IT HAS been hailed as the city’s “cultural dawn”.

Historic buildings across Southampton are being revamped and re-purposed, while the new cultural quarter is taking shape with a raft of new restaurants already in business and the rest of the complex – including Studio 144 – due to open its doors in 2017.

The nation’s most prestigious touring show, British Art Show 8, comes to the city in October for three months, as revealed by the Daily Echo yesterday.

A grant of £75,000 has been divvied out to more than 25 local artists to create a smorgasbord of thought-provoking installations in pop-up places around the city.

As reported by the Daily Echo, God’s House Tower received a £1.7 million grant to turn the former museum of archaeology into an arts and heritage centre, while eight of the city’s top artists create new works during the renovation.

Much of this is down to James Gough, who was appointed as Southampton’s director of culture at the end of 2015 on a three-year contract funded by Arts Council England as part of the city’s Cultural Trust, which in turn was set up to forge a new identity for the city.

On paper he’s the perfect man to boost the city’s cultural output, with a background in developing audiences, arts marketing and public engagement across the south coast.

His job is to help artists make connections and get funding.

Despite having one of the best modern art collections outside London, Southampton makes fewer applications to arts council grants than other cities, and has a lower than average attendance in the arts.

Only three per cent of the city’s workers are employed in the arts sector – that’s half the national average.

Daily Echo:

PICTURED: Guildhall Square in Southampton

But while it doesn’t shout about its cultural sector – it’s definitely there, and says James, it is thriving.

“We have one of the largest theatres outside of London [the Mayflower is the biggest theatre on the south coast], the Nuffield won regional theatre of the year award in 2015 – we’re bringing British Art Show 8 to the city, and underneath all that we have a fantastic music hub.

“We have some really key building blocks but unfortunately not all the parts are quite firing – we’re like a car engine – all the parts are working but they’re not all turned on yet.

“The Joiners is as important as Turner Sims – each plays an important part of the ecology and we have some fantastic places for people to listen to live music.

He added: “I believe that arts and culture are fun and important in aspirations and we should provide equality of access. In certain parts of the city it is more difficult – so we need to look at how we are going to engage people.

“When a city’s economic, social, health and wellbeing are considered important frequently you’ll find that it also has a strong cultural heart.

“But we need to look at how you create solutions to issues like employability – large employers in Southampton often struggle to employ people but if you have a city with a strong and vibrant creative heart it will attract people, it becomes an obvious choice.

“We need to have a strong and vibrant core. I’m not saying we can solve all of the city’s problems but we can create an environment where creative people want to live and work.”

“And not just in the arts – but gaming companies, design companies, app developers, how to you encourage those people to come?

"We have over 40,000 students who we support then they leave – how do you keep them?

"They can create those employment opportunities but how do you retain those opportunities for young scientists and engineers?

“And that’s notwithstanding the international reputation it can give – and with the all the incoming cruises operators we are sitting on a lot of missed potential income.”

Daily Echo:

PICTURED: God’s House Tower 

James also points out the potential of a strong cultural heart in the city is key in attracting investors. He said: “Seeing Southampton as an exciting place to invest – they must think it must make them money – lots of other things as well. You need to be a town on the up.”

The rewards in investing in the arts are huge – not just from a social point of view but economically too.

An extra 9.7 million visits – 2.7 million from abroad – were made to Liverpool as a result of it being European Capital of Culture in 2008, providing a boost of £753.8 million to the local economy.

If Southampton can get its artists’ working together now, the city might have a better chance at a bid in the future, and it’s already been mooted that we might go for it in 2029.

Although in an ideal world a “cultural heart” would evolve organically, sometimes it can take a bit of tactical groundwork. That’s the role of the cultural trust, which is funded by Southampton city council, Arts Council England, Southampton University and businesses.

James said: “If you look at the number of cultural strategies the city has had, they’ve often been really successful in delivering objectives but the overall aims haven’t been met.

“There’s been a disconnect between the grass roots artists and those setting policies.

“The role of the cultural trust is not to plant seeds but to create fertile beds for plants to grow on.

“It’s not uncommon to hear how exciting projects have happened despite the city – but that people only hear about them after the event.”

Part of the vision also includes coming up with a cultural manifesto for the city, which James describes as a collaborative process aimed at harnessing a sense of identity.

“The cultural manifesto for 2029 is to say what do we need to achieve for the city to be successful? It’s about creating relationships.

“It’s a consultative process – we can use it to improve lives and configure the bid for 2029 with the education system.

“Ninety-six per cent of people attending arts and culture did so as a child.

"It’s about understanding opportunities and a lot of people think art isn’t for them.

“We want to embed creativity in the city to ensure it’s part of everyday life

"That’s when it’s most beneficial to people and making the place nicer to live will impact everybody.”