A future without culture – a tipping point for creativity

November 9, 2020

It’s fitting that the talent development arm of North East creative industries organisation Generator should be called Tipping Point. As scores of music venues, theatres, galleries and thousands of artists, musicians and performers face financial ruin, the Government’s answer seems to be for them to try something else. Having grown up with music as a constant in her life, Generator CEO Hannah Matterson is working to stop the crisis in the creative industries tipping us into a cultureless future. As she tells Richard Dawson, the value of culture is immeasurable, if only those in power would realise it.

Rethink. Reskill. Reboot. The slogan from the Government’s 2019 CyberFirst campaign, which began recirculating on social media last month.

It depicted Fatima, a professional ballet dancer, stating that her next career could be in cyber, she just didn’t know it yet. Perhaps what the team behind the crass advertising campaign didn’t know yet was just how tremendously it would backfire, drawing criticism from just about everywhere as both the Culture Secretary and 10 Downing Street moved to distance themselves from it.

The advert has become a metaphor for the idea that people working in the creative industries, who find themselves out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, should simply retrain because their jobs are no longer viable.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has strongly rebuked this is his rationale, but the Treasury’s support for the embattled arts and cultures leaves few alternative conclusions to be drawn.

There seems to be a perception in Whitehall that the creative industries are something of a luxury, rather than a globally-renowned, multi-billion pound ecosystem, which generates serious income for the Exchequer and makes Britain a cultural superpower in the world.

Those working creative jobs should count themselves lucky and should now readily accept that careers they’ve spent many years cultivating have no future, even though the pandemic will come to an end eventually.

“I think there’s been a real lack of understanding from the Government around the creative industries,” says Generator’s new CEO Hannah Matterson, who adds her voice to the growing discontent towards the present situation.

“The notion of trying to get people to retrain into something different is so out of touch with how people, particularly in music, have gotten to where they are now.”

Creative jobs have not disappeared; they are merely in a state of suspension due to the pandemic and the crippling social distancing restrictions induced to get it under control.

If a viable job is defined as one which will continue to have a place in the post- COVID 19 world, then there’s a simple question we can ask here.

Can you imagine a future without culture?

“Culture touches every single person in multiple different ways, every single day,” Hannah, who became CEO of Generator in April 2020, answers. “If you take that away, what are you doing with your life?

“I think the Government has underestimated the value of culture and the extent to which its work is appreciated.”

A tipping point is defined as the point at which a series of small changes become significant enough to cause a larger, structural change, which is typically much more difficult to reverse. We could now be at a critical point where the chaos wrought on the creative industries by the pandemic will permanently change our culture and the means by which it is created and disseminated.

Hannah explains: “I am concerned that in 6, 12 or 18 months, many artists, many creative practitioners and many venues will be lost because there wasn’t that support in place to enable them to adapt.” Will 2020 be the year that our most cherished arts institutions disappear? Will it be the year that a whole generation of musicians, artists, writers and filmmakers decide not to pursue their dreams?

As someone who has grown up loving music in all its forms, Hannah is investing all her energies tipping the balance away from this cultureless destiny.

The new boss of the UK’s leading music talent development agency has a mountain to climb, but it’s a fight she’s spent her whole life preparing for.

Born and raised in Sunderland, Hannah vividly remembers sneaking into pubs and bars to go and see local bands like The Futureheads, who rose to fame with an iconic version of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ in the early 2000s.

Her musical education continued at sixth form, where she recalls sitting in the common room listening to Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Nick Drake among others.

Although her passion for music was clear, a lack of understanding about where she could take it saw Hannah go on to study geography at Northumbria University.

“I don’t think anyone ever told me that music was something I could work in,” she adds.

A dissertation investigating the economic and social development of the creative industries later, and Hannah realised that she could indeed follow her passion, if only the right opportunity presented itself.

The Bunker is considered to be the heart of music in Sunderland, an archaic, lightless rehearsal space and recording studio for the city’s up-and-coming artists and musicians.

Hannah says: “The Bunker was my first proper job in music, and it was great.

“I really cut my teeth there, got to know the right people and got to understand the value of community music.

“There were only two windows in the office and the roof leaked, but it had so much history attached to it.”

After a couple of years of light deprivation and loud teenage bands, Hannah decided to get into fundraising and found a great opportunity with the MAC Trust, which was launched in 2012 to develop more creative and cultural opportunities on Wearside.

The young fundraising and events development officer was then seconded into working on Sunderland’s bid to become City of Culture for 2021.

“It was such an amazing time because it was everything that I cared about,” says Hannah.

She recalls the fraught experience of trying to get a six-foot light sculpture into the Houses of Parliament for an event in Westminster Hall.

A van carrying the florescent Sunderland S was stopped at the entrance to Scotland Yard due to confusion over paperwork, meaning Hannah had to charge out of Parliament, through its extensive security system and run to Scotland Yard to beg the guards to let the van in.

She succeeded with minutes to spare. “There was a point where I thought I don’t ever want to go through this again,” she admits. “But there was something about being a Sunderland lass and doing this thing that I love for the city I’m from.” When Coventry triumphed over Sunderland to win the City of Culture accolade, Hannah found it very difficult to process having dedicated three years of her life to the project.

She ended up moving to Manchester to take up a very different role at the metropolitan university as an innovation partnerships bid developer.

Working on knowledge transfer partnerships with Innovate UK, the Northumbria graduate gained exposure to a wide variety of sectors in which digital industrial strategy was being deployed, standing her in good stead for the Generator job, which was her next move.

“I had met Jim (Mawdsley, Generator’s previous CEO) loads of times and I then saw that he was leaving, but I had no intention of coming back to the North East at the time.

“However, I kept seeing the job advertised and thinking, ‘I’ve got to go for this’.”

A combination of local music pedigree, fundraising and partnerships experience and recent knowledge of the innovation and digital economy made Hannah the perfect candidate and she was appointed as CEO of Generator.

As a woman under 30 stepping into the shoes of someone who’d been in the role for 20 years, it felt like the pressure was on even before the pandemic got underway.

Hannah started at the height of lockdown and didn’t meet the team in person for three and a half months.

That being said, Generator still managed to adapt all of its programmes to online delivery, with the exception
of the Tipping Point Live music festival, which was cancelled this summer.

Now having been in post for seven very challenging months, Hannah sees Generator’s role as being a facilitator of learning and adaptation for the region’s outstandingly talented artists and musicians.

“We want to offer the right kind of knowledge, expertise and help that’s important to artists right now,” she says. “We can’t be complacent because it’s changing so quickly.

“We’ve got to work with partners across the UK to make sure that talent development offers are strong and can enable all artists to get their music out there.

“It’s crucial that people who are really struggling can see a way to make their career work.”

Generator has also been doing a lot of work internally to develop its community of creative industries, digital businesses, Digital Union, and figure out what its purpose is moving forward.

Hannah is keen that it not just be another regional digital business network but one that really provides value for those working with a creative focus.

Another big development is the appointment of Generator’s first Youth Advisory Board (YAB), an initiative which Hannah hopes will enable the organisation to be more accountable and representative of the people it works with. “A large proportion of our key audience is aged between 20 and 30,” she explains, “and the YAB is the best way of engaging these people.”

The YAB also allows young people to be in positions of leadership, while providing fresh perspective and enthusiasm on how best the creative industries can move forward together.

Hannah adds: “They’re resilient, they’re active, they’re vocal, they’re not scared of anything and what I want to do as an organisation is harness a bit of that.”

If our culture is to survive this tipping point for the creative industries, it will take the resilience and enthusiasm of the next generation and the experience and fortitude of the last all coming together and singing the same tune.

Hannah Matterson, CEO of Generator

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