Reasoning the need: questioning the value and role of the visual arts in the life of an industrial town

James Beighton webpage photo‘Why do we need art?’ In the fifteen years that I have been a curator working in the public sector this question has been asked repeatedly under different guises by different people. Historical analysis suggests it’s not a new question however. It is the premise of this thesis that by understanding why previous generations have asked the question and indeed how they have answered it, we may reach an enriched understanding of present day motivations for investment in the arts and responses to this.

The research will take the form of a micro-historical study of Middlesbrough, a post-industrial town in the North-East of England. Middlesbrough rose to prominence in the nineteenth century growing from a village of a few cottages to a major manufacturing town of the late Industrial Revolution, before undergoing a process of industrial decline, quickening in pace during the latter part of the twentieth century. At different moments in the town’s still short history cases have been made for the role that visual arts can and should play, gaining sharper focus at the beginning of the present century with the development of a new municipal gallery for the town. 

The arts in the UK are moving from a period of relatively secure public funding to one that places greater emphasis on paying their own way. Whilst over the course of the last fifteen years the rhetoric used to justify public spending on the arts has often been around regeneration of post-industrial regions, the impact of this period of investment is now being questioned at the same time that the public purse is being tightened. In light of this the investigation will seek to uncover how, why and if art in Middlesbrough has made a difference to people’s lives. 

Notwithstanding its focus on art, this project is being conducted using the methods of a historian. It is not an attempt to write an art historical study of an area but rather it sets out to question the value of understanding the visual arts from the perspective of the cultural heritage of a locality, not simply as a minor aspect of Western art history. The study is interested in those art objects that have played a role in the history being related and it will treat them as one element of the source material being interrogated. It is as interested in understanding how they were received and by whom. It does not seek to judge these objects in terms of artistic merit, but rather on what they can reveal about the society in which they were produced. It aims to understand the experiences and motivations of artists, both professional and amateur, as well as those who simply encountered art. The study will also draw upon and develop oral history and other archival source material whilst aligning itself from a theoretical perspective with the turn towards cultural history that has become an important theme in historical research.


The American cultural historian Warren Susman has commented ‘The writing of history is as personal an act as the writing of fiction. As the historian attempts to understand the past, he is at the same time, knowingly or not, seeking to understand his own cultural situation himself.’[1] It is a statement that certainly rings true of my research. For twelve years prior to commencing this research I was Curator and latterly Senior Curator at mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, the town’s newly built art gallery. It was during this time that I developed a strong interest in understanding how a historical awareness of art in the locality could inform contemporary curatorial approaches. In line with my background as a curator, public outcomes for the research will be important and I shall be investigating opportunities for exhibitions and other public events to disseminate my research. Alongside my thinking around this question I have sustained an interest in the role of the applied arts in a modern art gallery context, with specialisms in twentieth century ceramics and artist made jewellery. Before working in Middlesbrough I worked at the City Gallery in Leicester and completed a BA and MA in English Literature at Leicester University. I have forthcoming articles in Ceramics in the Expanded Field, a publication accompanying the AHRC funded research project undertaken at Westminster University and published by New Ashgate Press and The Ceramics Reader published by Bloomsbury Academic Press, both released in late 2015.

[1] W. Susman, Culture as history: the transformation of American society in the twentieth century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), xiii

Supervisors: Dr Natasha Vall, Teesside University, and Professor Barry Doyle, University of Huddersfield