Cultural Conversations Know Your Place Report

Know Your Place, QueenAB+ logo ’s Cross Church 4th November 2013 7pm

Billed as the first of six upcoming ‘Cultural conversations’, led by the city’s newest cultural driving force, AB+, the evening promised to be a lively night of debate where individuals from across the arts, cultural, political and business sectors talked about place making, under the title of ‘Know your place’.

This blog is an edited and distilled version of some of the key points of the evening and represents an overview of what took place and some of the questions and comments that were put forward on the night.

Chaired by Jane Spiers, Chief Executive of Aberdeen Performing Arts the event ran to a question time style format with questions from the floor.

The panel members for the evening were Professor Ferdinand Von Prodzynski, principal of RGU and author of a recent paper on an Aberdeen City Centre regeneration strategy, Catrin Jeans, a practising artist based at Deveron Arts in Huntly and Barney Crockett, Labour leader of Aberdeen City Council.

Jane opened proceedings by asking each panel member for their thoughts on the topic and what each panellists view was on Aberdeen as a ‘place’.  Barney responded that Aberdeen is unique in the UK with regards to its peoples ‘sense of place’ however this had completely changed with the advent of oil finds off the coast which in turn gave Aberdeen an even more exceptional outlook and has been responsible for a dramatic speed of change in the region both culturally and demographically.

Jane as chair noted that it sometimes feels like Aberdeen is more connected to the rest of the world than it is to the central belt, this comment being acknowledged by the audience with a swathe of knowing sighs.

Practising artist Catrin explained that in Huntly, where she is part of a series of community based projects looking at teasing out artistic ventures in partnership with the community, explained that the focus of using the town as the venue had opened up creative experiences in Huntly for many who would not normally engage in the arts, and gave artists and residents an unlimited canvas on which to develop arts and cultural projects and participation.

The first question of the evening put to the panel centred on heritage and history and the part this plays in establishing a sense of ‘place’.  It was suggested that we as a city don’t recognise and/or celebrate our heritage as much as we should.

Barney felt that we could be at the debate all night if started to go into the city’s fabulous history and acknowledged that yes, we could speak more about our historical and more recent achievements.

Catrin noted that at  Deveron they work within the history context and identity of town while professor Von Prodzynski spoke about history playing a hugely significant part in defining communities and, in turn, the city’s cultural output.

An audience member fielded a question to the panel about the great ‘Aberdeen culture myth’ and in particular the regions inability to support and nurture emerging artists or indeed established practitioners. The question was also asked about where are all the city art collectives, the graduates and the visual arts community are and is Aberdeen a good place to work and live for artists?

In response to this question Catrin stated that it was her understanding that Aberdeen doesn’t support its young artists.  There is no infrastructure for them, the rent for living space and studio space is too high.

Professor Von Prodzynski, as the principal for RGU, felt that the city had moved on and that Gray’s in particular had made a positive impact locally.  The professor referred to a recent study following on from the city centre regeneration work lead by RGU which found a much greater number of artists than suspected with the oil industry boosting artists in unexpected ways. One of the questions that came up here was around cultural confidence and the sector taking a look at everything that is taking place culturally and asking is all this work being celebrated? How do we tell people? Is it funded in a coherent way? Is this the problem we need to address and if so how?

During this discussion Barney made an interesting point by looking towards other cities and how Aberdeen is completely different from many other Scottish and UK cities.  In fact, he remarked, that after a recent visit to New York, he felt that model could come closest to Aberdeen in its financial make up with regards the arts as it is predominantly privately funded.  Barney shared that many UK cities are in a funding situation where they are supersaturated in public funding. He suggested that we need to get used to the fact that Aberdeen is a private sector place, little in common with other places and we need to work with that. Barney said that people aren’t used to supporting the arts here, we are in a very unusual situation and far more people work in the cultural sector in Aberdeen than in Dundee but they work as cultural workers in giant corporations.

Chair Jane Spiers suggested that the cultural sector, to some degree, needs to adjust its approach towards business and its support of the arts. She suggested that business doesn’t owe the arts a living; it’s not all about CSR and is a far more complex relationship.

An audience member fielded the next question to the panel asking what the role of business is. It was mooted that that the economic power of the oil and gas industry has resulted in a sense of disconnect with Aberdeen. Why are the artists going elsewhere?  There was a also a pre- submitted question around slowing down traffic in Aberdeen City centre which would allow people to take in more of what the city has to offer visually, instead of traffic dodging and noise pollution making up the mainstay of a person’s visit to the city centre.

An audience member from BP responded from the floor. He felt that the co- existence between the two entities should be constructive and would be interested to hear ways in which the relationship could be improved.

The member also commented that his overall feeling was that he would like Aberdeen to be known for excellence, pride and vision for the future.  Excellence in technology, pride in the arts and history, pride in forward thinking technology.  It was further noted that art and culture’s place is in excellence, culture plays into positioning the city globally, which positively impacts on everyone.

Questions continued the audience put another question to the panel, asking if we looked ahead what would the Aberdeen ‘brand’ look like in 10 years’ time? An example was given of the careful development over the last 20 years of Dundee’s brand.  The panel responded.

Catrin quoted Patrick Geddes when he said we should be looking to ‘Think globally, act locally’ and noted that the simplistic change of slowing down cars could make a huge difference.

Professor Ferdinand Von Prodzynski said that it was one of the themes of the analysis of cultural regeneration was how Aberdeen presents itself and wondered how the city allows people to connect with it in a different way.

Barney responded by commenting that whatever the brand were to look like it should be based in reality.

An audience member asked the panel’s view on a municipally controlled civil space. Do we need a civic space?

Ferdinand said that in his opinion civic space was absolutely vital and that Union Terrace is the place but it isn’t used as such. He felt that a blend of different civil spaces was realistic and that it’s about Identity more than just a geographical entity.

The final question from the audience was again around heritage and history and Aberdeen’s quarry and the part it could play in any future cultural activity in the city.  Almost all panel members were joined on their replies stating that this was indeed a striking area in the city and could play a part in lots of different future plans for the city.

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