Having left London to mastermind City of Culture 2017, Martin Green takes Sarah Freeman on a tour of the city as he talks about his ambitions for the year-long arts event.
If there were an award for best dressed man in Hull, Martin Green would be guaranteed a place on this year’s shortlist. Chances are, he’d probably also win.
Walking into the foyer of the Ferens Gallery, the chief executive of Hull: UK City of Culture 2017 looks like he has been teleported from a London design agency. Probably one based in Shoreditch. It’s perhaps not surprising. Green lived in the capital for years before moving north last October to take up the new post.
“For a while I could have been forgiven for thinking the city was called ‘Hullwhere,’” says Green, “because when I told people that I was coming here that was pretty much their response. Now those same friends have visited and it’s changed to ‘Hulloh’ as in ‘Oh, I didn’t realise it was so nice’.”
And that in a nutshell is Green’s challenge. Come 2017 he needs to have convinced not just his friends, but a local, national and international audience that Hull is not only worth a visit, but can stage an arts event of potentially global importance.
To be fair, he already has a few things in his favour. Top of the list is the fact he successfully masterminded the various ceremonies of the London Olympics. While Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle may be the name most readily associated with the opening spectacular, it was Green who commissioned him. Also, and of equal importance, Hull already seems to be on side.
“The way the bid was run was crucial in that it wasn’t something organised or seen to be organised by the authorities. It already had the people of the city on board, so when Hull was announced as winner, everyone felt in some way responsible for the victory.”
That could change of course. Green knows that when it comes to large scale arts projects, public opinion can sway with the wind. However, whatever the next two years bring, his own belief in the transformative potential of City of Culture status is unlikely to waver.
“Hull wanted City of Culture, but Hull also needed it,” he says. “As a nation we have tended to approach these events with cynicism, but the success of the Olympics went some way to change that and certainly in this part of the world, the Tour de France has also had a huge influence. Now it’s a case of innocent until proven guilty rather than the other way round. I guess the only downside is that we have raised people’s expectations, but you know, this is what I do for a living.”
Over the course of 2017, the £18m City of Culture programme will include 1,500 events. The fine details won’t be announced until next autumn, but between now and then Hull will be home for Green, who was born in Essex, but whose Yorkshire credentials include a year studying an MA at Leeds University.
“I’m paid to go where the job takes me, but I love this place,” he says. “There will always be a bit of my heart in London, it’s one of the great cities in the world, but I have been given such a warm welcome in Hull that the city’s definitely in my blood.”
“Hard to believe that they were going to tear this whole place down isn’t it?,” says Green at the start of a tour of his favourite Hull spots. “If the recession hadn’t bit we could now be looking at an anonymous residential development.” Instead we’re looking at a mishmash of buildings which were once home to the city’s fruit wholesalers. They moved to a new purpose built site a few years ago and in their wake have come a clutch of creative businesses. “At its heart is Fruit, which is a really great performance venue . This area shows is what can happen when you get a group of creative people together.”
“A lot of Millennium projects failed to prove their sustainability, but The Deep didn’t just make a grand architectural statement on the waterfront - 12 years after it opened it is still one of the city’s big draws. What I really like is that as well as being a cultural attraction, it’s also a research centre. The danger with a city like Hull is that it can start to believe its own press, but the truth is that it has so much to offer. It has a great arts scene, a great music scene and world class attractions.”
Spin It Records
“I don’t think I will ever tire of this place, I could come here just to stare at the walls.” The reason is they are lined with pictures of Hull’s famous sons and daughters and not just musicians. There’s footballer Nick Barmby, MP Alan Johnson, actress Sheila Mercier. “If you ever needed evidence of the talent this city has produced then it’s all here.”
Scale Lane Footbridge
“This is my favourite view of all. I just love it.” We’re standing in front of the swing bridge which connects the old town with Hull’s east bank. “Within 360 degrees you can see the old Clarence Flour Mill, the tidal barrier, the old town and The Deep. That pretty much sums up all that is great about Hull, its history, its water, its industry past and present.”
“The only fact some people know about Hull is that it was the second most bombed city in the Second World War. The perception is that the entire centre was wiped out. That’s just not true,” says Green, walking past the Georgian and Edwardian architecture which dominates the old town. “This is a city whose bricks and mortar ooze history. Where else could you walk in the footsteps of William Wilberforce, Amy Johnson and Philip Larkin?”
The New Adelphi Club
“Now that’s what I call a proper music venue,” says Green of the club which over the years has seen performances from Green Day, Oasis and his own favourite Radiohead. “It’s old school and it is one of the city’s real gems. As soon as you step inside the doors you can feel the history of the place and you know you are somewhere which takes its music seriously.”
“This is a real Hull success story,” says Green of the street, a mile of so out of the centre which has become a foodie empire with pretty much every nationality represented among the restaurants and bars. “It has created a really vibrant community and while I would like to see more of the same in the city centre, one of the things which is really great about Hull is that it has these really thriving pockets dotted all around.”
Hull Truck Theatre
“There’s no two ways about it, the theatre went through some tough times,” he says, referring to the fact that not long after the impressive new building opened artistic director Gareth Tudor Price was removed and Hull Truck veteran John Godber left for Wakefield. “But I definitely think that it’s now back on its feet and in good hands with Mark Babych. They are a talented team whose knowledge of the city and its audience will feed into our plans for 2017.”
West Park and East Park
“Hull has some great open spaces and I’m not just being deliberately diplomatic by choosing both the East and West Park. A successful City of Culture can’t just be focused on the centre, it is about drawing people together from all four corners. I want the people of Hull to feel ownership of the event.”
Ferens Art Gallery
“One of the first things that struck me about Hull was how lucky it was to have a gallery right slap bang in the city,” says Green, back where we began. “It is a fantastic building, a great space and it already does some amazing work and has staged some interesting exhibitions, but City of Culture status should allow venues like this to really come into their own.”