The decision for Nottingham to host the launch of British Art Show 7 marks the culmination of three years of financial and ideological investment in the Nottingham art scene. This time has seen the opening of two major new galleries, Nottingham Contemporary and the New Art Exchange, but equally the rapid development of smaller, multifunctional art spaces such as One Thoresby Street and the Surface Gallery, as well as the infiltration of broader cultural events into Nottingham society: the Mela, Light Night, and Splendour music festival.
Still, Nottingham is just one of many cities that have recently been placed on the cultural map through arts investment. In his now infamous ‘Blitzkrieg on Arts’ article in The Guardian in October, Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, cited the Lowry in Salford and the Sage at Gateshead, alongside our own Nottingham Contemporary as examples of the transformative power of art in regional communities.
Although I would never berate any investment in the arts, and I agree that cities are better for wider cultural initiatives, there is an underlying arrogance in the assumption that we should all be desperately proud of these recent investments. Considering that most galleries and museums are funded in some way by the Government Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which in turn is funded by taxpayers countrywide, why should there be so much fuss about having great art outside of London? Sadly, Serota’s article acts alongside the many reviews of British Art Show 7 that seem to treat the exhibition like some kind of cultural colonialism: new galleries in the regions are presumed to have a civilizing effect on us poor provincial oiks, and we in turn are expected to be grateful we were thought of at all.
However, the older sibling attitude of London galleries has since come under scrutiny following the revelation that the cuts suffered by DCMS – a total of 34% – will barely be felt by Tate, the British Museum, and the National Gallery. Indeed, cuts to the budgets of these huge London institutions will be limited to 15% over five years, and extension work on the Tate and British Museum will continue as planned. This leaves the brunt of the cuts to be taken by the Arts Council, one of the leading providers of funding for arts institutions outside of London. All three galleries playing host to BAS7 in Nottingham list the Arts Council as a main source of funding, which combined with local council cuts suggests that there could end up being an even greater financial divide between arts in London and the rest of the country.
Despite these reservations about the manner in which the Nottingham art scene has developed and concerns over its future, there can be no question that it has been successful. Nottingham Contemporary recently released visitor figures for its first year, showing a massive 40% increase on the predicted figures, and I can only hope that the national attention brought by BAS7 will ensure that this continues. The three institutions that we now have represent diversity that even the strictest funding assessor must respect: The Castle with its respect for decorative arts, Contemporary with its sheer amount of space, and the New Art Exchange in Hyson Green, dedicated to Black and Asian art. Of course all of these things could be found in the capital, but what truly makes Nottingham, and by extension regional art, special is that they work together within a far smaller geography. Whereas the presence of London galleries threatens to be diluted in the sprawling metropolis, these three institutions act as cultural beacons, uniting different areas of the city. Elephant and Castle couldn’t be linked with Bloomsbury in the same way that Hyson Green is now linked to the Lace Market, and it is the transformative power of these links which London is yet to learn.