Southampton. What does that conjure up for you? A city of docks and industry on the south coast? A premiership (just) football team? An international cruiseliner port? A bomb-ravaged city with a civic rebuild and a copycat town centre high street? A claim to fame that Tinie Tempah went to Southampton but not Scunthorpe?
Ok you’re probably nodding (or youtubing Pass Out because it was THE comedy song of summer 2011. For some. Ahem) but what if I also said vast green spaces, amazing arts venues, ambition, creativity, history, confidence…would you be nodding along then? Because you should be.
I moved to Southampton 15 years ago. At that time I worked in the arts in Salisbury – a small city but with a creative longevity that belied its size. Organisations with deep histories and the right people involved could take artistic risks that didn’t feel too risky. At that time there was confidence to be taken from the sturdy roots of establishment and there was a comfortable energy in the people those roots enveloped.
In 2009 Salisbury’s Market Square was host to a large-scale outdoor performance and a few months later the same performance was presented in Southampton’s Guildhall Square. For Salisbury, like Southampton, it was a great visual spectacle and a logistical headache. For Salisbury, unlike Southampton, it was also one of many; the next step along the well trodden path of public spectaculars delivered to an appreciative but ultimately expectant audience.
For Southampton it was unexpected. It marked the beginning of a new way of working in a new space with new partners and a new audience. A new cultural path cutting through the stereotypes of a city that hasn’t had it as easy as some in the last few hundred years.
The new space is now Southampton’s cultural quarter. Public art possibilities brimming just beyond the red tape? Home of Studio 144; a snazzy new theatre for Nuffield Southampton Theatres, a bespoke home for City Eye and a snazzier than snazzy gallery for John Hansard Gallery.
A place hailed as a metaphorical and physical focal point for the City’s cultural aspirations – City with a capital ‘C’ – the civic bods, the policy makers, the budget holders. But, I don’t know, I wonder if a small ‘c’ too. One of the many negatives levelled against the area over the long years of its inception and development was the charge that cultural quarters grow, they are not built. A valid ‘grassroots up’ not ‘establishment down’ argument. Well perhaps this one has the potential to meet in the middle.
On Friday evening John Hansard Gallery officially opened their doors at Studio 144 and it felt like a bit of ‘moment’. I’m fully aware I’m glossing over plenty of wrongs here, but if Southampton’s creatives can harness this wave of civic support and celebration for the arts, they absolutely should. Whether it is directly their moment or not.
And it feels, from the outside, that people are. There’s a tingle in the air and an emergence of confidence across the whole community that looks – from my glossy distant viewpoint – rather exciting.
It’s there casually in the cafés of the cultural quarter where writers, academics, filmmakers and more congregate.
It’s there officially in Councillor Satvir Kaur – the cabinet member for culture – who seems to have a walk-in wardrobe of public positivity and confidence for the arts.
It’s there in the “did you get a ticket to…” and the “have you seen…” that smatter conversations with friends beyond the arts community.
It’s even there (albeit slightly sullied by the devaluing of an entire group of artists) in the news that Southampton, and Southampton on its own, will bid for UK City of Culture 2025, shaking off the weird idea of the past that we weren’t quite deserving of it without a friend city holding our cultural hand.
And from my perspective it is most loudly there in the proliferation of arts activity at the moment. I am notified, almost daily, of new events, collaborations, projects, workshops and opportunities spanning the creative spectrum. Many I can’t get out to experience, but still my diary is filling up with interesting, thought-provoking, fun, glorious arty stuff.
So hurray for Southampton! Here’s hoping it retains and develops the confidence to become a city that wears the identity of creative opportunity with ease. No sideways glances to Winchester, Portsmouth or Bristol. No one left to feel that the arts exist behind a closed door. No apologies of art for arts sake.
It seems like it might be a good time to be a creative of any sort and any scale in the city. I’m going to take a leaf out of Southampton’s book of confidence in saying I am one. A small, tired, not particularly edgy or skilled one but a creative here nonetheless. A Creative Mother!
So make like Tinie and come to Southampton! Visit me, we’ll do cocktails! Wait, focus…
Come, forget what you once thought you knew of this southern city…walk in its parks, imagine its past, be excited for its future and get beneath its arts-mottled skin.