. Living in difficult social circumstances, economic precariousness, and with few jobs on offer, the residents we met feel acutely marginalised by society at large. These weekly meetings are an outlet for the participants, giving them a safe space for reflection, and attentive ears. Through a partnership between the Octagon Theatre and Bolton At Home, residents have the chance to attend cultural events, and most importantly explore their own potential, develop skills and ambition. The Octagon Theatre aims to open up new horizons for marginalised communities. Working against the grain and against the odds, the enthusiasm and conviction of the Octagon Theatre‘s participation staff is contagious.

Further north we had the chance to enjoy the natural heritage of the Lake District National Park and the remote West Cumbrian coast which looks outwards to the wider world across the Irish Sea. It is very cosmopolitan with world–class rugby and international festivals such as Mint Fest in Kendal run by Lakes Alive. Cumbria also has a network of small but thriving arts centres, theatres, galleries and museums, including Kirkgate Arts Centre in Cockermouth which has just won £492,562 from Heritage Lottery to develop new facilities.

Meeting with all of these organisations left a lasting impression. It was certainly inspiring to encounter these people who are so dedicated to their communities, and to experience the positivity, dynamism, and vitality that they exude in a difficult funding climate. Seeing how the arts are used at a grass-roots’ level as a tool for social cohesion, local development and individual fulfilment in these communities, provides the understanding and drive for us in Parliament to fight for their place in European policy, to defend and promote them in Brussels. The trip has reinforced our conviction that arts and culture are key elements for the sustainable development of our societies, and that this approach should play a more prominent role in European policy-making.

Omri Preiss & Julia Pouply

This article was first published on the Labour Arts Alliance website.

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