Why the arts matter to Teesside

I’ve worked in the arts all my life, and for the last ten years I have worked in the Tees Valley as a freelance writer and artist, and now I’m here full time as Director of Tees Valley Arts.

As everyone knows, the whole country is facing a period of difficult economic circumstances, and particularly so in the arts, which many people see as a soft option; thinking that arts and culture are just an add on – nice enough when you can afford it, but an obvious target when cuts have to be made.

The Arts Council is running a campaign called ‘Why the arts matter’, encouraging people in the arts to speak up for themselves, so I thought I would put together a few thoughts about why the arts matter to the Tees Valley.

Economically – from big events like Stockton International Riverside Festival and Middlesbrough Music Live through to a hundred smaller gigs; from major venues like MIMA and Darlington Civic Theatre through to small poetry readings and exhibitions in shops and cafes; all bring people in, encourage them to have a good time and to spend money which in turn supports bars, restaurants and shops, and all of which make the place somewhere people actually want to be, not just somewhere it’s good to get out of.

Educationally – young people enjoy music and the arts, and can build their lives and their futures through taking part in them, from the futuristic worlds of digital design to strumming a guitar in the bedroom; and our excellent local colleges and universities offer all sorts of ways to progress, gain skills and earn a living. Museums and libraries offer many services and help us understand the world, and our present and our past in it.

Socially – taking part in the arts, being creative yourself and/or going to gigs, films, events, concerts, and exhibitions brings people together and can give individuals and groups a voice. The arts matter because they allow people to think for themselves – where people can lift their spirits and celebrate joyously together, or sit alone and write the saddest song in the world, or see something unexpected and beautiful, or achieve something they never thought they could have, or be moved by someone else’s story of survival. It’s what makes us human!

Sometimes the arts can give us huge, striking things – the Angel of the North being the classic example – which come to represent a whole region; sometimes the arts go on more quietly, with an organisation like Tees Valley Arts working in classrooms, youth centres, community centres and other unlikely settings across the Tees Valley, helping people learn and grow.

If funding for the arts is cut, then we may lose all of that; and without local arts and artists, people in Teesside will still have culture – but it will all be second-hand, made somewhere else, by someone else, and making a profit for some other place, none of it will be about or from or happening live in Teesside.

That’s why the arts matter to Teesside, and that’s why I’m speaking up about it.

Rowena was CEO of TVA and is a writer, an illustrator, and a singer; she has published several children’s books, contributed poems to anthologies, worked extensively as a freelance illustrator and sung in venues of all sizes and types, on radio and TV.