Friday, 27 November 2015

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Is Carlisle really a cultural backwater?

It is often claimed that the arts are an afterthought in Carlisle. Culture is apparently dismissed by politicians as an expensive irrelevance rather than a life-enhancing investment.

Jennifer Brooks photo
Jennifer Brooks, artist and manager of The Cecil Street Project

No theatre since 1964 is the most frequent criticism.

But now Carlisle’s lack of public art – caused, it is claimed, by a lack of civic pride – has inspired a broadside from one of Cumbria’s best-known artists.

Conrad Atkinson, the Cleator Moor-born Professor of Art at the University of California, claims Carlisle has a “lack of vision” when it comes to art in public places.

His annual return to Cumbria has prompted the observation that there is no sense of “urban life” in the city.

He said: “The Argentineans say a city without culture is a city without a face and that’s what I see when I come back to Carlisle.”

Atkinson called the boarded-over Victoria Viaduct “a disgrace”. He said Dixon’s Chimney should be used to project art across the city.

“It strikes me that there is a resistance to change here.

“When I come back and hear about galleries closing and the end of the FRED art festival then I think Cumbria doesn’t seem to have a proper culture.

“The people are wonderful, tough, resilient and bright but there is no civic pride.”

No civic pride? Ouch. Carlisle people will tell you that they are fiercely proud of their city. But could a lack of culture indicate that they – or their politicians – are stuck in a rut, unwilling to embrace change, unaware of greater possibilities?

Or maybe there is a wealth of culture in Carlisle, simmering beneath the surface.

This is what Jennifer Brooks believes. Jennifer, 23, graduated from the University of Cumbria last year with a degree in fine art.

Conrad Atkinson claimed that lack of culture drives art students away from Carlisle. Jennifer comes from Bury, Greater Manchester. And she is staying in Carlisle, determined to build on the city’s cultural potential.

She has just set up The Cecil Street Project, which she describes as “a new contemporary cultural centre for Carlisle and Cumbria”.

The centre – in Cecil Street’s former Victorian church – contains 11 units which will shortly be occupied by artists and craftspeople.

They can work there, sell there, talk to artists and anyone who fancies wandering in to find out more.

“What Conrad Atkinson said made us all quite angry about the complete ignorance of what goes on in Carlisle,” says Jennifer. “He’s only back one or two months a year. He’s blundered in and made these claims when there’s all this culture in the city. There is a huge underground cultural scene.”

Could this be the problem? ‘Underground’ may work for the Wombles but not so well for artists trying to make their mark on a city’s face.

Bringing culture to the masses is a big part of the plan. The Cecil Street Project hopes to have a significant impact on north Cumbria’s people and economy.

Events and community outreach schemes will educate and entertain. “Anybody that wants to learn more about culture can come here,” says Jennifer. “Even if we can’t help them we can point them in the right direction.

“We’re planning on going into community groups and teaching people how to use art as a tool for getting things off your chest. Talking or writing things down isn’t the only way to express yourself.”

She insists that Carlisle does not lack culture, it simply lacks a place where various strands can come together.

The Cecil Street Project is intended to be Carlisle’s cultural hub – “a resource area for artists so they can make prints and sculptures, use workshop areas without having to be a student. A place for people to step on the ladder of selling their work professionally. Being able to call themselves artists without also having to work part-time at Asda.

“It’s hard to be professional here because there are less opportunities, but because of that it’s easier to create opportunities for yourself.”

This is exactly what Jennifer has done. She and three other artists – Di Clay, Toni Rutherford and Benjamin Wohl – are the project’s directors. They are applying to make it a Community Interest Company: a not-for-profit organisation which can apply for funding.

They argue that the project would boost Cumbria’s economy by attracting more visitors and creating up to 40 new jobs over the next three years.

Cecil Street’s remit is not only art in the sense of painting or sculpting. It includes wider culture like music, theatre, film and dance.

Jennifer plans workshops, acoustic nights, film nights, displays, performances. The launch party this Friday – all are welcome – will preview work on show at next week’s Carlisle Arts Festival. Jennifer is also hopeful of getting some buskers to perform.

Laudable aims but they do not fully address Conrad Atkinson’s concerns about the city’s dearth of public art. There is also little evidence yet that politicians share Jennifer’s voracious appetite for culture.

“I’ve had quite a good response from the city council,” she says. “They said they’d like to help but they don’t have the funding at the moment. I think they should see it as a priority. It can have a huge effect on the quality of people’s lives. And it attracts people to the city.

“Look at Newcastle and Gateshead. The Sage and the Baltic. The whole city has been rejuvenated. Culture has become the focus of the city.”

Could this really happen in Carlisle? Jennifer says yes, of course, people are always receptive to public art here.

She mentions FRED: the Cumbria-wide festival which placed art in unexpected outdoor locations, until it ended last year due to lack of funding.

“FRED projects always had a definite response. Even if it was setting that tea cosy on fire.”

Oh yes... that tea cosy. In 2007 the statue of former Carlisle mayor James Steel outside Marks and Spencer was covered with a red cloth by artist Jenni Danson.

One night this artwork was set on fire.

Last September Jennifer was one of five artists who put a 12ft-long ‘Welcome to Scotland’ sign in a field next to the northbound M6, several miles south of the Scottish border.

After five days the sign was destroyed by vandals.

She recalls: “The moment when I got that phone call, I was a bit ‘Oh no!’ But I think it just shows people are interested. Even if they don’t like something, they express an opinion.

“No civic pride? That shows real civic pride. ‘This is my city and I don’t like what you’re doing’.”

These attacks could also be interpreted as a reminder of how difficult it can be to introduce public art to Cumbria. Ten years ago plans for a millennium pyramid opposite Carlisle Castle were scrapped after fierce opposition.

Art in Carlisle may be destined to stay underground when those who put their heads above the parapet are so often attacked.

Jennifer feels the city council needs to grasp the nettle. “I can see where Conrad Atkinson is coming from when he said there’s no innovative public art in Carlisle.

“The council had an opportunity to put art in the flood defences. They had some really interesting proposals – I know some of the people who put them forward. Instead they went for ceramic tiles. That could be anywhere.

“It was a chance to make a landmark for the city.

“But if you look at the last five years, culture in Carlisle really is improving. People have started to take it in hand and create their own venues.

“It’s created this unique system rather than something bog-standard.”

She departs with encouraging evidence that Carlisle people’s interaction with public art does not always involve setting things on fire or attacking them with a mallet.

“At the arts festival last year I threw a party on the bandstand. It was a chance to have a cup of tea and a bun and talk about the festival.

“People didn’t really realise how much art had been going on. And they didn’t realise an artwork could be throwing a tea party on a bandstand.”

For more information about The Cecil Street Project visit the project’s Facebook Group or email

Have your say

Oh Christian did you have too?!
Carlisle is like a armadillo, hard on the outside soft and cultured on the underside.
The majority of the interesting culture is underground, the people and organizations involved in it lack the investment, encouragement and the skills set to develop or promote it on a wider stage.
There is very little investment in infrastructure and like most of Cumbria, it is prone to dividing into factions and essentially self harming unintentionally while competing for a small audience and consumer market.
However, the city does play host to a number of internationally exhibiting artists, its USP as a centre for logistics and industry, with potential for outstanding infrastructure for R &D, collaboration, creative practice and prototyping/manufacturing can easily be fulfilled if strategic seed funding is used and partnerships formed and well managed...

Posted by hannah Stewart on 27 July 2009 at 19:12

Bang on! There is no 'renaissance' without culture and it has to be said Carlisle is a bit dull.

Posted by Christian Barnes on 23 July 2009 at 19:31

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