Telegraph Column: Businesses need a cultural vision

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One of Hull’s final challenges before submitting its successful bid for UK City of Culture 2017 was to prove that it had private sector support for its vision for the city.

Launching an appeal called 2017 Angels, the council asked the city’s bondholders to each pledge £17,000, writes Paul Houghton, chair of Yorkshire Artspace and partner at Grant Thornton. Within weeks it had persuaded 22 firms to put their hands in their pockets and, in doing, showed City of Culture judges that the bid had the widespread support it needed to succeed.

A recent study of Sheffield businesses suggests the South Yorkshire response might have been less overwhelming.

The study, based on conversations with local business leaders, aimed to help three local visual arts organisations establish some common ground with Sheffield’s private sector and found that, by and large, the city’s private sector does not ‘do art’.

It’s a curious observation for a city which has produced Turner prize winners, has more artist studio spaces than anywhere outside London and where arts organisations are actively playing a role in making Sheffield a better city.

It’s more curious still when you think of the successes of Manchester, Liverpool and Hull – cities which used art and culture as a tool for reinventing themselves and forged new futures based on partnerships between civic, arts and culture and business sectors.

So why does Sheffield business not ‘do art’? Maybe we simply do not believe that we need art and culture, or at least, art and culture can inspire transformations which benefit anyone other than the local visitor economy.

It’s true that the city’s arts sector does not always shout enough about its successes and demonstrate common ground between arts organisations and business.

The study was commissioned by three visual arts organisations – Yorkshire Artspace, Site Gallery and S1 Artspace. All are leaders in their fields, promote great art and crafts and do really great things across Sheffield but all, by and large, lack any clear or persuasive proposition with which business can engage.

This is the real problem. The M62 cities have succeeded in developing engaging visions which put arts and culture at the heart of creating dynamic and vibrant cities we as businesses need to attract and retain quality skilled staff.

Each city in its own way has been able to articulate a sense of ambition and direction on a scale which goes far beyond anything three Sheffield visual arts organisations could alone promote. Sheffield has a chance to turn the tide next year by using its Year of the Maker cultural programme to present a ‘bigger picture’ which can prove the benefits of ‘doing art’.