8 Years to Go

Preparations for the third UK city to hold the title of European Capital of Culture

By Kenn Taylor

In 2023, a UK city will hold the title of European Capital of Culture. This may seem a long way off, but the forward planning required by host cities means that for those who have decided to bid, preparations very much have to begin now.

The title has been held by two UK cities previously since it was first instigated in 1985, both times in very different contexts. When Glasgow hosted it in 1990 the EU was still the EEC and with what was then called the ‘City of Culture’ title originally conceived as a way of celebrating traditional ‘cultural centres’ like Amsterdam, Florence and Athens, there was a great deal of scepticism about a focus on culture in a city devastated by industrial decline.

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La Machine, a Liverpool Capital of Culture project

Fast forward to 2008 when Liverpool held the title after beating fierce competition from Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle-Gateshead, Brighton, Oxford, Belfast and Bradford amongst others. Back then the UK was in the midst of a ‘cultural boom’, with new arts facilities opening across the country, and in contrast to 1990, a staunch belief written into UK government policy of the regenerative power of culture for declined cities. This inspired in part by things such as the impact that the Guggenheim museum opening in Bilbao had on that declined port city and Richard Florida’s now much critiqued book The Rise of the Creative Class, which suggested that luring in ‘creative types’ could solve economically-deprived cities’ problems. Meanwhile, the Credit Crunch was just kicking in and beginning to shake the foundations of much ideology, including that of the EU.

Now in 2016 the UK is going through the bidding process again and we’re once again in a very different era. One were arts facilities are more often closing that opening and struggling to survive, when there’s been a shift in focus on development in our cities, allegedly, on science, technology and engineering, more clearly on generally harder economics, and on spending cuts in particular at a local authority level. In contrast to the last biding process this time only three UK cities have so far definitely thrown their hat into the ring, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Dundee. The spending cuts no doubt making many authorities shy away at the money required to be involved. The ‘European Project’ that saw the birth of the title meanwhile, has not seemed so precarious in decades.

I was born in Merseyside and was working in the arts in Liverpool during the build up, delivery and aftermath and that city’s title. I now work in Leeds as it ramps up its bid and, although much about the context is different, the sense of déjà vu is palpable.

I have often been asked by Leeds residents things such “What effect did it have on Liverpool?”, “Was it ‘good’?”, “Did it change the city?”, “Did it benefit the people?” These are big questions which, to me, do not have simple answers. I do think it was positive for Liverpool though and has had lasting effects. These have been various, but I believe at a fundamental level it helped transform the attitude of the city. Despite the terrible impact of spending cuts, in particular on some of the city’s poorest residents, seven years on Liverpool is still thrusting to develop in a way that was unthinkable in my youth in the 90s, when the area had been psychologically brought low by extremely rapid economic decline and the huge social effects of this. Merseyside lost 80,000 manufacturing and transport jobs between 1972 and 1982, a rate that, ironically, only really Glasgow could be compared to. By the 90s, there was almost an acceptance of failure and malaise, as demonstrated by the consistently thwarted attempts to build an arena for major events.

When the 2008 bid was won it was a ‘game-changer’ – the city had to up its ambition to deliver this huge project and has since managed to keep much of that momentum despite its spending power being hammered by central government cuts. There were of course other factors in the city beginning to turn itself around, such as increased private investment and government and EU Objective One funding, but 2008 provided a crucial focus and concentrator for change.

The development of the Capital of Culture programme for Liverpool was a bumpy road, with changes of management and direction, political point scoring and media cynicism to contend with, but in the end a large and diverse programme was delivered, which for the most part visitors and locals appreciated. The challenging thing about Capital of Culture bids are that it’s a lot harder than organising the Olympics, were you know, pretty much, exactly what’s expected of you. But what is ‘culture’? Museums, opera, architecture, okay. But what about pop music, poetry slams, graffiti, graphic design, comedy, sports, food, dialect, philosophy, ways of living…trying to please everyone is a real challenge and as with all forms of art, which is generally how the bid is interpreted, subjective.

Liverpool demonstrated its fair share of fine art collections, historic architecture and cutting-edge theatre, but the city was also canny enough to include the everyday and pop culture in its bid, even hiring Keith Carter, a local comedian playing his ‘Scouse character’ Nige, to meet the judges, rather than trying to gloss over the way that the city has been viewed. From pub singing to experimental eletronica, giant street theatre to community projects, Gustav Klimt to Bill Shankly, in 2008 it was part of it.

Superlambananas Take Over Liverpool

Superlambananas, a Liverpool Capital of Culture project (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

In a way the process of developing and submitting the bid was almost as important as the win for Liverpool and this is something other cities would do well to remember. Liverpool began to examine what was already culturally great and significant about it, which was an important boost to local pride and confidence. Once prompted to think about it, Liverpool citizens realised it had a lot going for it culture-wise in many different respects, despite its negative national image at the time. And indeed post-2008, this negative image continues to be slowly chipped away at, for example the city was recently highlighted as a top 10 global destination by both Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveller.

Leeds context is different. It has a stronger economy, and in many respects a better image. Yet, by its own admission, it lacks a national cultural profile despite boasting one of the highest concentrations of dance companies in the UK, three art schools, the principle opera company in the north of England, being a centre for sculpture and having one of the biggest fields of learning disability arts in the UK, amongst other things. So what should Leeds’ bid be?

I would suggest the same thing to any place that is considering bidding. A city should ask itself exactly why it is bidding. What does it want to achieve with the title? Then when it has answered why, it should ask, ‘what is unique about our city and how do we want to celebrate it?’

It’s important for cities to learn from the successes and failures of others, but copying slavishly or trying to create a programme merely to appeal to bid judges is doomed to failure. By focusing on a city’s strengths and through talking to those across the wide spectrum of its arts and cultural community, from grassroots initiatives to international directors, the outline will begin to write itself.

One thing that urban authorities should have learned over the last few years as more and more places have competed to be ‘cultural cities’ is having the same things as everywhere else is not necessarily helpful. In the globalised art world, why would you travel far to look at a Jeff Koons work in Leeds, Dundee or Milton Keynes rather than Venice, New York or Miami? A point of difference and celebrating local ‘cultures’ in their many forms serves the tourists as much as the locals.

‘International’ culture is still important. Bringing in the best from around the world can inspire both citizens and visitors and give new perspectives to local artistic communities, but the focus should still be about the city itself: asking what does it want to achieve and develop? Then working with international artists and practice to enhance that, rather than slavishly following trends.

As well as celebrating what is already great in a city, the title can be brilliant as a catalyst for new initiatives. Often this has manifested itself in a big new cultural building. A new building can be great, but it can also be a burden and a folly if it is unneeded and unsustainable and the title can also be a spark for developing things in other ways. Again, look for ideas internationally, but use local needs as a basis. Is there an art form that is neglected in the city? A local talent from the past forgotten? A historic site in need of a new use? What are local creatives crying out for? Where there is low participation in the arts, what can be done to increase interest? What problems is the city facing that arts can maybe help contend with? Not merely using the arts to gloss over problems or demolish ‘problem’ areas for new venues, but using the arts to ask questions and involve people in conversations, looking for solutions at a more holistic as well as a large-scale level, as exemplified by projects in Liverpool such as Homebaked and Granby 4 Streets.

Indeed wider involvement is to me the other key. Every city of any size has a band of creative people toiling away to make interesting things happen. A city that wholly ignores its own talent pool for ‘better known’ or ‘international’ artists is doomed to issues and lack of legacy. Similarly though, the title should not just be about pleasing the agendas of local artists and arts organisations. Just as crucial is the enthusiasm and engagement of the wider populance of the city. Indeed in Liverpool the judges said that local enthusiasm for the bod helped swing the title in the city’s favour. So mass participation and large-scale events, yes, but also in-depth engagement opportunities should be made available in a more focused way for local people. Liverpool being European Capital of Culture and the boom in arts around it aided me, from a pretty humble background, to have a career in the arts, and it can for citizens of other cities too.

Similarly those leading bids should not be afraid of ‘fringe’ programmes, even if they question what’s going on in the ‘mainstream’ one. One of the best things about Capital of Culture in Liverpool was how the very concept was creatively questioned and scrutinised. Artists and activists in the city used the attention the title brought to create work which questioned UK-wide issues such as the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder and orthodoxies around culture and regeneration, which in turn helped shift the national conversation around them and open up paths to new views and ideas. If deconstructing the very idea of the title and its effects isn’t cultural, I don’t know what it.

Legacy is a word that comes from the lips of everyone involved in such titles and again, easier said than done. A big new building is a legacy, but only if it can be sustained. More grassroots spaces for arts might be another one, but not if there’s already plenty. More ephemeral things like committing to long term training programmes or youth arts initiatives can have more impact, including in the economic sense that all local authorities have an eye on. But more than that, they have the potential to genuinely inspire the next generation of artists in a city who’ll lead us who knows where.

I’m glad that despite the harsh climate that some UK cities are still bidding for European Capital of Culture and wish them well. Winning the title won’t solve all the problems of a city or, on its own, transform it socially or economically. It can though be an amazing celebration and a rewarding process, a catalyst for change, a training and testing ground for many and an inspiration for many more if done well.

Arts and culture can have a powerful effect on place and people, and if our cities are to grow and improve and adapt to the challenges of the 21st century, then, even in these strained times, that is something we need to not forget.

This piece was published by City Metric, a New Statesman website, in December 2015.

Photos by Getty Images.