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The Culturephiles

The town where everyone has arts and culture in their life

A struggling English village reinvents itself through arts and culture

Andrew Recinoa

Andrew RecinosPresident, Tessitura Network

TitleThe town where everyone has arts & culture in their life


Read/View Time7 min

What if every person in our communities had arts and culture as a meaningful part of their life?

How might our lives, our children’s lives, our friends, neighbors, total strangers’ lives change?

Myriad studies suggests that just about every aspect of our lives would improve — including a recent one suggesting culture can even increase longevity.

Last year, I suggested that the Tessitura community set its sight on helping to create such a world.

Since it is a large, slightly crazy goal, I decided to study how other groups achieve large, slightly crazy initiatives. In my reading, I’m struck by how often management books admonition us not to get wrapped up in trying to engineer a complete solution.

Instead, they recommend having a clear goal (no matter how big) and a clear place to start (no matter how small). As Chip and Dan Heath suggest in their excellent change management book Switch:

“Look for a strong beginning and a strong ending and get moving.

Find the Bright Spots

If “every human has arts and culture as a meaningful part of their life” is the strong ending, what would the strong beginning look like?

The Heaths suggest one place to begin: find places where the end goal is already happening and learn from it. They call this concept “Find the Bright Spots.” It is a devilishly simple concept, and we see it all the time out in the world. For instance, researchers trying to cure a disease will often start by studying individuals who are naturally immune to the disease in question. For our goal, a Bright Spot would be those unique communities that are already providing arts and culture to everyone in their community.

But do these communities exist in the Tessitura world?


A Ray of Hope for a Town in Despair

Welcome to the hamlet of Bishop Auckland in rural Northern England, population 25,000. The town is named Bishop Auckland because the 900-year-old castle on the outskirts of town was home to the Durham County Bishop.

An old black-and-white photo of a corner store, with a sign for Bovril in the window. Three people wearing long white aprons stand in front, looking forward.

Far from any major cities, Bishop Auckland was one of the many coal towns that flourished in Northern England in the 19th and 20th centuries. Coal provided jobs, which supported shops, schools, town festivals, brass bands and much else. It was their halcyon time.

But then the coal dried up, unemployment spiked, the shops closed, and the spirit of the town plummeted. The last mine in Bishop Auckland closed in 1968.

Just a few years ago, strolling through the town was mostly walking with ghosts. The Guardian referred to Durham County as “one of the most deprived areas in northern Europe.”

But then, quite unexpectedly, there was a new ray of hope for the town. Not from government. Not from industry. But from art.

A compilation of four tall paintings in the Renaissance style, each of a man holding different accouterments (a staff, a scythe, a dog on a leash)

Four of the 13 Zurbarán paintings from the series Jacob and his Twelve Sons

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, a dozen paintings by the 17th-century Spanish master Francisco Zurbarán quietly hung in the Bishop’s private dining room in Auckland Castle. While most Zurbaráns hang in major galleries around the world, these works were hidden beyond closed doors, only ever seen by the Bishop and his invited guests.

In 2011, when the Church of England decided to sell the paintings, they found an unexpected buyer: Jonathan Ruffer, a London investor who had grown up in Northern England. Looking to use his fortune to promote the arts and help the struggling economy of the North, he made a £15 million donation to the Church and in exchange for the paintings — and the castle.

Ruffer had a dream to leverage the famous paintings and the castle into a bold revitalization of the town. To realize his dream, he formed a charity called the Auckland Project.

So how has it gone so far?

Between 2012 and today, here is just some of what they have accomplished in this small town:

  • They purchased an empty bank in the center of town and transformed it into the Mining Art Gallery
  • They built a visitor center and observation tower in the center of town.
  • They opened a gallery and shop to profile local artists
  • They opened to the public the 800-year-old deer park that had long been privately held.
  • They renovated and opened the formerly private Auckland Castle to the public. (I was lucky enough to get a hard hat tour last year, as profiled here.)
  • They are well on the way to opening a gallery of Spanish Art and a Museum of Faith

Opening Day of the Auckland Castle, November 2019 

They have opened cafes and galleries and employed scores of locals. They estimate these and other new initiatives will generate 400,000 new visitors to the region and contribute £20 million to the local economy annually — through art, history and culture.

Has the Auckland Project achieved the goal that every human in their community has arts and culture as a meaningful part of their life? This hamlet of 25,000 souls now has world-class galleries, museums, historical landmarks, shops, cafes, a natural preserve and children’s programs.

If this isn’t an example of a Bright Spot for us to study, I don’t know what is.

Learning from this Bright Spot

According to Switch, once you identify a Bright Spot, you need to learn from it. How did the Auckland Project accomplish all of this? From interviews with their team, I see four major themes:

Dream Big: The vision of this project was always about much more than collecting art. It was about leveraging art and culture to help revitalize a region. How big is your vision?

Start with a Strong Foundation: One can’t ignore the fact that Jonathan Ruffer is a multi-millionaire who has provided millions of pounds of “start-up philanthropy” to this project. This would not have happened without his vision and capital. This initial funding led to much more funding from the government and many other sources. Whether it is one founding visionary, a small group of initial funders, or a government-funded initiative, the big dream needs to be supported by a strong financial footing.  The money is out there. The culture is out there. It is up to us to connect them.

Look for Good Bones: When looking at an older home in need of repair, a contractor might say that the house “has good bones”. This is shorthand to say that while the exterior might not be much to look at, there is quality workmanship underneath.

Just like an old house, most people looked at Bishop Auckland and saw a dying town with a crumbling castle on its periphery. Ruffer and the Auckland Project saw something quite different. They recognized that the castle and the town itself had “good bones.” The downtown shops were mostly boarded up, but the buildings were in good condition. The castle was grand and historically important. The Deer Park outside of town was verdant. Finally, the paintings themselves were both world-famous and long-shielded; the Auckland Project saw that they could serve as the centerpiece of an art-lover’s attraction. What assets give you leverage? Do they have “good bones”?

Take a community-first approach: The Auckland Project never saw their role as imposing a new visitor attraction onto the town. They worked in collaboration with the town from day one, including hiring local staff to be the heart of the Auckland Project.

My favorite example of this was their intentional decision to start the whole campus by opening the Mining Art Gallery: the only art gallery in the world devoted to the work of coal miners. Coal is the town’s defining ancestral story. It runs in the veins of the town. When the Gallery opened, the Auckland Project not only invited all the residents to tour it for free, they sent motor coaches out to the rural areas around the town to bring folks in. For many, it was their first-ever visit to an art gallery.

Today the Mining Art Gallery is a source of emotion, memory and pride for the whole town. Every step of the way, their work has been aligned with the community. (I wrote about my moving visit to the Mining Art Gallery in this post.) If the goal is to bring meaningful culture to your community, you must always begin with the community in mind.

•     •     

Strolling through Bishop Auckland today, one sees shops, cafes and galleries. Marketing managers, philanthropy staff, curators, archaeologists, groundskeepers and customer service representatives are the children or grandchildren of former miners. Folks you pass on the street might be townspeople who’ve spent their whole lives here, or might be tourists from far away, seeing great works of art and history.

Visitors at the Bishop Auckland Deer Park

As we continue to look toward a day when every human in every community we serve has arts and culture as a meaningful part of their life, we must continue to look for, learn from and celebrate Bright Spots like the Auckland Project.

What Bright Spots do you have to share?

p.s. I was honored to tell the story of the Auckland Project, a Tessitura member, at the Tessitura European Conference in 2019. Here is an excerpt of my talk.

Andrew Recinoa

Andrew Recinos


Tessitura Network

Andrew Recinos spend his days in conversation with professionals devoted to advancing the world of arts and culture.

He considers himself very, very lucky.

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