The Shire Hall Gallery Closure, Or Why We All Need To Support the Arts
So this weekend saw the closure of an iconic, for me at least, Stafford arts venue, The Shire Hall Gallery. It is a tragedy that the Shire Hall is to close, but before we waste our energy appropriating blame externally perhaps we have to ask ourselves what we personally did to prevent this. I don’t mean this is an accusatory tone, as this is something that with not much soul-searching I can admit to having a deep well of guilt about. For the last six years I have been all-consumed by my academic work. That is full-on head in the sand, relatively oblivious to the world.
The irony is, that as a American Studies academic I probably have a greater conception of the global art scene than I have of that which was right on my doorstep. How many times have I visited the Shire Hall Gallery in the last six years? I’m sure I could count them on one hand, all of which will have been in the last twelve months after finishing my PhD work and finding out that the Gallery was under threat.
The issue being, that we very rarely value what we have. That is, until it’s gone.
There is, however, another, larger issue at the heart of this decision. The wider socio-economic climate has led to a situation of budgetary cuts meaning that councils are having to make increasingly difficult decisions. Yes, the arts are important and we can bemoan these cuts, but ultimately how do you weigh up arts funding with that of health or social care when you are face to face with a resident asking where the provisions are for their sick or elderly relative.
Again, we can place the blame higher up; it is the government, Brexit, the EU, etc. It doesn’t really matter what you choose to hone in on as the focus of the issue, these are all just different sides of the same coin – the appropriation of blame.
This is not to say that it is not important to identify these factors. Of course knowing that the source of government funding is to blame is vital in informing your next decision in the voting booth, but beyond that what does all that vitriol achieve? The truth is spending time getting angry and pointing fingers is a futile act. It very rarely instigates action because if an external agency, one which we have little control over, is at fault then what can we do to rectify or improve the situation? At most it can cause a whole heap of anxiety, usually with an aftertaste of apathy.
But if you are passionate about saving the arts provisions of your area, and indeed, this country, then neither of those attributes is particularly desirable. Apathy is the worst of all – the all-consuming belief that whatever you do is futile, so why bother with anything. Again, point fingers at the system if you will as a causation of this attitude, but it is ultimately an empty act.
So what can be done? Well, as far as the Shire Hall Gallery is concerned, not a lot. The ship has already sailed and everybody in Stafford has been left on the dock squinting into the horizon in bewilderment. But as we are all standing we need to start asking ourselves questions. How did we support the gallery? What input have we had in the arts? How much time do we donate to helping out with arts causes?
If you want to be an insular artist who rattles around their own artistic echo-chamber then that is your own choice, but you cannot then be bereft when you raise your head and find the arts and culture landscape around you has irrevocably changed. As I myself have witnessed, there a many artists and creatives out there who are trying to facilitate a community approach to their practice with other artists and so often meet with people who take the self-centred approach of taking what they can and not giving anything back.
Yet, it is not just artists. This is an endemic attitude in all walks of life. An individualistic approach that sees people prioritising themselves over any form of community. In times of plenty then that is fine, take whatever ideological approach you want. But in times such as these, of economic, political and cultural turmoil, like-minded people need to communicate, work together, and help bring about the change that we want to see.
As artists and intellectuals this is vitally important. If the arts is eroded who will help to facilitate free and independent thinking? Who will critique authority with wit and humour through their work? Who will constantly challenge the establishment? Who will reach out to a new generation of artists and thinkers to inspire them to do the same? How will we communicate to young people the value of self-expression through artistic practice?
We all have a responsibility to take care of the facilities, institutions, and values that we have. The Shire Hall Gallery is evidence of that in my home town, but I’m sure you can think of other examples, past or present. What did you do to prevent it? What can you do in the future? If, like me, you are incensed by the cuts to arts provisions but cannot quantify your notable contribution to the contrary then now is the time to do something about it. Working in a bubble of artistic introversion might be wonderful for your own practice, but for the wider cultural landscape it only leads to disaster.
There may be hope that the Shire Hall will once again be a prominent arts venue, as this article states the consultancy of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust. If it returns the building to the arts, we must all make sure we take advantage of these facilities.