29th October

One of several hats I wear is that of volunteer area lead for the Federation of Small Businesses. In that capacity I’ve just written the piece that follows about the role of culture and the high street.

Here it is in the Western Daily Press – below is what the article says in case you can’t read it on the image.

article in the western daily press

Up in arms

Culture and the High Street - doorway to Apsley House home of Swindon museum and art gallery

Many Swindonians are up in arms right now. The reason? Swindon Borough Council’s decision not to reopen Swindon’s museum and art gallery when Covid restrictions lifted. That’s a long and bitter story not for telling here. Suffice it to say, this decision is mystifying in so many ways. Not least of which is that it’s so at odds with the current message from both government and arts organisations. That message being that people want museums and cultural activities on their high streets more than they want pubs.

Indeed, back in August, the Museums Association wrote that very thing stating that 70% of people believe that cultural spaces make their local area a better place to be. Quoting a report from Arts Council England, A High Street Renaissancethey state that, alongside shops, when asked what they’d like to see more of on their high street, people most often answered: ‘culture’.

BOP Consulting conducted research earlier this summer, to examine public attitudes to culture and its role in regenerating crisis-hit-post-pandemic high streets. They found that culture had ridden the pandemic storm better than the retail sector. The latter saw over 17,500 chain store outlets close in 2020. And in-store sales were 25% below pre-crisis levels in August 2020.

Culture and the High Street - woman looking at artworks in an art gallery

Culture on our high streets

In September 2021, the Arts Council published Culture on Our High Streets.  In that, they highlight two new reports into the benefit of culture for our high streets, showing ‘how important these spaces will be in reanimating local economies as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.’

Via the article, Dr Darren Henley, CE of Arts Council England said: ‘An investment in culture is an investment in our high streets. Theatres, music venues, museums and libraries are the beating hearts of their communities. They’re central to the social fabric and civic pride of towns across England. As well as events and performances for audiences of all ages, they provide a raft of local amenities from bars to bookshops. All of which helps to bring our high streets alive, providing jobs and boosting the economy.’ 

Cultural spaces then, along with coffee shops it seems, have real potential to pull people back to the high street for physical, in-person activities. Museums, libraries etc transform our high streets into much more than mere transactional spaces. 

Returning to the High Street Renaissance article, we find the only-transactional high street is at greater risk from the online shopping threat. Where closures occur, a downward spiral ensues. One that reduces footfall and in turn reduces the remaining outlets’ visibility. But the experiential high street, i.e. places offering enjoyable experiences, is more likely to resist the online threat.

An important message that Swindon Borough Council appears to have missed. I trust the rest of Wiltshire is faring better in this respect. 

PS: We do in fact know that Wiltshire’s museums are alive and kicking. Read Linda Kasmaty’s account of the talk given to the Friends of SMAG about the Ravilious exhibition at Devizes museum.

PPS: it’s not only about the high street – it’s also about the general appearance and feel of an area.

Apsley House already has broken windows and is looking dilapidated – steadily that will drag the area down. SBC have not the wit to realise this. Or if they do – they don’t care!

For more about SMAG go here: https://swindonian.me/category/museum-and-art-gallery/

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