Executive Producer of Hull 2017.
City of Culture is the UK’s cultural festival that happens in a different city once every four years. Although there’s a concentration of activity here in Hull in 2017, Hull continues to hold the title for the full four years until the next one. Those who hope to hold the title in 2021 are going through the bidding process right now.
City of Culture is awarded to places that need it. This may be defined in two parts: –
- It’s about positioning. To get the kind of investment from business and public funders we wanted to deliver the ambitious programme, it was important that the City of Culture was seen to be about Hull and for Hull – representative of Hull but of national and international significance. It was about drawing audiences here, where the UK’s most interesting, exciting and ambitious cultural activities were happening. This ambitious positioning enabled us to achieve the £32 million plus budget to deliver this year of culture and beyond.
- And it’s about communicating the need for investment and infrastructure in place-making – Hull needed an image and infrastructure makeover. People saw it in black and white and didn’t know about its history, its beauty, and its unique selling points. From destination marketing to community engagement, Hull could demonstrate the need, and also a plan for change. This huge, crazy, ambitious year is a mere stepping stone in the city plan. Hull means business. It’s serious. And confidence is growing all the time.
The City of Culture is about place making. It’s the glue and common factor that binds the relationships between Hull2017, businesses and Higher Education. Whether that’s our direct purpose or a means to an end, we – the triumvirate of arts, education and business – occupy different and complementary positions on the circumference of this virtuous circle. We’re about changing perceptions and making Hull a better place to visit and to work.
The granting of the status of city of culture has had an utterly profound impact on Hull, an impact that all three sectors have contributed to and felt the benefit of.
To measure legacy, we needed to know what we could impact, including economic regeneration, job opportunities, job vacancies, and growth in the cultural and creative economy. We know from some of the early findings that within the first six months nine out of ten people in Hull have experienced a cultural event. It’s a complete and utter transformation. Like I said, Hull can be used as a short form for social deprivation – we had to change that perception. Health and wellbeing is an interesting case – research showed that one in ten residents felt lonely and isolated. One of the most exciting projects that I’ve been involved in was with health partners in the city – it evidenced the wider social and community cohesion benefits of investing in culture.
We’re all in the business of place making and public perception of the city has changed phenomenally since we started. People now know where Hull is, about its heritage, and about its vibrant cultural offer. Here’s an example of the turnaround… when I was driving down to Hull to do my first day’s work here, I stopped off at Wetherby service station and the person serving my coffee asked where I was going. When I said I was on my way to Hull, she replied, “Oh dear, I’m sorry”. I don’t think anybody would dare to do that now. The conversation completely changed and we’re only halfway through the year.
Hull2017’s relationship with the University is fundamental to this shift, and to measuring impact.
- Documentation. Being only the second city to hold the title of UK City of Culture, after Derry Londonderry, we wanted not only to focus on our year and our holding the title, but also to start to set the blueprint for the future Cities of Culture – to share knowledge and to avoid reinvention of the wheel. The relationship with the university is important in terms of documenting Hull2017, of monitoring changes and of transferring that knowledge. The creation of the university’s Culture, Policy and Place Institute was an important part of that relationship.
- Programme. As Glenn said, as one of the city’s major cultural institutions, the university has contributed significantly to the year’s programme: world-class exhibitions, concerts, theatre, talks and debates.
- Students. The student body is one of many groups who constitute the residents of Hull. They are part of the fabric of the city and, therefore, are a key audience, participants, and volunteers. They are gaining skills and staying on. Universities are significant businesses and major employers in a city in their own right. We know that having a vibrant cultural offer helps universities attract students which is good for the business of higher education. And not forgetting the colleges with whom we also have an excellent relationship operating at lots of different levels.
Business engagement: The motivations of businesses to support culture are incredibly varied and are something that we – in general in the arts – find quite difficult to understand. I have learned that it genuinely goes beyond “you give me the cash – I will feature your logo on things”.
I’ve come to understand the benefits to business of a happy and engaged workforce who have been given opportunities to participate or who now feel that Hull is somewhere they would like to relocate to or continue to live – a feel good factor which is worth money. It is hard to put a price tag on these things, but they are real and tangible and, critically, “valuable”.
We acknowledge that businesses’ objectives can be as complex and multi-layered as any of the public funders’. For this and other reasons we don’t have “sponsors” (corporate) and “funders” (public); we only have “partners”.
We now have around 70 partners. We have smaller local businesses who are investing in art and culture for the first time, at a level which is achievable for them and is – hopefully –habit forming, sustainable. We have larger local businesses. We have national institutions.
Most, if not all, of our partners feel a sense of ownership of City of Culture. This isn’t “our” programme which they are supporting. This is about the whole city being galvanised behind the same transformative year. Partly that ownership has come about through a more direct involvement in the projects themselves – a creative engagement which allows the businesses to be more inspired and have a deeper understanding of why we do things the way we do. We’re often creating things together, such as Humber Street Gallery, a joint partnership which has allowed us to open contemporary art space for the year in the area being regenerated by developed by Wykeland Group.
- Next week we open Paper City in partnership with GF Smith – world renowned, locally founded and based paper merchant;
- the Siemens partnership which was at the heart of the delivery of Blade, the 75m wind turbine blade artwork in the centre of the city, which marked the end of the our first week and inspired a huge conversation about the nature of contemporary art;
- For dreamthinkspeak, one of our Bid Angels, a local property developer has given me a four storey building in the city centre for 9 months to completely transform for what will be one of the highlights of our programme. I’ve taken on their business rates – with the 80% charity reduction – so there is some financial benefit to them, but they have not asked for rent and have delayed refurbishment plans to accommodate us.
Land of Green Ginger as well is a city-wide story we’re telling across the residential neighbourhoods with many chapters. It is a huge conceit which requires everyone to suspend disbelief and go along with the fiction. Our partners love this project because it is about engagement, celebration, pride, transformation, joy, playfulness. They have tweeted fabricated stories for me, given biscuits, paint, building materials. On Monday this week, KCOM dug me a hole lent me a van, uniform, accreditation, barriers and signage and told the world they had found a mysterious crate during “routine works”. They joined in with glee. Later in the year, Yorkshire Water have given us Springhead Pumping Station which will be home to an intricate installation.
This commitment is telling to me because the nature of Land of Green Ginger means there is – to date – very little benefit by association. We aren’t outwardly claiming it as Hull 2017 project so there are no press releases about the impact of the project and the debt owed to partners. They may be getting their logo out, but the context is often that they are causing disruption! And yet they love what it is doing for the city.
This is business engagement. Businesses in Hull have had an epiphany. Culture is the stimulus for business growth and creation; the creative industries are the fastest growing industry in the UK; return on investment in arts is real.
A fundamental relationship is with the city Council, which drove the bid, invested initially in our programme and allowed us to get on with it.
I was with the leader of the council recently – we were on the radio together, and he talked with such incredible passion about the impact of culture in the city, and how he recommended that every councillor in the city should support investment in culture. His motivation is of social impact, economic impact, and regeneration. His goal is to develop this city into a place that people don’t want to leave, where the children who grow up here have a choice of jobs and don’t have to go elsewhere for opportunity, where the students who come here to study stay on and their talent is retained. Place Making again – the ultimate motivator. And it can only happen with the effective partnerships, co-working and a shared sense of purpose.
Public perception of the city has changed phenomenally: externally people know where Hull is, know about its heritage, know about its current vibrant cultural offer and would no longer talk about it in such casually derogatory terms as was very recently deemed fine. Hull people have always been incredibly proud of this place. In the past, that pride has been worn as a defence mechanism against criticism. What’s happening so far this year already is that that pride can now be worn as a badge of honour, because Hull is transforming into a fantastic place to be, and it’s all down to partnership – we couldn’t do it without working together towards shared aims and shared motivations.