7 Dec 2017

Opinion: What is the point of Cities of Culture?

As Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the woman behind the first UK City of Culture in Derry-Londonderry, Shona McCarthy knows a thing or two about cultural cities.

What is the point of Cities of Culture?

This subject is something that I care about deeply, and I’ve given substantive chunks of my life to the cause on two occasions. I led on Imagine Belfast back in 2000 when Belfast was bidding for the European Capital of Culture, and I led the Culture Company to deliver the first UK City of Culture in Derry-Londonderry in 2013.

But really, what is the point?

At their best, and with the right political commitment, financial investment, cross-sectoral engagement, cultural leadership and community ownership, they are a vital catalyst for long-term social, economic and cultural regeneration of the hosting city.

Even at their least, with a strong, year-long cultural programme and an engaged community, they can still be a wonderful year of magical happenings that give fresh perspective for people and place and give citizens an opportunity to come out, look up, share joy, reconnect and celebrate their place and identities. A one year ephemeral moment that will live long in the memory of those who fully embrace it and may inspire the 10 year old child who has been awed by a one-off cultural experience.

For Belfast, even the process of bidding became a crucial moment – a moment for a city to take stock, self-reflect and look beyond the headlines.

Either way – I’m a believer.

Belfast didn’t win. Liverpool won and hosted the European Capital of Culture in 2008 and goes down in history as one of the huge success stories of ECoC, along with Glasgow 1990. Most people will trace profound and positive transition for both cities back to those catalytic years when they were in the cultural limelight.

But I want to return to Belfast, because in a way, Belfast did also win. Even the process of bidding became a crucial moment, a moment for a city to take stock, self-reflect and look beyond the headlines to ask its citizens: ‘What is the cultural DNA of your place and what do you want it to be in the future?’

The cultural infrastructure ambitions set out for Belfast in its City of Culture bid, happened anyway – the new Titanic Centre, the rebuilt Lyric Theatre, the refurbished Ulster Hall, the new MAC in the city centre, the extension of the Opera House. The missed opportunity for Belfast then was that it only invested in the buildings, but didn’t place equivalent value on soft infrastructure, creativity, creative learning, programming and content. So it has super buildings and increased tourism but a perilously underfunded cultural sector, diminished arts education in schools, and ongoing social tension and polarisation between its communities.

10 years later, Derry did win, and became the first city to host the UK City of Culture title. It was fascinating to be involved in both processes. With the UK title, there isn’t really time for new buildings and big capital projects, so the focus and investment necessarily is more about cultural programming, content and the social and cultural impact. Derry didn’t get big buildings but it got something more profound for that time in the city’s story.

The whole programme focused on quality artistic, sporting and discursive experiences that were not designed along sectarian lines or on out of date high art/low art dividing lines. It was an extraordinary year where the citizens reclaimed their public realm and found new ways to explore old problems. New conversations were had and fresh perspectives brought people together, joyously.

New things happened. New studios for artists. New gallery spaces. World class work, both locally produced and brought from other places took place in venues across the city. There were new collaborations and creative partnerships, national and international networks and friendships. The emerging creatives in the city had a platform to perform, exhibit, be heard and seen.

As one sports journalist wrote: “There is a success story happening in Derry that no spreadsheet, graph or accountant will ever be able to measure.”

The City Council led on transformation of the public realm, creating flow-throughs for people not cars, contributing to health and well-being, human interaction on the bridges and the river paths, public access and flow.

If we invest £10 million in culture, how much might we save in policing and security, or on mental health and well-being?

In a year when events in other parts of Northern Ireland challenged the peace process and political stability, Derry-Londonderry celebrated a year of unprecedented cultural participation, new connections between communities, positive media coverage, new visitors and civic pride.

Melvyn Bragg got it, commenting in 2013: “It feels great, it feels a sort of triumph of the human spirit, its wonderful and it shows the democratic power of culture that it can bring everybody together and because it doesn’t matter who you are if you like this sort of music or that sort of music you don’t ask what religion people are, or what gender they are or what colour they are – you like the music. And it’s wonderful imaginative democracy, and it’s terrific that Derry has seized that crown, it’s just great.”

2013 opened the door, gave a glimpse of the galvanising role that culture can play in transforming perceptions, in regeneration, in vibrancy, in the creative economy and crucially in peace-building and the possibility of a shared future.

But perhaps we need a way to measure success differently. If we invest £10 million in culture, how much might we save in policing and security, or on mental health and well-being?

BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz hit the nail on the head: “I didn’t think #LegenDerry had enough time or money to make a success of being UK City of Culture. Well, I was wrong! It’s a magical place.”

There is no doubt in my mind. City of Culture titles are wonderful opportunities. But I remember writing the next paragraph at the end of Derry’s amazing year.

The real test will be how we build from here. How we behave in down time, whether we have the vision and imagination to redefine our society as a place where participative culture is an entitlement for all its citizens. And written into how our children learn, how our communities congregate and develop and grow, how our businesses function and relate to the rest of society.

The real test will be whether we continue to invest and nurture creativity and cultural inclusion as an accepted “must” in a healthy, mature 21stC society, after the big shiny bus has left the station.

So – the EU have rejected the UK as a host country for the Capital of Culture title. That’s something of a kick in the teeth for sure. But what would be really good, really impressive, is if each of the cities decided to do it anyway, without the badge and the fanfare. And in the case of the joint Belfast/Derry bid, to concentrate on the programming and content this time as well as the buildings. That would be good, that would have a point, and the return on the investment would be immeasurable; socially, culturally, politically and economically.

I am struck that working in Edinburgh, no-one has ever given this city a title, but Edinburgh is world renowned for its cultural capital. Long may it continue.


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