Martin Green is the driving force behind Hull UK City of Culture 2017. He talks to Chris Bond about the impact it is having and the importance of creating a lasting legacy.
For Martin Green it was the opening week that brought home to him just how much the UK City of Culture meant to the people of Hull.
“It completely blew me away,” he says. “You hope you’re putting on events that people want to come to, but I never imagined that 342,000 people would come out in that first week in January and have such a demonstrably emotional response. It was the most extraordinary week of my life without doubt. We realised then that something very special was happening.”
He’s referring to Made in Hull, which told the city’s story through a series of artworks, installations and soundscapes. It set the benchmark for a programme that has, thus far, attracted universal acclaim.
If anyone was ever in any doubt as to the unique power of art and culture to bring people together they need only look at the figures relating to Hull’s tenure as City of Culture: there were more than 1.4 million visits to events, exhibitions and activities linked to the project in the first three months alone, but perhaps most significantly nine out of 10 local residents have attended at least one of these events.
Given that one of the main concerns at the start of the year was whether those living in poorer areas felt included in their city’s transformation, this cannot be understated.
For Martin Green, Director of 2017, the first nine months have been a triumph and exceeded all expectations. This desire to make events as accessible to as many people as possible has been at the heart of the ongoing programme.
“Some of our biggest audience engagements in the most deprived areas was through our LGBT 50 week which really seemed to catch the imagination. There’s always more to be done and that’s what the legacy plan is about but I think the reach we’ve been able to get is far and deep.”
Getting local volunteers of all ages involved has been crucial, too. “There’s 3,000 trained volunteers on the streets who have become the life and soul of the project, and we’re in each of the 101 schools working with around 50,000 children. So I am enormously excited and moved by the response of the city because if there’s one thing that’s really shone through it’s that this has been a collective act by the people of Hull,” says Green.
Much of the success is down to the fact that events have been carefully tailored to Hull and its history. “It’s not been a case of this worked before so let’s do it again and things haven’t just been parachuted in from elsewhere. A lot of what we’ve done has been inspired by what this city wanted,” he says.
“If you look at the programme nearly everything has been drawn from the fabric of this city. The Royal Ballet weren’t here just because they decided to come, they were because this city has produced so many ballet dancers who are now leading companies around the world.
“Blade was an installation made in this city and this week we have the Contains Strong Language spoken word festival. This is a poetry city – think of Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith – and that’s why we’ve done that.
“Everything has a connection to the city and that personalises it and allows Hull to tell its own unique story, which is great for the people but also great for the economy because tourists come to a place that has a unique offer.”
Green was behind various opening ceremonies of the London Olympics five years ago and says this is at least on a par with that.
“I’m intensely proud of what we managed to achieve with the London Olympics, but there are certain things capital cities with all their resources can do. For Hull to do it on an equal footing, with equal quality and equal amounts of engagement, is astounding.”
What Hull has done so impressively is get the private and public sector along with the city council all singing from same hymn sheet. It has meant that events have been delivered on time and on budget.
“We know that the awareness of Hull as City of Culture is very high across the country, we’ve seen an upturn in hotel stays and I don’t think anyone says ‘where’s Hull?’ any more.
“But more importantly they now view Hull as a great cultural city and a great place to live in, study in and invest in, and this is exactly what a UK City of Culture project is designed to do – to reintroduce a city to the nation and internationally and if there’s anything we can say ‘job done’ on it’s the renewed perception of Hull.”
With three more months and a slew of big events still to come, Green is already looking to the future. He and his team have been helping those behind Leeds’s bid to become European City of Culture in 2023 and yesterday Culture Company, set up to co-ordinate Hull 2017, unveiled an ambitious £250m plan to create a lasting legacy.
“The word legacy refers to the past and what we’re talking about here is a city that wants to go forward with ever increasing ambition,” says Green.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s already an international city and there’s been a great burst of energy and Hull has found its voice.
“I think it’s been re-energised and has fallen in love with itself again. It has renewed confidence and we need to harness that.”
The first phase of the legacy plan focuses on the next three years and developing a cultural programme that builds on this year’s success.
“We want to continue to capitalise on our badge as the UK City of Culture. We want to see work coming out of Hull and to take the volunteering programme forward as well as the learning programme and community engagement programme,” he says.
There’s also a wider 10-year plan led by Culture Company. “There will never be another year like this, it’s a catalyst year, so we want to establish Hull as a great place to live and work. We want to make sure our cultural institutions are being run in the most ambitious and sustainable way and we need to make sure there’s a new generation of cultural leaders coming through.”
The most ambitious aspect of the legacy is what’s called Generation Hull – this will focus on the 16,000 children aged up to five in the city as of now and work with schools, the local health service, university and city council to use cultural opportunities to boost attainment.
Green, who will remain in his post until Easter before passing on the baton, believes this will bequeath a truly lasting legacy.
“I think through this we can demonstrate a lot to the world about the value of culture and how it can inspire young people and give them the shared choices by the time they reach adulthood. I think it’s possible if you set out to do a project that lasts for a generation.
“And arguably there is no greater legacy from 2017 than trying to have a positive effect on an entire generation of young people.”
Hull 2017: A year to remember
Tourism in Hull has increased this year and hotel occupancy has increased. Nine out of 10 residents have attended at least one cultural event or activity as part of Hull’s tenure as UK City of Culture.
There have been more than 1.4 million visits to cultural events, exhibitions or activities tied to the project in the first three months of this year.
Visitor numbers to Hull’s museums and galleries in the first four months of the year have increased dramatically. Ferens Art gallery and Hull Maritime Museum have seen year on year increases in excess of 500 per cent.
Nearly 40 per cent of people who went to watch Richard Bean’s play The Hypocrite were new audiences at Hull Truck Theatre.