Eight years out, preparations for a third UK city to be European Capital of Culture are already underway

The "superlambanana" figures were one of the symbols of Liverpool's year as capital of culture. Image: Getty.

In 2023, a UK city will hold the title of European Capital of Culture. This may seem a long way off – so long, in fact, that we still don’t know which city it’ll be. But the scale of the forward planning required by host cities means that, for those who have decided to bid, preparations have to begin now.

Since the title was first instigated in 1985, the title has been held by two UK cities, in two very different contexts. When Glasgow hosted it in 1990, the EU was still the EEC. What was then the “City of Culture” title was originally conceived as a way of celebrating traditional cultural centres, like Amsterdam, Florence and Athens. Consequently, there was a great deal of scepticism about a focus on culture in a city devastated by industrial decline.

Fast forward to 2008 when Liverpool held the title. To win it at all, it had fought off 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, the government had a staunch belief in the regenerative power of culture for declined cities.

This belief had been inspired in part by things such as the impact that the Guggenheim museum opening in Bilbao had on that declined port city. 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 – played a part, too. Meanwhile, the Credit Crunch was just kicking in, and was beginning to shake the foundations of much ideology – including that of the EU.


Now, the UK is going through the bidding process again, and we’re once again in a very different era. Now public spending is being cut, and arts facilities are more likely to be closing than opening; the focus on development in our cities has shifted, allegedly, on to science, technology and engineering.

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 made 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.

The Liverpool experience

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 about my experiences by Leeds residents. Questions like, “What effect did it have on Liverpool?”, “Was it ‘good’?”, “Did it change the city?”, and “Did it benefit the people?”

These are big questions which, to me, do not have simple answers – but I think it was positive for Liverpool and has had lasting effects. At a fundamental level I believe 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 from holding the title, Liverpool is still thrusting to develop in a way that was unthinkable in my youth.

Back then, 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.

2008 also saw this 50 foot mechanical spider on the side of a Liverpool office block. Image: Getty.

 

When the 2008 bid was won it was a game-changer: the city had to up its ambition to deliver this huge project. Since then, it’s 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 – increased private investment; 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. With the latter, 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, 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. It even hired 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, all these things were showcased.

In a way the process of developing and submitting the bid was almost as important as the win – and this is something other cities would do well to remember.

Liverpool began by examining 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, despite its negative national image at the time. Post-2008, this negative image continues to be slowly chipped away at: the city was recently highlighted as a top 10 global destination by both Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveller.        

Lessons learnt

In Leeds, the 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 – this 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; despite being a centre for sculpture; and despite having one of the biggest fields of learning disability arts in the UK. 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 doing it. What does it want to achieve with the title? Only when it has answered should it 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.

There’s one thing that urban authorities should have learned over the last few years as more and more places have competed to be “cultural cities”: 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 on the city itself – asking, what does it want to achieve and develop – then working with international artists to enhance that, rather than slavishly following trends.

This happened too. It involves the Women's Institute and Sky, but we don't claim to understand it. Image: Getty.

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. 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 problems is the city facing that arts can maybe help contend with?

In other words, cities shouldn’t merely use the arts to gloss over problems or demolish “problem” areas for new venues. They should use them to ask questions and involve people in conversations, looking for solutions at a more holistic as well as a large-scale level – something exemplified in Liverpool by projects such as Homebaked and the Turner Prize-winning Granby 4 Streets.

This 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. In Liverpool, indeed, the judges said that local enthusiasm for the bid helped swing the title in the city’s favour.

So mass participation and large-scale events, yes, but also in-depth engagement with 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. It can do that for citizens of other cities too.

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. This 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 – but creating one is 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, some UK cities are still bidding for European Capital of Culture. And I wish them well. Winning the title won’t solve all the problems of a city or transform it, socially or economically. But it can 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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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