UK City of Culture: Why 2017 will change Hull for the better

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter

  • Published
Hull 2017 slogan on rooftopsImage source, Hull 2017
Image caption,
Hull 2017 is using the slogan "everyone back to ours"

Why on Earth is Hull spending tens of millions of pounds on a 12-month arts festival? What's the point?

Will the much-trumpeted "spectacular light shows" and opera on the Humber Bridge generate a flood of enquires from entrepreneurs looking to set up shop in the area? Probably not.

Will the £4.5m refurbishment of the city's Ferens Art Gallery in preparation for hosting the Turner Prize in 2017 transform Hull from an underappreciated outpost on England's eastern seaboard into a must-visit destination for tourists of all types? Unlikely.

And what about all the partnerships the city is enthusiastically making with the likes of the Tate, BBC and Royal Shakespeare Company - will they help turn Hull into a vibrant hothouse of creativity in the long-term? I doubt it.

So, isn't it all a bit of waste of money?

I don't think so. I accept the arts festival on its own won't change much. But its very existence might. It has the potential to transform the city.

The real point of having a City of Culture, an idea that started as a pan-European initiative, is not the fun stuff per se, but to use the festivities as a catalyst for change.

It's simple human psychology - if you're inviting people you want to impress around to your house for dinner, the chances are you'll have a bit of a tidy up.

When I was in Londonderry last week, returning nearly three years after it had completed its year as UK City of Culture, there was near universal agreement among local people that it had been a worthwhile investment. Not only because it gave the city a confidence boost and helped shift negative perceptions - both significant outcomes in their own ways - but it was the catalyst for material change: for a physical overhaul of a rundown town.

Neutral public spaces were created that could be shared by all, a new bridge was built spanning the River Foyle to connect two sides of a divided city, the old barracks - once a no-go area - were handed back to the people of Derry.

All of which might have happened anyway, but not at the speed it occurred, or with the accompanying public investment.

That's not to say being a City of Culture is a panacea. There is a sense among some in Derry that it was a missed opportunity. The year itself was great, they say, but the legacy is disappointing. The promise of more jobs and further major public investment didn't materialise as they had hoped, and some of the new spaces created for the arts programme ended up in the commercial sector.

The team behind Hull's programme know all this. They say they have learnt from the past and will deliver the best City of Culture the UK has seen, not only in terms of events, but also with a tangible legacy. They promise more jobs will be created, venues will be refurbished and money will be set aside to keep the arts programme going well into 2018 and 2019.

Media caption,

What has Hull ever done for us?

Being bestowed with the title of UK City of Culture has already changed Hull. I've seen it with my own eyes.

The old dry dock has been turned into an amphitheatre, while old cracked paving stones are being replaced by smart granite setts. Right now the place is a building site. I kept expecting to bump into Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs, sucking his teeth and shaking his head at the last-minuteness of it all.

It's noisy, messy and impressive. Hull is not going about being UK City of Culture in a half-hearted way. It is really going for it.

The arts programme might or might not disappoint - frankly, I think it looks pretty good - but the city won't. It's going to look better than it has for years.

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