Stoke-on-Trent is a city of makers. The particular geography, with local access to clay and coal from the ground led to the establishing of the city as a place for the making of ceramics.
Over a few hundred years the biggest names in ceramics were established in the city; Wedgwood (1759) and Spode (1767), but in addition, the secondary businesses which fed the industry thrived here, making glazes, coal for the furnaces and preparing the raw material. This together has meant that the ordinary people of this place have extraordinary abilities to work with materials and make things with their hands.
The industry of the city managed to hold on for longer than some other industrial cities across the UK, with Spode going into administration as recently as 2008, and Wedgwood following shortly after in 2009, we have been a little behind other places in terms of the deindustrialisation process. This has meant to some extent that the search for new industries, and regeneration in the city is also a little behind the curve.
This has proved to be crucial for what is happening in the city today. A lot of the infrastructure of the industry is still here in the city; buildings, equipment, and not yet forgotten skills are still present here – and are therefore possibly untapped resources. It is this which has made it a great city for AirSpace to be based.
Being behind in the processes of regeneration could be regarded as an opportunity, as we are able to look elsewhere and see what other places have done to rethink, post-industry. It is possible to see what has worked, and what hasn’t, and then to think what that might mean for this place, as we really start in earnest in the task of rebuilding and in some ways, rebranding the city. It feels at this moment to be a critical time for the city.
The portrayal of Stoke-on-Trent by the British Media is often as a grey place where hope goes to die; known for being the city of Brexit, and drawing dire coverage during the Stoke by-Election of 2017 one of the main concerns for the city is in the stories of the place told by outsiders. But also, internally, the modesty of the place could at times be regarded as an Achilles heel, it is one thing to be modest, and other to be self-deprecating, perhaps in some ways, the lack of fanfare about what the city has to offer makes it easy for outsiders to be lazy in their portrayal of the place. But as well as those easy stories of a city voted worst place to live, slowly but surely, other stories of this place are making it into the National Press. A number of these centre around a quiet revival of ceramics, and a return to a celebration of making skills, both within the art world, but in society too.
The empty factories are beginning to fill again, but not just with ceramics businesses, some are finding new uses; small creative businesses, practising artists and designers are bringing these spaces back to life – but this time, the agency and autonomy of the artist and maker is important. This place, with its gaps, its amazing spaces and even more amazing people, with their particular affinity to material, is a great placed to be based as an artist today. You can do things here that would be impossible in other cities. The resources of the place, and what they can offer to artists make it an eminently possible place to not just survive as an artist, but to (quietly) thrive.
Slowly, artists are hearing about this place and are moving here – the word is being whispered out there in the world – so it feels like an important moment for the city, to understand what it has to offer, and to make sure that as things change, the change is handled carefully, in order to ensure that what has made this place special for hundreds of years is part of its future too.
Right now, the city is bidding for UK City of Culture, something which would have been unthinkable back in 2008 – alongside the bid, a cultural strategy for the city is being developed - this in itself shows a new sense of ambition and confidence in culture from the city which surely bodes well for the future.