Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
When the Chancellor announced a £7.6m grant towards the £50m restoration of historic Wentworth Woodhouse in South Yorkshire, there were some murmurs, questioning whether it was necessary. Well, yes, it was – not least as a contribution towards the economic regeneration of the North.
We are lucky to have some of the finest architecture, ranging across more than a thousand years, and we need to preserve what is left. Dozens of mansions, many built by industrialists, as well as the aristocracy, were lost following the Second World War due to punitive taxation whilst others are empty and unloved, or tragic shells; yet more continue to be razed virtually to the ground through fires often started during restoration works. So I hope the Chancellor’s grant will be spent wisely, including installing sprinklers.
Listed Grade I, Wentworth Woodhouse is a unique and magnificent Georgian stately home suffering structural damage as a result of coal mining close to the property, which could eventually cause its partial collapse; standing in 82 acres, it deserves to be saved as a cultural asset for the region, and the Preservation Trust which now owns it will be building on the commitment of the previous owners to bring it back to life with a vibrant range of activities.
Dating from the Victorian era, Brodsworth Hall, an unexpected landmark just a few miles from Doncaster, is another architectural gem, with a 15 acre garden. Another victim of coal mining, right up to the front door, it now lists and leaks, continuing to decay, yet owned by English Heritage since 1990. Next year’s £1.5m restoration will further salvage what should be a major tourist attraction for a run-down northern town, but such a modest sum is just a sticking plaster, when so many rooms are closed, with wall coverings and furnishings rotting.
Both properties are candidates for flexibility in Planning. Sensitive development for some commercial use or new housing could be the difference between sustainability and eventual loss; spending a lot of money to save them must be linked to a long term strategy understood and supported by relevant local authorities.
They could all learn a lot from the sensitive commercialisation of Alnwick Castle in South Yorkshire, which hosts a variety of events and weddings, as well as finding fame in the Harry Potter films. In particular, the Duchess of Northumberland has transformed the gardens, with some help from the Lottery, creating a Garden Trust with a range of programmes to prevent loneliness and educate/train young people. It is also a major tourist attraction, bringing millions into the local economy.
This is what culture does, and buildings are an essential part of culture.
Cities around the UK could enjoy similar benefits with more focus on the importance of culture. Regrettably, some people still regard it as ‘elitist’, and consequently, it is often under-funded by local authorities whilst the Arts Council has its pet projects, which don’t always benefit the wider community. It is also guilty of sponsoring projects without a strong business plan and good management to ensure they can be sustained. When they fail, the vast sums which are wasted inevitably adds to people’s resentment when services such as social care lack investment.
The latest casualty of the public sector’s largesse is likely to be Walsall’s New Art Gallery, costing £21m and opened by the Queen in 2000. Housing the Garman Ryan collection, described as one of the greatest art collections in the country, alongside some of the biggest names in the art world: Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Titian, Freud and artefacts from Egypt, France, and China. It is free, but visitor numbers have declined, partly undoubtedly due to poor publicity and ‘cost saving’ measures which saw the Library and restaurant’s closure and other facilities reduced – and now the local council is cutting its annual £500,000 subsidy.
Although action should have been taken sooner, instead of closing, the council and gallery should look for partnerships with the local and national business sector and other regional/national museums/universities as well as a commercial restaurateur to reinvent itself and reduce management costs. It could host music evenings, private parties and weddings, even auctions, as well as charge for special exhibitions (as the Tate does) raising its profile across the broader regional community, capitalising on its prime canal basin site as a potential film location, conservation and event management training or technology hub.
As Ed Vaizey recently said, “very often people build first and think about sustainability later.” This led to Bromsgrove losing its £72m ‘The Public’ in 2013 after just 5 years, so Walsall can’t afford to lose the New Art Gallery. It’s not too late for local authorities and the Local Enterprise Partnership to take up the challenge and find solutions; this is not just an important local educational and cultural asset, it should contribute to the local economy, but it needs a business plan and strong management.
Sir Peter Bazelgette, the outgoing chairman of the Arts Council, suggests that art galleries should open B&Bs, and theatres run charity shops to reduce their reliance on public funding, ‘opening their minds to new ways of doing business’. How true.