The party is ending in Londonderry, but as the first UK City of Culture passes the baton to Hull, Sarah Freeman takes a hard look at its legacy
Martin Bradley is man enough to admit that come January he may need to lie down in a darkened room for a few days, possibly weeks.
He will certainly deserve a rest. As chair of Derry-Londonderry’s City of Culture Company, Bradley was charged with delivering a year-long programme of events as the world watched on and what a 12 months it has been. Since the New Year, the UK’s first ever City of Culture has hosted the Turner Prize exhibition, staged 170 festivals and when Frank Cottrell Boyce unveiled a pageant to the city’s patron saint Colmcille, 38,000 turned out to watch.
“It’s been brilliant, but exhausting,” says Bradley. “I don’t think anyone quite realised the impact the City of Culture would have on Derry, it has been beyond all our expectations.”
On paper at least the results look impressive. Some sniggered when Lonely Planet named the city as the fourth best place in the world to visit in 2013, but tourist numbers have doubled and with £5 having been generated for every £1 invested, financially the figures also appear to stack up.
Good news then for Hull, which in 2017 will take on the mantle as the second UK City of Culture and like Londonderry hopes to use it as a platform to step out of the shadows of its past. It’s a place used to being the underdog – Hull won the bid over favourites Swansea and even Leicester and Dundee had better odds. Now having taken the big prize there’s a real chance to silence those who use the city as an easy byword for deprivation.
Early estimates suggest Hull will receive an £184m economic boost in the five years up to 2020 a – £60m in 2017 alone – and the hard work begins now to ensure that money results in permanent change for a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
“This is a great opportunity for Hull, just as it was for us,” says Bradley fresh from a meeting about the UK City of Culture’s legacy in his region.
“There have been so many highlights, but this was always about more than individual events. Perhaps one of its greatest achievements has been people working together across religious and political divides. The whole psychology of Derry has changed, there is a sense of optimism about the place and Hull can achieve that too.”
A detailed analysis of the last 12 months will come later, but Bradley admits that they didn’t get everything right. With ticket sales and sponsorship deals having failed to live up early estimates, he says managing expectations is key to delivering a successful programme of events.
“Our build up happened against the backdrop of one of the worst recessions in living memory and because it was the first ever UK City of Culture we did struggle, initially at least, to convince the private sector about the benefits of investing. Hopefully, Hull will find it a much easier sell.
“As well as the huge pressure of being the first UK City of Culture, we also didn’t have much time to deliver the plans. While Derry was announced as the winner in 2010, the Culture Company wasn’t up and running until the middle of the following year. That gave us just 18 months to realise all our ambitions. Hull will clearly have an advantage of time, but the next three years will speed by.”
While some cite the succession of high profile events which descended on the Irish city as evidence of what UK City of Culture status can achieve, the programme has not been without controversy.
Take the Turner Prize. The art world’s glittering and often controversial awards arrived last month with the exhibition of short-listed artists taking up residence in a brand new £2.5m gallery space. Converted from a former Army barracks many saw the move as helping to draw a line under the city’s troubled past. However, with the gallery returning to office space next year, questions have been raised about value for money.
“Nothing has changed,” says Bradley. “The Turner Prize galleries were always going to be temporary. This year we needed a number of large venues to host various one-off events but long term they would just not be sustainable. To get the most from being UK City of Culture you have to spend money and you have to direct that investment wisely. As lovely as they might have looked now, there is no point building permanent venues only for them to become white elephants a few years down the line. I’ve learnt a lot in the last 18 months and that old adage ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’ is definitely true.”
As Hull unveiled its initial plans for 2017, which include 15 national and international commissions, 25 festivals and 1,500 special events, there was already talk of legacy. It’s a word which has been much bandied around in Northern Ireland too. Bradley points to projects like Music Promise, which set out to give every child in the city an opportunity to play and sing, as proof that the UK City of Culture was more than just a series of navel-gazing exhibitions.
However, even following yesterday’s announcement by Northern Ireland’s Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin of a new company with a £2m budget to continue some of the work of the last 12 months, it will not be enough to convince some that the UK City of Culture has not been a wasted opportunity.
Tom Kelly goes even further. He is one of three artists behind the now world famous Bogside murals which have turned the scene of the Bloody Sunday tragedy into an open air gallery. Their work featured, albeit briefly, in the promotional video which helped secure the city the culture title ahead of Sheffield, Birmingham and Norwich, but the trio were notably absent from the final programme of events.
“We have been both ostracised and marginalised,” says Kelly. “When Derry was announced as the winner, the judges said one of the reasons was because of how the city had dealt with its past. We felt sure that we would be involved in the plans, but there seemed to be a desire to airbrush history. We did approach the organisers quite early on to see if they would support both our gallery and a restoration project but we hit a brick wall.”
What happened next is marred by claims and counter-claims, but it also acts as a cautionary tale for Hull.
“The event was taken over by the establishment and small stable of curators and artists,” says Kelly.
“It was hijacked by a political agenda and that’s what Hull needs to be very wary of. There was a feeling in some quarters that the organisers treated the rest of us as philistines. They brought in artists from London who bamboozled ordinary people with their art speak and they spent a ridiculous amount of money on a piece of public art called the Mute Meadow. It certainly lives up to its title as it says nothing to the people of Derry.”
Kelly is referring to the 40 upright metal poles designed to shed light across the River Foyle at night. The jury is still out as to whether it was worth £800,000.
“If you go on the ground here it’s not just one or two people with personal grudges who are questioning what Derry has got out of being UK City of Culture” says Kelly. “Derry is home to lots of interesting artists and musician but only a small handful seem to have benefitted. It should have been all about the people, but it wasn’t.”
It’s something Hull is acutely aware of. Having led an impromptu conga around Hull Truck Theatre when the announcement was made, local musician Mick McGarry voiced what many others had been thinking “Young people need work in this town,” he told the Yorkshire Post. “We need to be asking some serious questions – exactly what are they going to deliver?”
Ask Kelly and the answer would be “Not much”, but there are more optimistic voices across the Irish Sea. “Look around the city now and people are finally holding their heads up high,” says Maoliosa Boyle, director at art space Void and curator of the 2013 Turner Prize. “It’s given us our confidence back and shown the world what we can do.”
Hull too has something to prove and the countdown to 2017 is now on.
How another port led way
The UK City of Culture was launched following the success of Liverpool which was saw a major injection of cash after it became European City of Culture in 2008.
While initially it was suggested the winning cities should stage the Turner Prize, Brit Awards, Man Booker Prize and the Stirling Prize, it was later decided that each city should decide which high profile events it would like to stage.
The first competition saw entries from 14 cities with Sheffield, Birmingham and Norwich short-listed alongside eventual winner Lononderry-Derry.
This year, 11 cities threw their hat in the ring and in June, Hull discovered they were down to the final four with Swansea, Dundee and Leicester.