An interview with associate Mark Suggitt

Most of the Associates I’ve interviewed so far are London-based, but I know that you live in Leeds, so I’m curious to ask you about your context and point of view.

I’m sort of the Northern outpost of the Associates. Having spent most of my life working with museums and galleries, this was an ideal thing for me. The scope of opportunity to get involved with such diverse projects appealed to me — it has that fluidity where hopefully you can match different skills to get people involved in different projects. My background in museums and galleries has mainly taken place within Northern England, in places like Salford, York and Leeds, and more recently in Derbyshire. That’s been within a local government context which is really interesting. I’ve often found myself working within and around the corporate culture of local authorities, and the joy of working within those organisations is that you’re able to get involved in so many areas. Arts and culture cuts across things like planning, for example, contributing to those larger regeneration type projects and the cultural developments going on in those places.

There is a difference, I think, between what’s happening in London and what’s happening outside of it. This is partly because London is so huge, and things like Cross-Rail, projects which are so London-wide and cohesively London, really, are important projects that benefit the capital. But in the North people will then talk about how the cost-per-head in the South East is far greater than what you get in the North West, North East or Yorkshire. And any progress that was being made, the government seems to have backtracked. I mean, there’s a beer company in Liverpool that’s called ‘Northern Powerhouse My Arse!’ which sums it up really! Even things like the absolutely woeful Leeds to Liverpool railway link through Manchester seem to have disappeared. So it’s a different environment both in terms of government investment but also in terms of the way things develop. A lot of it depends on the ability of local authorities these days, outside of London, to actually do things. There have been some great successes in developing investment and linking that in to a lot of cultural, architectural material. But it’s mixed.

I imagine the process of regeneration and the dialogue surrounding it is incredibly different to London.

I think there are probably some similarities, because in a way London is a combination of very different governmental structures and local authorities. Whilst the City is very different both in how much money it’s got and how many deals it can make, the same can’t be said for a lot of the outlying boroughs. You look at the upcoming Boroughs of Culture, Brent and Waltham Forest, and they’ve actually got some very similar problems to any other local authority — they just happen to be in London.

The ambitions for the Borough of Culture are, on a smaller scale, similar to those of the City of Culture which has been so successful up here in Hull. I think the thing about Hull is that it learns a lot from Derry and a lot from Liverpool, and it’s important that this investment in the actual cultural infrastructure persists beyond it’s year of being City of Culture. One of the big projects post-City of Culture is exploring the Maritime Museum opposite the Ferens Art Gallery, working around some of the historic ships they’ve got. That’s a big budget project; you can trace the legacies of that.

I think also, looking at it longitudinally, we could look at somewhere like Liverpool post-City of Culture. Another huge economic revival, along with the success of the University. You look at it now compared to what it was before and it’s just not the same place. You’ve always had the Biennale, but that’s grown. There’s the Tate Liverpool, Open Eye, Museum of Liverpool, British Music Experience, and also more people living in the city — there are loads more flats, and the development of the Baltic Triangle as a cultural quarter… which is interesting because it reminds me a bit of what Shoreditch was a few years ago. It’s still pretty grungy, it’s not overly gentrified yet — you’ve got a metal bashing workshop next to some nice bars and the usual. You can go there for a coffee and count the number of guys with beards on the rise. It’s an urban indicator! But it varies really. A lot of it is down to relations with business; how you manage development and how good the political leadership is.

I’d be interested to hear about how you’ve worked with government bodies and local councils as a cultural consultant.

Well I’ve found, throughout my freelance work, that I could come in with an understanding of the ways in which people would have to work; with an understanding of their contexts. Recently I’ve done a project with Bradford, who I used to work for, and it’s quite useful to have that prior understanding. Most of their recent bids are heritage-type projects, all linked to regeneration projects, so having an understanding of the ways in which planning works is hugely useful to them, even if my specialism is museums and galleries.

What draws you to working collectively?

With gallery and museum projects it’s all about collectivity — the great joy of working in those settings is that if you like to dabble in another profession, then you can! It’s that joy of working creatively with people. My last job before I retired was working with a world heritage site in Derbyshire, which involved four local authorities, commercial companies who own historic buildings, architects, planners, business people and politicians. When you all have a clear vision of what you want to achieve, working collectively is great and can lead you to unexpected places.

The Associates is such an interesting group of people. If we’re looking at things like cultural strategies, it’s about how we can try and do it a little differently, how we can take it outside the box.  I think collaboration enables a way of working differently, and working differently is what creative strategy needs. That’s exciting because certainly in my experience, in the old New Labour days when it was de rigueur to have a cultural strategy, most of the ones I was aware of failed. And one of the reasons why they failed, I think, was because they were produced by local authorities with the idea of engaging business, and what follows, in my experience, is very bureaucratic, very local government structured — the purpose becomes unclear. I think a different approach is essential. A key-word is mutuality: what’s the benefit for a commercial organisation in dealing with the arts wing of a local authority?

At the moment if you look at a lot of Northern cities, you see things like the relaxation of planning controls, poor design, poor building materials for poor-quality flats in the inner-city, and developers simply not understanding the environments that they’re working in. You just get universal, boring buildings that are totally irrelevant to their contexts.

Exactly. Something that the Associates have talked about is that a lot of the time, cultural strategy is written in a template model, a ‘one size fits all’ that is then clumsily forced onto a specific context with it’s own aims and difficulties, rather than long-term strategies written by people who know the sites and communities. It looks like a similar situation happens with developers.

It definitely does. I mean there’s probably a whole museum dedicated to the master-plans of how to redevelop Northern cities. It’s about trying to tie cultural strategies into the other things that cities need to look at, around people and community. Right now, it’s back to the 80s and 90s where it’s not about the buildings, necessarily, but it’s about regenerating communities, involving people, and how you do that; that local, long-term engagement. Sometimes it seems we’ve lost that a bit.

Local authorities are in crisis because they’ve got no money. Sometimes they can be perceived as being supplicant to the developers, and they shouldn’t be —  but they’re the guys with the money! It’s a hugely unequal relationship, and problematic because of this imbalance of power. Having said that, I was in Chester the other weekend, at the Storyhouse — a fabulous rejuvenated 1930s Odeon building that’s now a public library, a cinema and a theatre — and about £33 million of the £37 million budget actually came from the local authority. Of course, that depends on individual local authorities, but it’s a fantastic place in the centre of town.

I wanted to ask you a bit about your work with museums. I gather than you’ve worked a lot with heritage and the historical — what capacity do you think it has for fostering positive change for the future of the urban landscape?

I’ll give you two examples. So when I was working at St Albans in the late-90s, just coming up to the millennium, we’d got some lottery money to redevelop the Verulamium Museum — the history of the Roman site. It was one of those things where out of the blue the city was saying “well, we ought to do something to mark the millennium!”  We also had a Roman Hypocaust system with a mosaic which was in-situ in a park, covered with a building that looked like a public toilet. So we were opportunistic — we wanted a new building to cover it. After about 22 committee meetings we were able to knock that thing down and build something lovely and contemporary on top of it. That actually resulted in MUF’s first building. That was an interesting example of working through a process where we were doing something which was unashamedly modern on the back of a historic monument and a much loved public park. It was successful also because the authority took a risk in allowing me to select rising architects rather than a big name — they hadn’t built anything yet! That’s something I’m proud of.

I’m also currently chair of Impressions Gallery in Bradford. Again, that was something that came about as part of an inner-city development scheme. A private developer was working in an area near the city hall, so there were new shops and new bars, and part of the conditions was putting a cultural space in there which ended up being Impressions, which was bought over from York. It’s now been there for 10 years and is a real part of the community. That’s something where, going back to cultural strategies, it’s about making sure that the ecology of different organisations within the city works; that they complement each other and offer different things. Impressions has worked very well because its not only continued to do good work with rising and established photographers on a national and international level, but it’s focussed on embedding itself in the local area. It’s got a really well-established organisation working with young people, and they do research, help with exhibitions, marketing and all sorts of things. The gallery has also engaged with more established places like Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, which I used to run, and the National Media Museum.

If you’re looking at future cultural strategies or regeneration work, what’s so important is trying to pull in all of those threads; all those different voices, so it becomes hopefully more authentic, more nuanced, and more understanding of local issues. Working as Chair on that, I’ve found my understanding of local authorities, organisations and money to be really helpful in working within a creative environment. And they continue to do really good work.

What do you think somewhere like Impressions Gallery sees as its responsibility to its surrounding community?

Well it’s certainly embedded itself, it works with young people and different communities, and it has events like tea dances for older people in the afternoons — it has multiple levels of engagement and different target audiences. It’s about staying relevant. I think the way in which museums and galleries have evolved over the last 20 or 30 years means that partly you’re responsible to the people who are helping pay for it — whether that’s through council tax, lottery tickets or whatever — but also because lots of people working in museums have deeply held personal and political mindsets. It’s truly believed, I think, by the people that work in them, that the museum or gallery is not an elite organisation; it’s actually something where you can learn from different things. I once heard a curator say that ‘museums and galleries used to do stuff for people, what they need to move to now is to do stuff with people’. That by and large is the current mindset, because you can learn a lot from engaging with people.

When I was working at Cartwright Hall, a historic art collection — which to its credit collected a lot of international art, as it should do — we basically mixed everything up, and used a method of co-curation where we talked to people in the local community, from young Muslim kids to local farmers, and we would run our ideas by them. What they said to us would change it and feed into it. One asked such a simple question that we hadn’t even thought of. They said: “Okay, you’ve got all this art. Why is it here? Why is it in Bradford?” It actually made people realise, one, that they own this stuff, and two, that it didn’t just appear here, that there was a process of it coming here — why did it get here?

Another example from Derby Museums is the Silk Mill, which is due to open in 2020. They have one of the best examples of contemporary co-curation. The whole thing has been designed with the help of local people, and some of those local people are going to help physically make it. I think it’s going to be a fascinating, ground-breaking project.

I think this is a genuine motivation, now, rather than just paying lip-service. Museums and galleries do want people to get engaged; to foster that sense of ownership. And just intellectually, there’s an awful lot of people out there with amazing skills and ideas and opinions that we can learn from. You’ve still got to, in a way, curate it and synthesise all that intelligence and energy to produce something cohesive, and that’s how things will move forward.

That sounds like a positive note to end on!

I find that there’s an awful lot of reasons to feel gloomy — you’ve still got appalling financial situations for local government, lack of investment, reduced staff numbers, redundancies… Because governments aren’t very good at culture. They get health; they get education; they don’t get the arts. They can only see it in terms of what it can do to support other agendas.

But, optimistically, I think there are lots of interesting things going on and it’s a question of how you can harness those things and bring them together. How you can promote and support them. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the next City of Culture, Coventry, and what happens in the Borough of Culture, because it just shows that they do matter. It’s that fundamental thing about being human, really. Unless you’re a complete minimalist, most people fill their houses with images and art and music. Maybe the work that the Associates are doing is putting that in the public realm, to furnish the public realm with the things we all like.

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