Conference: Cities & Territorial Challenges at Bury Art Museum

This week, I went to Bury, LANCASHIRE, specifically to Bury Art Museum to present at a conference. I type Lancashire in capital letters as I can hear my father say the word in a broad North West accent as he was raised there. It’s always so familiar coming back having visited grandparents here on repeat as a child, the nostalgia hitting me with wonderment at what my Dad would think of the town as it stands now, no doubt impressed with the tram, maybe not the success of the local football team. ( I also know my Dad regularly reads my blog so hello Dad!).

It’s been a busy week spent in different cities, places and spaces across the UK – Manchester, Birmingham, Bury, Wolverhampton and everywhere in between. On Thursday I gave a presentation at the European Networks of Cultural Centres (ENCC) conference at Bury Art Museum. The theme of the event was ‘Cities and territorial challenges: the role of cultural centers in resilience and development dynamics: connecting stakeholders to contribute to sustainable, inclusive and innovative cities.’

I was invited by Tony Trehy (Director of Bury Art Museum) to present. He opened the day alongside Ivo Peeters (ENCC Chairman) and Sylvine Bois-Choussy (ENCC Coordinator) who gave short introductions to the conference theme. Ivo stated the ENCC is dedicated to creating a social cultural network and the importance of amateur art as part of this. He also raised the current issue of the UK deciding to stay part of the EU, and how important for us to stay part of the EU.

Sylvine followed saying the event was a way of sharing experimentations and interesting things that are currently happening in the UK. Why did we chose this topic? ‘Cities are places that concentrate a great diversity of stakeholders that don’t always work together but should all build a common good. It also raises issues – social, economic, climate, educational – that go beyond the cultural sector, topics that we need to talk about more and more. Cities are becoming more and more global players. 70% of the world’s population will be urban, bringing with it crisis, challenges and opportunities. Shanghai, London and Paris are becoming global players in trade. Although Bury is a smaller city it is becoming a global player.’

  • How can we be more active and collective in tackling global challenges?
  • How can we contribute so that cities are not just economic players but they are players for citizens, to empower citizens, to bridge this local-global pass?
  • Can cultural stakeholders play a part in this?

Onto the presentations, firstly by Tony Trehy withInverting the Hierarchy of Mediations’. He began by focusing on the industrial history of Bury and rise of power through the years and how this affected the development and success of the town including Bury’s place and relationship within Greater Manchester.

“When was your city, your town important?” – Tony Trehy

A town, a location, an organisation can achieve by doing certain things, by having an outward facing vision. You can manage the quality of interaction with the world. Here at Bury Art Museum we have pursued a concept where you can make yourself more important in the world through the quality of your work and the will to achieve it. The rise of globalisation is becoming the driving force of cities…the population increasing locating cities. When I talk about the inverted hierarchy, it is a reference to Jean Paul Sartre on how hierarchies are mediated through structure.

There is an assumption in Manchester, that the city centre is the most important part and the periphery areas are less important. Bury Art Museum decided to go beyond Manchester, taking projects international, including community projects. We recognise other ways of funding arts and culture, where the model and skills we have developed with European partners has worked elsewhere such as in China. The resource of our concept of getting out there, the quality of our work and our networks have come to define us. Since experiences in China, we have been asked to represent the UK in different territories.

Tony concluded by stating his perspective on global drivers – art cities of the future (Beirut, Bogota, Cluj. Delhi Istanbul, Johannesburg, Lagos and more), then to what are considered as more important cities (London, New York, Tokyo, Paris, Singapore, Beijing and more), then moving onto the cities in the room (Aarhus, Bremen, Brussels, Bury, Cardiff, Leuven, London, Potsdam and more).

“Today’s debate on cities is limited to the world’s 30-odd megacities and the 600 cities driving international economic growth. They’ve expanded with dizzying speed: these cities constitute a new layer of global governance. Yet there is virtually no discussion about what is happening in the other roughly 3,400 cities with over 100,000 residents. And there is a veritable silence about the other 50,000 cities and urban localities around the world. This is worrying because it is the cities whose names you’ve never heard of that will shape the future.” – Tong Trehy

Sylvine stated that Bury Art Museum going to Asia was a “survival matter” and questioned what is following now? Tony responded by saying because the show gave us such experience, and there is an economic result from it, although the pressure if off at the moment, we are continuing to do it and have a greater staff capacity. We started using the language of trade for exhibitions. If we push more product then it will expand. In terms of how it might change, because China is changing so fast, our success the first time would be very difficult to do a second time. There are so many opportunities for new engagements with other areas of the world.

It was then time for me to talk – ‘Curating China’s “Architectures of Change”: From Artist to Art Museum’

“For many, it is a life lived divided between cities, places, and experiences – what can be defined as “in the transculture”, the space across and between different global cultures. The rapid development of the city, urban fabric and land, which we negotiate on a daily basis, raises questions as to how we try and accept its changing presence, how we are placed within it and its future impact. China is growing at an unprecedented speed in line with the president, Xi Jinping’s catchphrase of achieving “The Chinese Dream”. As cities become centres for manufacture and production, and urban neighbourhoods are restructured, buildings seem to suddenly disappear, whilst new ones, already in progress, become visible on the skyline.” – Rachel Marsden

Bury Art Museum ENCC 18

In my presentation, I spoke of the ‘the “museumification” of China’ (Johnson and Florence 2013), the start of a Chinese ‘museographic practice’ (Ha Thuc 2014:46) and dedicated “museum zones”, including its short history of only fifteen years where the contemporary art museum only makes up only 2% of museums in China. I also made reference to the rapid construction of the largely Western ‘modernist’ museum buildings, together with China’s “ghost cities”, left empty in the wake of over-zealous construction, which caused me to reflect on what I call China’s “architectures of change”. From the perspectives of the artist, curator and art museum, I cited two curatorial case studies ‘Haze and Fog’ (2013) by Cao Fei and ‘The Temporary: 01’ alongside the research of ‘China Megacities Lab’ as research-led practice investigating these “architectures of change”.


Raúl Abeledo Sanchia (University of Valencia, Spain) with ‘What are the main sustainability challenges of the cities for the next decades?’ Raúl spoke of the complexity and diversity of different topics that have usually been isolated in our mind and lifestyle regarding sustainability. He introduced the role of culture in creating sustainability…

“How is it creating new opportunities, challenges and risks for the cultural sector?” – Raúl Abeledo Sanchia

Bury Art Museum ENCC 13

Our actions have cultural actions, we must rethink our mission for new audiences and rethink the way we produce our services and activities, including training, digital technologies, alliances and more. From this, we can see this diversification of topics that the cultural sector has to manage. The biggest challenge is for the cultural actors to experiment. If we continue the same way, we will lose opportunity, however if we adapt, we must see it is fragile. An introduction to the landscape:

  • Crisis, what crisis?
  • Global-local
  • Financial
  • Economic
  • Social
  • Urban
  • Environmental

“Why are we not talking about the cultural? Mutations on the edge of collapse. How can we manage and survive the collapse?” – Raúl Abeledo Sanchia

  • Knowledge. How we create and share knowledge about the sector
  • Co-evolution of systems
  • Alliances from the local and global point of view. The analogy of the glass onion showing the layers of interaction. We share common challenges and problems.

We are talking about conflict as we are talking about crisis. I like to link the work conflict with project, as projects always involve conflict. We are talking about values. What do resilient systems do? They maintain diversity. Complexity as linked to diversity, and integration. This is a strength of the cultural sector is to integrate. Timing is integral to a sustainable model of production. We are also talking about:

  • Individual and collective identity, through lifestyles and memory
  • Freedom of speech and expression
  • Access to culture (internationally)
  • (Images and) imagination 

“It is about questioning the social value of culture – what are we going to do?” – Raúl Abeledo Sanchia

In the afternoon, I chose to go to a workshop facilitated by curator Matthew Shaul, Head of Programming at the UH Galleries and co-founder of Departure Lounge space in Luton, UK…”a cold spot” for cultural engagement in the UK. He discussed the often halting and often interrupted process of establishing Departure Lounge (which is ongoing) and in particular the challenges of establishing a contemporary art gallery from a standing start with no start up capital in a location which suffers from very negative/terrible PR, high levels of economic and social exclusion and low levels of aspiration. His background is curating photography, where he referenced the exhibition ‘Do Not Refreeze’, an exhibition I worked on at Wolverhampton Art Gallery! Life goes full circle and small world as always, bringing a smile to my face!

Bury Art Museum ENCC 15

Departure Lounge was established in 2010, with support from the council and economic development team in Luton. The opening exhibitions were of work by Nigel Grimmer, and Annette and Erasmus Schröter, receiving over 3,000 visitors in the first year. As he was talking through the Departure Lounge archive, one project stood out – a group exhibition called ‘Convulsive Walls’ curated by Steffi Klenz. It included two artists I’ve worked with and admire Rut Blees Luxemburg and Gregor Schneider, and was examining consuming experiential and ephemeral context…things that drive my practice forward.

‘Convulsive Walls challenges conventional conceptions of our environment, exploring the interior space as a location for transition and transformation and suggesting that ‘space’ and how we understand it is derived from an emotional and psychological investment’ (taken from Photomonitor).

Convulsive Walls Installation images, Gregor Schneider and Rut Bles Luxemburg © Klenz, Steffi and Teichmann, Esther.jpg
Convulsive Walls Installation images, Gregor Schneider and Rut Bles Luxemburg © Klenz, Steffi and Teichmann, Esther

Matthew calls himself a “cultural entrepreneur” but there aren’t enough hours in a day. He spoke of needing more funds and “creative coalition”. We are slowly moving toward permanence and sustainability. He felt that they are now on the cusp of becoming a proper art centre…in a small way, by proving what we have done, we have changed the way in which the town perceives what we do. Reiterating what Tony opened the day with – “inverting the hierarchies of mediations” – Matthew stated the difficulty of artists working and setting up studios and initiatives in London where:

“We are working in the regions, where we might start doing more than the centre.” – Matthew Shaul

After his presentation, open discussion unfolded where one person highlighted the issue of infrastructure and (culture in) middle-sized towns wherever they are in Europe. City-centre spaces need to reinvent themselves every ten to fifteen years…art spaces are not enough, it is artists and art activism that is needed, but it is how to make that happen.

The final workshop of the day was led by Catharine BraithwaiteAll Together Now: The Art Of Working in Partnership’. She opened by saying, “There is no better time to be working in partnership than now.”

“…modern times as an ‘age of brutal simplifiers’. Today, the crossed effect of desires for reassuring solidarity amid economic insecurity is to render social life brutally simple: us-against-them coupled with you-are-on- your-own.” – Richard Sennett

Bury Art Museum ENCC 16

Catharine stated we are in a culture where “Cooperation is a craft” – we need to listen and discuss, rather than a constant need to debate. She spoke of her experiences of working on and Manchester Weekender. “Cultural tourism” – what does it actually mean in practice? Changing a visitors perception of a place takes time. All culture is not equal. It’s not about changing people’s perceptions of culture, it is about changing the perceptions of location. It takes time and partnership to have success. Without museums and galleries consortium, would not have happened. With this support, it can deliver economic benefit to the city bringing visitors to the city.

“I feel it is a good to be ambitious and bold in your outlook, and to have an idea that is out of people’s comfort zone.” – Catharine Braithwaite

This was an apt quote to end the second day of the conference, a day of reiterations  -conflict, crisis, integration, diversity, infrastructure, complexity, timing, imagination, strategy, resilience, experimentation, cooperation and so much more. Here’s to the new connections and collaborations that will come from the day…for me, already in motion…

Bury Art Museum ENCC 9

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