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The city has no intention of shirking difficult challenges in its year as UK City of Culture, writes Chenine Bhathena.

A photo of a brightly-lit sculpture on an outside wall
The 'Knife Angel' sculpture outside Coventry Cathedral

Inpress Images

Coventry’s year as UK City of Culture comes at a time of global challenges – from conflict and climate change to national identity. Coventry has many local challenges of its own, too – social and economic, impacting individuals and communities. The Coventry 2021 team could have ignored those issues. We could have put on a year-long festival for everyone to enjoy and then move on from. But that is not what our city is about.

We are a creative city of makers, designers and producers. We invented the modern bicycle, the turbo-jet engine, and electric taxis. We pioneered brutalist architecture and are home to the motor car. The city’s ‘can do’ attitude can be seen in the way our citizens pioneered modern electronic music (Delia Derbyshire) and Theatre in Education (Belgrade). We had the first black Shakespearean actor, Ira Aldridge, at a time when racism was rife. We were the place where Reggae and Punk came together to form Two-tone, a music movement with a global influence.

Coventry’s average age is 32, compared with the national average of 40

We have always been a city of diversity and welcome. Our population has evolved over centuries with the arrival of new communities from across the world to live, work and study – from Ireland, the Caribbean, and a score of African and Asian nations. In recent times the city has risen from the devastation of war to become a beacon of hope. We began the twin cities initiative and are the UK’s only City of Peace and Reconciliation. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we also produced Mo Mowlam, an icon for peace. Or that through the People’s Party in the 1970s, our citizens created a climate change movement long before that phrase had even been coined.

As UK City of Culture we need to reflect this history and attitude. We have to embrace the city’s rich traditions of activism and internationalism and explore the role that arts and culture could play in a modern, pioneering, youthful and diverse-minded city.

A caring city

We will of course be producing a huge festival. 2021 will be an extraordinary year with major one-off events that open our doors to millions of visitors. Our producers are working hard to determine what those eye-catching performances and activities will look like. Coventry is awash with great artists across a range of disciplines. We’re determined that the year will be a wonderful platform for them, and we’re building strong relationships with broadcasters to explore ways of creating and telling our stories.

Equally, our programme will be driven by outcomes. We are committed to delivering real change and working closely to ensure that everything we create and present contributes to this. We want to create movements, not moments. And our people will be at the heart of everything. From the legend of Lady Godiva, who stood up for marginalised citizens, to our key role in the trade union movement, we have always been a caring city. Our citizens look after each other and go the extra mile.

When mental health issues, food poverty, homelessness and the exploitation of young people are serious problems across the nation, it’s vital that our programme can inspire real social action and remove barriers to civic engagement. So how will we ensure that everyone benefits from the City of Culture programme?

One way is through technology. We’re located in the middle of the UK’s 5G testbed and are working with creative companies in this field to create programmes that demonstrate ‘tech for good’, finding digital, creative solutions to challenges around health, homelessness, isolation and criminal exploitation. The evolving digital landscape also provides a great opportunity to consider new ways of creating and delivering immersive programmes in 2021, and we have a range of extraordinary partners who will be experimenting with us in this area.

Our programme will have a strong focus on the environment and our green futures, as we seek to rewild the city. We will put nature and wildlife centre stage as we consider how to recreate a healthier planet for the next generation, working closely with National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Wildlife Trust. Through creating radical art, we will enable social activism across the green, blue, grey and white spaces that form our urban landscape.

Embedded in communities

We haven’t determined everything we’re going to do yet – and that’s not an oversight. UK City of Culture will only be a success if it is rooted in our communities and shows how arts and culture can play a role in addressing the issues and inequalities we see in society. We will be empowering people to lead, curate and collaborate with us on programmes with us in local neighbourhoods – starting with our major opening outdoor event.

Our team of producers is embedded in different wards of the city, getting to know people and groups and becoming part of their communities. They are learning their stories and working with them so that they can contribute to the programme. Some are being hosted by the community organisations who are actively addressing many of the big issues facing our citizens – from welcoming refugees to tackling isolation.

With less than 11 months to go, we are in no doubt that we have set ourselves the most ambitious of tasks. Our programme will be wonderfully creative and joyful, but with a strong social conscience.

During our bid we discovered that Coventry’s average age is 32, compared with the national average of 40. Our programme will embrace this youthfulness: we will work with communities to ensure that we are curious, inventive, open, connected, dynamic and very, very playful. I hope it will empower our citizens to create real change for their city and let the world know why Coventry is such a special place.

Chenine Bhathena is Creative Director of Coventry City of Culture Trust.

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Photo of Chenine Bhathena