Hull, a small city in the north-east of the UK, was hit hard by the decline of its fishing industry. But 2017 has seen it named UK City of Culture, kicking off a year-long program of place-based cultural events that have drawn visitors from across the country and given the city a welcome shot of energy, ideas and money. Here Fran Hegyi, Executive Director of UK City of Culture Hull 2017, explains its success – and what other governments can do to replicate it.
In the final days of 2013, Hull became the second city to be named as host of ‘UK City of Culture’. Inspired by the success seen in Liverpool in 2008, and previously Glasgow in 1990 when they hosted European Capital of Culture, the UK government was moved to create a domestic version of the scheme that encouraged cities to use culture as a means of regeneration.
Three-quarters of the way through Hull’s year in the spotlight, the results are already impressive. Nine in every 10 people in the city have taken part in a cultural activity this year – many for the first time. Some 70% of people feel that the year is having a positive effect on their lives.
This impact didn’t happen overnight. Hull City Council’s vision for reinvigorating the city, following years of decline triggered by the collapse of the fishing industry, was captured in its City Plan in 2013. Whilst the plan prioritised growth through investment in green energy through the ‘Humber Estuary’ initiative – a strategy that has paid dividends with major investments from giants such as Siemens and Dong Energy – it also recognised that the creation of jobs wasn’t enough; people also had to want to live and work in the city. Hull’s bid to host UK City of Culture was a carefully considered move to address the perception issues that have dogged the city for years.
Whilst the title comes with no government funding (in contrast to its European cousin), private sector investment was quickly forthcoming. In fact, Hull 2017 has secured more income from corporate partners (roughly $6.7 million so far) than the London 2012 Games did for its four-year cultural program. Through their investment, our corporate partners have demonstrated their belief in the role that culture plays in enhancing quality of life, which in turn has a profound effect on their ability to attract and retain talent in the many new jobs that are being created in the city.
But investment in arts and culture also pays dividends in improving the lives of local residents. Hull has grappled with a host of issues affecting its communities, such as long-term unemployment, social isolation and obesity. This year we have sought to address these problems through programming high-quality work amongst and with the 260,000 residents of the city. I Wish to Communicate with You has seen a housing estate transformed into a brightly coloured work of art. Residents of the Thornton Estate worked closely with an international artist to turn their homes into an art installation by placing coloured gels over the lights and the windows of each property.
Simple ideas like these have seen residents speaking to and getting to know their neighbours for the first time. 7 Alleys, part of a $2 million community project, saw 11,000 local residents undertake a two-mile walk as the stories and local legends of their neighbourhood were played out through pyrotechnics and performance, during a series of night-time events. People have been thrilled by this place-based programming – they never expected to see something like this in their neighbourhood.
In the first three months of 2017, hotel occupancy was up 13.8% compared to the same period in 2016. Over half of city centre businesses reported a positive impact: of those, 37% reported an increase in turnover and 27% saw an increase in profits on the previous year. As a result, 40% were able to offer their staff extra hours.
In Hull, the alchemy of the year has been supported by three factors:
• A team with experience in major events that has the ability to raise funds and ensure high production values
• Time for the teams to embed themselves in the community and understand the environment and the characteristics of the place so that culture isn’t imposed from outside, but borne out of the foundations of the city
• Hull City Council understood the potential of arts and culture to have a positive effect on people’s lives and also to be a driver in growing the local economy
When these three conditions are met, we can see how culture, and the UK City of Culture scheme in particular, has the potential to fundamentally transform the future of 10 cities over the next 40 years. The UK government’s manifesto commitment to a Cultural Development Fund to help turn around communities could be a helpful tool for other cities to enjoy the results that Hull is beginning to see – and the City of Culture scheme is one that other governments might look towards, too.
(Picture credit: City of Culture Hull 2017)