‘York venues are vulnerable to being turned into yet more luxury flats that the city does not need’
Freelance arts journalist and self proclaimed ‘culture vulture’ Charles Hutchinson has been a part of York’s cultural scene for decades.
After 30 years of being the voice of arts and culture at York Press, he established his own website to continue bringing news, reviews and interviews of everything the city has to offer. A passionate supporter of all things art and culture in York, Charles shares with YorkMix his thoughts on York’s cultural scene and beyond.
How has the pandemic affected you and in what ways have you adapted?
Spending so many nights in a house with the lights up, rather than out and about in a darkened room in York, Leeds, Harrogate, Hull, Scarborough, Pocklington, Selby, Low Mill, wherever, has become the “new normal”, but pray God it won’t last.
Having exited from The Press after more than 30 years in July 2019, I already had adapted to working from home, in an upstairs office in the countryside, or now at a kitchen table in York since Lockdown 1.
Setting up the charleshutchpress arts and culture website in November 2019 became all the more important because, while live entertainment was confined to hibernation by three lockdowns, there have still been so many stories to tell: more than 1,000 since the launch.
Thankfully, too, I have continued to contribute a weekly interview and regular More Things To Do In And Around York column to What’s On in The Press, as well as offering fast-talking opinions whenever asked by BBC Radio York and Jorvik Radio.
Together with Harrogate journalist and events promoter Graham Chalmers, I have set up the weekly arts podcast Two Big Egos In A Small Car, to pick over what’s going on/not going on in York, Harrogate, Yorkshire and beyond. We are trying to make sense of everything around us, amid much befuddlement, bewilderment, frustration and not a little anger, is never dull.
What have been the most difficult and most uplifting experiences from the past 12 months?
My role is to be a culture vulture, picking at the bones of what people far more creative than me are doing to make life in York and beyond worth missing an early night for.
When everything ground to a halt, whether Harland Miller’s bravura York, So Good They Named It Once pop art exhibition at York Art Gallery, or the theatres, music venues, bars, pubs, cinemas, being cast into the dark, as the streets fell silent and buses and trains passed by all but empty, it was as much a feeling of numbness and disbelief as alienation from the normal, unhindered routine.
I shall not dwell on my own diminished circumstances, but let’s just say they chime with the many freelance talents in the arts that have fallen between the Chancellor’s fiscal fissures. That said, the Government’s £1.57 billion Cultural Recovery Fund has been a godsend, albeit that its distribution has gone more to keeping buildings afloat, rather than to those who work inside them, and so redundancies have still befallen York Museums Trust and York Theatre Royal staff, for example.
I wish the Government, and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden in particular, had acted earlier in supporting the arts in general, given that they are far more important to the nation’s health and international wealth than Jacob Rees Mogg’s now “happier”, post-Brexit fish in the North Sea.
Frustrating experiences? So many cancellations, postponements; so much uncertainty. Walking by closed theatres, cinemas, bookshops, galleries, favourite restaurants and cafes, wondering when will this all end/start again? The lack of interaction; connection; communication, badinage; the bursts of cheers and applause. The loss of spontaneity.
Worrying for the future of so many arts ventures in York and elsewhere, knowing that so many people do so much to make a difference, whether in community ventures or in the professional realm.
Uplifting experiences? Highlighting what those artists do and why they matter has made being a journalist at this time even more important, whether in charleshutchpress.co.uk, The Press or YorkMix. On a wider scale, the lockdown blogs of Maxine Gordon, of The Press, and York’s wittiest writer, Julian Cole, in Man On Ledge, are like history in progress. Read them!
Other uplifting experiences? Socially distanced live shows. Park Bench Theatre in Rowntree Park. York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41 Monkgate. York Theatre Royal’s pop-up season on the patio and Travelling Pantomime, taking panto to the people.
I find that Zoom and other digital enterprises tend to suck the energy from a room, as if the oxygen is finite, but I admire the spirit of all those who have embraced new technology, whether for the York Festival of Ideas; the York Early Music Festival and Christmas festival; the Aesthetica Short Film Festival; Chris Jones’s series of Your Place Comedy double bills; drag diva Velma Celli’s boundless enthusiasm for cooking up cabaret from a Bishopthorpe kitchen, or The Crescent recording Michael Chapman’s Ancient & Modern concert at the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall.
How will York’s cultural scene have been changed by what’s happened?
It had changed already. Martin Witts’s Great Yorkshire Fringe had left Parliament Street after five years; James Cundall’s pop-up Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre on the Clifton car park had folded after financial shortfalls, and Fibbers had made way for non-musical redevelopment. Three of the best reasons for a night out, exited stage left, even before killjoy Covid took up residence.
Yet I sense resilience wherever you look, typified by Chris Sherrington at the Fulford Arms; Harkirit Boparai and Joe Coates at The Crescent; Delma Tomlin at the NCEM; Cherie Federico at Aesthetica and Greg and Ails McGee at According To McGee gallery. Leave “the strategy” for the future to Make It York; every day is the independents’ day to really “make it York”.
Likewise, the ability to initiate, innovate, improvise, has been writ large in myriad socially distanced endeavours, and I’m not all Zoom and gloom. I can foresee the streaming of shows becoming a regular occurrence, providing the potential both for wider, remote audiences and longer opportunities to “watch” shows. This should bring in additional revenue too and add to venues’ records of their work.
Alas, I do not foresee the Chancellor‘s boost to 600,000 more self-employed workers in the budget stretching to helping “unviable” arts freelancers, given his dismissive “Get A Different Job” stance, and assorted independent venues will remain on tenterhooks as to their future too. However, at least furlough will be extended to September and a further £300 million jab in the arm for the arts will roll out after March.
We must hope that the Government’s four-step route to “freedom” will not hit a cul-de-sac, but talk is increasingly positive, be it from York Barbican, York Theatre Royal or the Grand Opera House’s owners, the Ambassador Theatre Group.
I would hope that being stuck at home has heightened appreciation of all that makes York sing, let alone live with history, from diverse festivals to community venues; museums to cutting-edge galleries; ghost walks to chocolatiers; open studio weekends to riverside art markets; concert halls to pub open-mic nights; buskers to all manner of theatre; the Arts Barge to Young Thugs studio; Shed Seven to The Howl & The Hum; food market stalls to Spark:York containers; pantomimes to the York Mystery Plays.
The way with words of Henry Raby, Hannah Davies, Dave Jarman and Katie Greenbrown; the brush strokes of Jake Attree and Richard Barnes; the retro prints of Lincoln Lightfoot and Elliot Harrison (@york.360); the photography of Duncan Judge, Anthony Chappel Ross and Simon Palmour.
What have been your cultural highlights in York and beyond?
I mentioned highlights aplenty when reflecting on uplifting experiences, but let’s add Badapple Theatre’s summer tour of back gardens; Alexander Flanagan Wright and Phil Grainger’s week of two-handers, full of music and poetic magic at Stillington Mill; the collaboration between the NCEM, Fulford Arms and The Crescent for a series of acoustic double bills in St Margaret’s churchyard in Walmgate.
The first iteration of York Mediale, York’s bells-and-whistles festival of media arts, had been underwhelming in 2018, but even with reduced funding, York Mediale 2.0 was better by far, so frustratingly cut short by Covid lockdown structures, meaning many missed out on the Kit Monkman-led art installation People We Love at York Minster and the Human Nature triptych of installations at York Art Gallery.
As a statement of pandemic times, Sue Clayton and Karen Winship’s portraits of NHS front-line workers were both harrowing, yet life-affirming too.
Song of the year? Bird song, although Bonnie & The Bailers’ Baby Drive ran it close. Album of the year: the always-touched-by-your-prescience-dear, Human Contact by The Howl & The Hum. Good news of the year: The ebullient Bull, becoming the first York band to sign to a major record label since Shed Seven; raise a glass to Tom Beer and co.
As for culture of a coffee kind, it has been good to see fresh perk-ups hitting the spot, from The Prickly Pear delicatessen, in Holgate Road, to Grindsmith Espresso & Brew Bar, in St Helen’s Square, and Teajuana’s Cocina, in Micklegate.
What do you think York’s cultural scene is missing – or what would you change?
No surprises here: as so many have said, the city needs a 400/500-capacity music venue to complement the smaller and larger venues in the city. It was ever thus; in more than 30 years of covering the arts scene in York, this gaping hole has never come close to being filled.
I would like to see more use of the Rowntree Park amphitheatre, particularly for outdoor theatre. Likewise, more street theatre, whether rooted in the York Mystery Plays or more in keeping with York Theatre Royal and Slung Low’s Blood + Chocolate in 2013. I anticipate drive-in cinema parking up on the outskirts every summer too.
More collaborations between venues would be beneficial, coming together to mount themed events. And how about holding an annual competitive celebration of York artists, craft makers, photographers and digital-media artists at York Art Gallery to complement Aesthetica’s international art prize show? Oh, and a follow-up to the Bloom festival of flowers, nature and gardening, initiated by Lotte Inch, would definitely blossom.
The proposed Roman Quarter development in Rougier Street may have been rejected by City of York Council planning committee, but the concept of a Roman museum, a time-traveller’s guide to Eboracum, surely will be revisited.
What are your hopes and fears for York’s cultural scene in the future?
Hopes? I hope that all York’s established venues, whether independent and underground or hosts to international stars, can survive and prosper.
Fears? They may not. Especially if venues are vulnerable to being turned into yet more “luxury” flats that the city does not need, when the real priority is for affordable housing and a thriving night-time economy, not built around stag and hen parties.
York now has four ultra-modern cinemas, Cineworld and Vue out of town, City Screen and Everyman in the middle. That should add up to plenty of choice, but there is a tendency to cancel each other out with too many of the same films showing at all four; please could there be more variety, more imagination, more foreign films, more classics, but who will take the lead?
Anything you would like to add?
Only to say, thank you to all those who have toiled against the odds in this pandemic to keep the York artbeat alive and kicking. Here’s to better times ahead; you deserve them.