Opinion: 'Celebrate our cultural high streets'

The New Wolsey theatre has launched a new outside summer programme

The New Wolsey theatre in Ipswich - Credit: Mike Kwasniak/New Wolsey Theatre

High streets have long been hubs of activities in places across the country, bursting with people meeting friends, shopping, eating, drinking or even just window shopping! In Ipswich you have everything from high street giants like Marks and Spencer right through to a vital range of indie shops, like The Fair Trade Shop, Hank’s Deli & Shop and Craftability. But why, you may ask, is the Chief Executive of Arts Council England banging on about high streets in Ipswich? 

Well, whilst retail is a huge part of our high streets, there’s much more to them than just shops – they are also incredible hubs for creative and cultural experiences, from Ipswich County Library and Ipswich Museum, through to DanceEast, New Wolsey Theatre, Gecko Theatre, SPILL Festival and PULSE Festival – and music venues like The Smokehouse.   

The last 18 months has been an exceptionally challenging time for high streets, with footfall dropping significantly. But new research has shown the important role culture has in attracting people to our high streets and making our cities and towns better places to live – in fact nearly seven out of ten people agree that cultural experiences on the high street make their local area a better place to live. And 60% of people say that culture makes them proud of where they live. 

In fact, more people say that they want to see more culture on their local high streets (48%) than places to eat or drink (39%). So, what does this tell us? 

I think it shows that to be truly successful, our high streets must offer a combination of experiences that not only drive footfall, but retain it for longer. We know that cultural venues on and near to high streets attract people and increases spending on the other parts of high streets including shops and hospitality venues such as cafés, restaurants and bars. 

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And that’s exactly what many of the organisations the Arts Council invests in, like New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich Museum and DanceEast do in Ipswich – many of these are just a short walk from local high streets. 

But it’s not just local audiences that culture attracts, as the new Head East campaign illustrates. Supported by the Arts Council, the new year-long campaign celebrates the rich diversity of arts, culture and heritage that Suffolk and Norfolk have to offer, boosting tourism, driving footfall and supporting the local economy. In Ipswich, events include the Power of Stories exhibition with costumes from the Marvel’s Black Panther and a fantastic new Art Walk. 

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Whilst the economic contribution that creativity and culture bring to our villages, towns and cities is hugely important, artists, arts organisations, museums and libraries offer so much more to the communities that they serve. New Wolsey Theatre’s Creative Community programme is just one example of this.

It gives everyone the opportunity to discover and take part in the arts. The last year’s COVID-19 restrictions didn’t stop the organisations we fund from engaging with their communities either. DanceEast worked with The Place and some of the UK’s leading dance organisations – like DanceXchange and Phoenix Dance Theatre, to create Let’s Move – a national summer school that saw more than 100 young people dance with artists from all over the UK. 

In response to the pandemic, the Government and the Arts Council have invested in the survival of cultural venues across the country – including several in Ipswich. The government’s Culture Recovery Fund, created by the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden with the backing of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, is the biggest ever public investment in culture and stands at almost £2 billion. As we emerge from the pandemic, cultural organisations will play a vital role in the recovery of our high streets.

Figures from the Head East campaign show that between 2015 and spring 2020, the sector had grown by £38 million in East Anglia. We know that with the right support, we can return to that exciting growth – not just reinvigorating our high streets, but all of the places in which we live, work and play. 

High streets are the heart of towns and communities. But I believe that communities need a soul too. And I know artists, arts organisations, museums and libraries can provide that soul. Making sure there is a space for culture, creativity and the arts to set out its stall on high streets across England, will mean the tradition heart of villages, towns, and cities with continue to beat strongly for many more years to come. 

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