The view from the fence – musings on neutrality

This week has seen us commenting via social media and our blog on a couple of things which are going on in Southampton right now.

The first, the impromptu/unofficial street art put up by unit11 over the weekend at the site of the new arts complex, and it’s speedy removal on Monday.

The second, the current petition to stop The Wool House being leased out to Dancing Man Brewery and kept as a space for the community instead.

On both issues, we considered our reaction quite carefully.  There was no knee-jerk response, and what we had to say may have sounded like we’d taken up a position firmly on the fence.

Certainly, this Echo article prefers a more black-and-white, us-and-them approach to the tale of The Wool House.  We know the people concerned and, honestly, it’s just not as simple as this article makes out.  There are two sides to this story, as there are with so many stories.

Feelings do run high, though, when public assets are put into private hands.  The incident at the new arts centre site shows how this can lead to disempowerment of the community.  We’re not oblivious to that, and we treat the Council’s unyielding optimism about the effects of selling and leasing off our public assets with skepticism.  Private and public interests don’t always mix very well – sometimes they do, but not always.

So yes, on these and other issues we do take a more neutral position than people sometimes expect us to, I think.  Despite a strong social purpose, and cast-iron environmental and ethical values, we aren’t generally as radical as people anticipate!

In our time we’ve been accused of being:  A ‘radical hippy commune’, ‘monarchist a***lickers’ , ‘not vegan enough’ (??), and ‘anti-Palestine’.

Which is an interesting mix, you have to admit!  Nobody could accuse us of being stereotypical, that’s for sure.

Truth is, we serve a big community and our crew and regulars cover a very wide spectrum.  Sometimes that means we can’t jump on the sexy us-and-them bandwagon.

On the first issue, the unit11 artwork, we think it was a PR fail on the part of Grosvenor (the developers of the arts complex site) to remove the artwork so quickly, officially sanctioned artwork or not.

We’re not buying that it wasn’t really a legitimate community artwork because they didn’t get permission first.  Sorry, but we call BS on that one!  Art does sometimes just happen.

That’s a good thing.  The fact that this is the site of a future arts centre means that this level of engagement should have been welcomed, in our opinion.

On the other hand, to create a division between the arts community, Council and Grosvenor really doesn’t seem to benefit anyone.  People are understandably angry about what happened, but if everyone falls out we all lose.

Black and white debates do tend to shut down real communication, and one thing we need in this city is for everyone to be talking.


People, we need that arts centre.  We really, really do.  

This is me, REALLY excited about a hole in the ground.

This is me, REALLY excited about a hole in the ground.

It may not be exactly the ground-floor, publicly owned, community run venue we fantasised about (although we don’t actually know who will be running it yet, so that last one is still on the table) but we need it.  

We may have lost some of the partner organisations we really, really wanted to see in there (like Art Asia),  but those who remain are going to make for a very interesting space.

The plans as they stand at the moment don’t look too shabby, either, and a lot of good people have worked their socks off to make this project happen.

Ironically, unit11’s piece showed just how engaged so many people are with that big hole in the ground!

We want to see it work, so badly, and we hope all of the local arts community always keep that first and foremost.  That doesn’t mean we can’t criticise and feedback – that’s part of engagement, after all.  But it does mean hostile, polarised debates have no helpful role to play.  We certainly won’t engage in those.

In fact, the best thing about unit11’s artwork is that it’s opened up this conversation – it’s giving us a chance to let the powers that be know what kind of arts centre *we* want.

On the Wool House it’s even harder to sit one side of the fence or the other.

We loved what happened there, and would have loved to have seen it continue.

We also love the Platform Tavern and their vision for a brewery and venue looks awesome.  Local venues and local produce are things we support wholeheartedly, after all.

Pubs CAN be community and creative hubs, and often are.

What is really the issue here is that independents, the Council and community arts are in the position of ‘fighting’ over space, money and resources.

The scarcity of these things, which are essential to art, is the real enemy here.  There’s a much bigger force at work than these individual stories.

Because of this scarcity, I believe, Southampton’s scene feels a little at odds with itself.  It’s as if there aren’t enough spaces, customers and resources to go around.   We even feel it sometimes, when our taking are hit by quiet weeks and the bank balance starts to drop.

It’s easy to buy into the notion that we’re all in competition –  except that this notion only hurts our cultural scene.

We think there probably is enough to go around, really.  The best way to get this working is to collaborate, co-operate, dialogue and yes, sometimes even sit on the fence and try to see all sides of the story.

(Written by Jani, director & co-founder of The Art House)

About arthousesouthampton

The Art House is a not-for-profit café, gallery and arts venue in the centre of Southampton. We are a place you can meet new people, meet up with friends or just come in by yourself. Our licensed café offers delicious organic lunches, Fairtrade tea and homemade cake. We also have a busy programme of events, workshops, and art exhibitions, a clothing and crafts boutique and lots more. Most of our crew are volunteers and you might even want to apply to join them. Come along and enjoy our unique, community run space.
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1 Response to The view from the fence – musings on neutrality

  1. Pingback: The War of the Wool House | Greater Southampton

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