Live: The turn to culture

Richard Dawson speaks to Professor Katy Shaw, director of cultural partnerships at Northumbria University, about the issues affecting the publishing industry and why we need writers from all backgrounds to tell us their stories

Most parts of the country and the economy have emerged from lockdown, but vast swathes of the arts and cultures have not. Many venues are still closed, many artists, writers, musicians and performers are still without income.

That is because the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult, nigh on impossible, to do what the arts and cultures do best – bring people together.

At the same time, COVID-19 has reminded us just how valuable culture is to our lives and wellbeing.

“The first thing people did in lockdown was turn to culture,” says Professor Katy Shaw, director of cultural partnerships at Northumbria University.

“They started to share poetry, they started to watch the National Theatre online, they wanted to see and read and watch and view more than ever.”

Whether frightened about catching the virus, worried about losing a job or a business, being able to take refuge in a good book, TV show or film has been a lifeline to many.

The ability to escape, even just for a moment, what has been an incredibly challenging year is made possible by the arts and cultures.

But the turn to culture is also about trying to make sense of what is going on in the world. This is particularly true where publishing is concerned.

I’m not just talking about journalism, important though it is for the dissemination of information (and occasionally misinformation).

I’m talking about writing more generally because it is the source material of so much of the culture that we consume to help us rationalise what’s going on in our lives, whether it be books, TV, film, theatre or even video games.

“Writers are the source that feed all of these platforms,” Katy adds.

“I think people have turned to reading and writing during the pandemic because narrative and storytelling help us make meaning.

“Now more than ever, people want answers, they want explanations and I think we’ve used reading and writing to make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible experience of living through a pandemic.”

If the arts and cultures have helped us both confront and escape the realities of COVID-19, then the virus in turn has magnified some of the long-term issues bubbling under the surface in the creative industries.

The most obvious one is funding, something which cultural institutions up and down the country have long suffered from a lack of.

Katy says: “The arts and cultures are one of our biggest exports as a country. We literally can’t afford to let them slide. It’s in everybody’s interest to support them.

“It’s a huge industry that does not begin and end with wellbeing and social benefit – it also has a really important economic contribution to society.”

Northumbria University has established cultural partnerships with Baltic, Live Theatre, Tyneside Cinema and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums – each of which faces challenges in reopening following the pandemic.

For Katy, who directs cultural partnerships, the priority moving forward is to leverage the limited resources in education and the arts by working together.

“We’re all on our knees as a society right now but the key is that we get up together,” she adds.

Northumbria also partners with New Writing North, an organisation tackling other long-term issues in the creative industries.

As the largest of several regional writing development agencies across the country, New Writing North has lobbied to encourage the publishing industry to move away from an over-reliance on London by creating more opportunities for Northern writers.

This effort took a major step forward in June when one of the world’s largest publishers, Hachette, announced they were going to open five new regional offices, one of which will be in Newcastle.

New Writing North has also been working with Katy’s research to overcome the lack of diversity in the creative industries.

Katy explains: “The publishing industry can be guilty of unconscious bias where people tend to hire people who look like them, sound like them or went to the same university as them.

“Until we change the gatekeepers and have them be more reflective and diverse, we’re not going to be able to open up the industry to more diverse representations.”

That’s why New Writing North launched the Common People project to find solutions to the problem of underrepresentation and figure out how to make sure everyone’s voices are heard.

“It was also about wanting to promote cultural diversity more broadly,” Katy adds.

The hope is that diversity is not pushed to one side as we recover from the pandemic and that it provides an opportunity to stop and think about how class, race, gender and ability are affecting society.

Katy adds: “The big fear with coronavirus is that, with all these competing demands and priorities, is equality and diversity going to be kicked to the sidelines now?

“Actually, it’s more vital than ever that this doesn’t happen. This is the point at which we need a diversity of voices, we need everyone having equal opportunity.”

The pandemic should also remind us of the vast economic and social contribution of the arts and cultures at the precise moment they need our support most.