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.
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.