What Makes a Successful City of Culture?

What Makes a Successful City of Culture?

Before I made the move to Hull to join the Arts Fundraising Fellowship programme, nearly everyone that I spoke to said one of two things; either the tired 'From Hell, Hull and Halifax, Lord deliver us' line, or 'How exciting - Hull is City of Culture in 2017'. Both these responses encapsulate some of the key things that I've noticed whilst being in the city, the first being that those negative external opinions of the city are completely misinformed, and the second being the real noticeable buzz of excitement that starts whenever anyone mentions 2017.

In Hull the City of Culture chat has been gaining momentum for some time, but the excitement has clearly extended to the country wide arts world as Hull Truck recently hosted the Arts Council England and Google conference, Digital Utopia's, a one day conference which explored how technology is being used to enable heightened creativity across the arts. A quick Twitter search the night before for #ArtsDigital and #Hull presented a host of tweets from creative professionals; many were posts of the picturesque view of the Humber Bridge as you come in on the train, others bemoaning the dip in temperature since leaving London, but most containing a real buzz and sense of intrigue about Hull, as many were visiting the city for the first time.

Audience at the Digital Utopia's event at Hull Truck

Hull won the City of Culture bid in November 2013, and now in 2015 with still over a year to go, conversations surrounding how the year will pan out are growing with interest. A great point then, for the second in a series of What Next? events to be held here at Hull Truck. What Next? is a movement spanning the UK, which works to articulate, debate and strengthen the role of arts and culture in society. Each sub group is a different 'chapter', which meets and discusses regional and national matters in relation to the arts. The Hull chapter, chaired by local writer Dave Windass, is poised to start questioning what 2017 will look like for the City of Culture.

The panel discussion was streamed live on Radio Humberside from Hull Truck's Studio Theatre, and centered on the big question - 'What Makes a Successful City of Culture?'. On its panel were Martin Green, Chief Executive of City of Culture, Isabel Tracy, Director of £3million Hull based ACE project Roots & Wings, and local Youth Worker and music professional Stewart Baxter. They were also joined by Phil Redmond, Chair of the City of Culture panel that makes the big decision on who will be the winning city, who was also involved with Liverpool's Capital of Culture status back in 2008.

A variety of questions were posed to the panel, mostly concerning the involvement of the community and the impact that the year will have on the city. Some were more pragmatic questions - Do we have the infrastructure to cope with more visitors to the city? Would there be any effort to utilise the many derelict buildings in the city centre? Martin Green explained how the City of Culture team is working closely with the council, and that regeneration in parts of the city has already begun. Martin also added that there will be consideration as to the legacy of the 2017 year, with long term regeneration plans in place further into the future.

A recurring topic to the questions posed to the panel asked if the City of Culture year would be 'for everyone'. The audience were keen to hear what methods might be used to engage those with no current interest in, or direct access to arts activity - how would we avoid 2017 becoming a year for those already involved in arts and culture in the city, or just for those who have the disposable income to attend events? Isabel Tracy spoke about a long term change needed in the perceptions of our audiences, and a need to welcome those groups previously not engaged in the arts into our venues.  Stuart added that with Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture, a key way that they ‘transformed’ their audiences was by hosting events in smaller venues within the local communities, which then led to those audiences becoming visitors to the more traditional spaces.

The concern about the City of Culture year being 'for everyone' extended to questions asking if the diversity of Hull would be reflected in the programming of the City of Culture year. Martin spoke about the agenda to celebrate the changing communities in Hull, and how plans to involve all communities within the 2017 celebrations would be essentially generic and integral to the way the celebrations were planned, not something to add on as an afterthought. We were reassured that all communities in Hull would be encouraged to both get involved and create their own work, and that support would also be available, including practical support such as applying for grants and venue licences. The panel also highlighted the range of cultural work happening in the city, the ‘untold stories’ of diverse communities, and the priority to bring those communities into the main stage to share their work.

Audiences members were keen to hear how young people would be involved in 2017, and if arts and culture would be integrated into the local curriculum. Stuart Baxter spoke about how important it was to involve young people, especially in thinking about the legacy of the 2017 year, and spoke about the value of experiential learning, such as young people getting people involved in a ‘hands on’ way with running stages at festivals. Martin Green added his own views about the importance of arts learning in schools, and explained that the economic case for arts education in schools is strong. Martin also added the plan to make arts and culture as curricular as possible, as young people will be encouraged to get involved with 2017.

Whilst concrete plans could not be given in answer to any of these questions, it was clear from the panel that these concerns were top of their agenda for 2017. The fact that these conversations are happening, and that there is a culture of questioning everything is surely a positive first step, and with just over a year to go, these conversations are only going to get more exciting.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the key questions that will be essential for success as Hull becomes City of Culture.