Some people say arts and culture is only for the wealthy urban elite.
How often do we hear some version of this? The popular stereotype of “arts and culture” features opulent galas, tuxedos, and limos. It isn’t hard to understand where the comments come from.
Can we debunk this myth?
If the opposite of “urban and elite” is “rural and humble,” look no further than the tiny hamlet of Bishop Auckland, five hours north of London. Like so many towns in Northern England, it was hollowed out by the death of the mining industry and continues to struggle for survival today.
Last November, in the course of 24 hours, I experienced both glittering London and humble Bishop Auckland. Without a doubt, the sheer emotional wallop of culture in tiny Bishop Auckland eclipsed anything I experienced in London.
A Brutal Life
Bishop Auckland is in the heart of what was once coal country. For generations, the people of Northern England centered their lives on the seams of coal that powered the industrial revolution and made London wealthy. Nearly every family had miners.
Mining was taxing, claustrophobic, and life-threatening on a daily basis. And as brutal as it was on their bodies, it was equally hard on the spirits of these men. They were all alone, often nearly naked in the heat, and accompanied only by stifling air and fear in their heart. Day after day.
Without counselors or mindfulness, where did these men turn to soothe their spirits?
Arts and culture.
Arts and culture allowed them to soften the hard edges of those terrible days. Every mining company had a brass band. Many miners raised canaries or grew dahlias for competition. There was even a surprisingly proud tradition of cultivating “prized leeks” in their small garden allotments.
And some of them painted.
The Mining Art Gallery
A quote from the entry room of the Mining Art Gallery
Sitting on the quiet main street of Bishop Auckland, the Mining Art Gallery is the world’s only art museum dedicated exclusively to the work of coal miners. Opened in 2017, it is part of a greater revitalization project underway by The Auckland Project — a local charity working to revive the town through arts and culture.
On that November day, I visited the Gallery with my friend and colleague, Tony Barnes, Tessitura’s Director of European Operations.
I’d say my frame of mind upon entering was one of breezy curiosity. It is hardly a grand space — fewer than a dozen small rooms in all. And “art by miners” seemed like a nice idea to me. Good for them, I thought.
This tour had been scheduled to take 30 minutes. An hour and a half later, Tony and I blinked back out onto the street — stunned, disoriented, and grasping for words.
Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland Market Place. Photograph: The Auckland Project.
They Painted the Darkness
Our tour guide, Kathy, was a local who left a job as a lawyer to become the Gallery’s Experience Team Office. Kathy told the story of the miners in an honest and loving way. She was simply incredible.
She began the tour like this:
“Think about the paintings you’ve seen at the great museums in London. Think about art history classes.” As Kathy explained, much of great art focuses on light. Vermeer. Monet. The footlights illuminating a Degas dancer.
“And now look at this.” Kathy led us to a large oil painting that was nearly all black. Miner lamps provided the only source of light.
Norman Cornish, Men Going to the Shaft, 1950. ® Cornish Family Collection
“These miners spent their whole lives underground. And so they painted what they knew. They painted the darkness.”
Tony and I lost track of time as we were transfixed by Kathy’s stories of these men and their raw talent. One artist, Nick Evans, would cover his canvas in thick black paint and then scrape away the blackness to create the work. As he told one viewer, “The picture is there from God. I just have to dig it out.” He was a miner. Digging is what he knew.
Nick Evans, Entombed – Jesus in the Midst, 1974. Oil on Canvas. © Artist’s Estate
We felt their darkness. By the end of the tour, we couldn’t help being moved to our own sort of darkness too. Especially my friend Tony, himself a Northern Englishman, who admitted to getting “a little misty in there” as he viewed this world that was so familiar to him personally.
Connecting with their Community
The Mining Art Gallery is not grand. And the gritty story it tells is far from royalty. But it is the story of the people of Bishop Auckland. And for the leadership of the Auckland Project, that’s what matters.
The Auckland Project has many revitalization projects in the works for the town: reopening the Auckland Castle, displaying a priceless collection of Baroque paintings and much else. But their decision to start their project by opening the Mining Art Gallery in the center of town was an intentional one.
To revitalize Bishop Auckland through arts and culture, they intentionally began with the art and culture that mattered most to the people of Bishop Auckland.
Even so, when it opened, they had to convince the town to visit. “A gallery – that’s not for me,” is the sort of thing Kathy would hear again and again.
But with some convincing, the locals warily came by. For some, this was the first gallery they had ever visited. Soon the small rooms filled with people. The sound in the rooms went from murmurs to light chatter to full volume. Everyone had a story. They knew the mine in that painting, or had a dad who looked like the fellow in that one, or grew up on a street just like this one.
Ted Holloway, Testing for Gas, 1956. Oil on Canvas. © Artist’s Estate. Courtesy of The Auckland Project
There was laughter and there were tears and there were unexpected connections made and so many memories. The striking, honest art of rural coal miners brought forth the full sweep of human emotions.
“Arts and culture is only for the wealthy, urban, elite.” No. As the Auckland Project understands, arts and culture is for everyone.
Our Director of European Operations, Tony Barnes, with Kathy Wilson, Experience Team Officer, at the Mining Art Gallery