Friars Walk

Comment | Friars Walk: A Cultural Rebirth for Newport?

Far from a sign of ‘capitalism winning’, Newport’s new Friars Walk complex should be the start of a new cultural ecosystem in Newport, argues Gary Raymond.

It is no revelation to claim that ‘the arts’ and ‘commerce’ are not always regarded as comfortable bedfellows. In recent years business-speak has wheedled its way into the artists vocabulary – we are all now ‘practitioners’ of the ‘creative industries’ – and I have more than a little sympathy for those who gag at such vulgarities. The British government’s policy toward the arts is largely one of threats and condescension, and that old Tory sloganeering that the arts must turn a profit is always used as the truncheon of the uncultured (they always ignore the fact the ‘creative industries’ reap handsome returns on investment when judged across the board). Business folk, so the story goes, don’t understand ‘the arts’ because they discolour it with their ‘money talk’, and ‘arts practitioners’ are always extremely suspicious of ‘business folk’. Many ‘arts practitioners’ at least, are more than happy to follow this traditional narrative, ignoring the fact that the greatest art, overwhelmingly, has been created in within the walls of wealthy governing constructs. That is not to say artists have been wealthy, but… well… Athens, Rome, Vienna, Paris, London, Barcelona, New York, Los Angeles etc etc.

Of course, artists and arts organisations are businesses, they must operate as such and they must exist as such – in fact, in keeping with the moral snobbery of the ‘arts industry’, they are better at being businesses than many mega-corporations: as far as I’m aware there is no theatre company out there exploiting tax loopholes.

And this is where the friction comes from – it is a perceived that the business world is morally defunct, and the arts world is morally pure. This comes from the idea that money corrupts, and that capitalism is a cancer. Well, money does corrupt and capitalism is a cancer, but that is not the entire picture, is it? Society needs aspects of both of these concepts in order to survive.

In Newport on Thursday, the city welcomed the long-awaited opening of Friars Walk, a £90million regeneration of its centre, a sparkling temple to high street brands and market-standardised over-priced cuisine. Newport needs this desperately, and experiencing it for myself, as a Newportonian, I can honestly say it will be life-changing for so many people. One cannot be anything other than positive about it (some people have dug not very deep within themselves to find some negatives, but I assure you that such cynicism is a lonely and corrosive hobby, unless you regard the internet as an antidote to loneliness).

You can argue £90million on a shopping centre is not how money should be spent. But global capitalism dictates that for places like Newport, if you don’t keep up and conform you are dead in the water. Was the entire city to continue to martyr itself to the all-enticing gods of desperation? Should we all be aware that the jobs created by Friars Walk are almost entirely low-waged positions, the crumbled meringue in Cameron and Osborne’s Eton mess? Of course. And you cannot equate waiting tables to building ocean liners. But when you have been told you are worthless and living in a worthless town, clipping cinema tickets for a living should not be underestimated. And Friars Walk is very bright and very shiny – the thing that capitalism does best when it wants to fool you into thinking things are on the up.

And as the people in grey suits build their sparkling temples – and the people will come – it also means there are audiences. For the first time in its ten year history Newport’s Riverfront Theatre is not an isolated aircraft hangar looking dolefully out over the Usk. It is now part of an emerging ecosystem, one that all businesses need in order to thrive. Former Artistic Director Nic Young did a marvellous job during his tenure when you consider the loneliness of that office, planted in the centre of what was rapidly becoming a ghost town. Gillian Mitchell, who essentially has now taken Young’s position and has, in the last few weeks, taken the role of Arts Manager, has the cards stacked in her favour. With Friars Walks comes the delicious proposition of an audience looking to be entertained. In the last ten years the Riverfront has been used to sweating and huffing over the onerous task of pulling people toward it by hook or by crook. Such a mountain can lead to the inevitable downward spiral of cheap gimmickry and a programme of artlessness, but with footfall comes a certain unshackling, and the possibilities of programming even more thoughtful and innovative art. Ballet Cymru – perhaps Newport’s greatest success story in ‘the arts’ – now perhaps does not look like such an anomaly, standing as tall as it has done in such run down dishevelled surroundings.

Friars Walk, and investments like it across Wales, should not be viewed as the iron boot of capitalism stamping out individuality, striking down all those who believe in art over money. It should be embraced, and it should be exploited. Newport can now, finally, 13 years after it was promoted from town status, feel like the city it is, and it should have the attitudes and confidence that cityhood imbues. And that includes a proud and vibrant cultural life.