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How will Hull face the future following its triumph as UK City of Culture? Lee Corner and Stephen Munn reflect on the legacy of 2017 in a year of unprecedented turmoil.

Urban Legends: Northern Lights, Absolutely Cultured 2018.

© Chris Pepper

City of Culture 2017 put Hull on the map – literally. For many, one of the most significant achievements of the year was the appearance of Hull on the BBC’s weather map. It was day-to-day living proof of what we knew and wanted to prove: that Hull matters.

We had a business and retail sector that really understood the importance of culture, and the city’s education sector had experienced first-hand the impact of creativity on its young people. The health sector had invested in cultural projects because it saw their clear benefits to mental health and wellbeing.

By the end of 2017 Hull had a pride-inspiring public realm; a state-of-the-art, 3,500-person music and events complex due to open; a refurbished New Theatre for large scale tours; an impressive collection of cultural organisations; significantly increased audience and participation figures; and a population wondering 'what’s next?'

Coming back down

Absolutely Cultured was formed at the beginning of 2018 as the successor company to Hull 2017, albeit with a much less comprehensive brief. It was clear from the outset that there were post-year challenges.

The first challenge of 2018 was dealing with exhaustion. Many artists and cultural bodies had pushed themselves to the limits in the build-up to the year and the year itself. They needed time to take stock, breathe and recharge. The second challenge was managing expectations: it seemed impossible to avoid the disappointment of a diary that wasn’t filled with an almost overwhelming choice of cultural events and spectacles, great and small. Frustratingly, it seemed equally impossible to get people to see there was far more going on than had been the case before 2017.

No one would deny that there were tensions in Hull in 2018. ‘Burnsy’ – BBC Humberside’s challenging presenter – regularly grilled arts leaders and local politicians on why there was “nothing happening”. Debates about who ‘owned’ legacy and who should be driving the city forward rumbled and raged. It wasn’t a happy year for many.

Legacy is a tough nut to crack. Cities of Culture set out to change people’s experiences, ambitions and expectations. But those changes take a while to settle, and everyone needs time to watch, listen and learn new ways of being. In Hull we didn’t build in time to digest and reflect, nor ways to share our experiences. We didn’t understand our collective responsibility for legacy. But we’re getting there now.

Reframing the conversation

By the end of 2019 we were beginning to understand the changed landscape and possibilities were opening up. Some developments were dramatic, like a £13.6m investment from the National Lottery Heritage Fund in Maritime Hull. Others reflected more subtle changes, like an increase in cultural content from BBC Radio Humberside because, as Managing Editor Martyn Weston put it, “now there are high levels of engagement in things that have a cultural slant”.

We were also looking at a more connected cultural community. The 2017 Creativity and Place Strategic Advisory Group was reframing itself as one of the country’s first Cultural Compacts, where partners from across city government, culture, business, and higher education sectors unlock the full potential of culture to promote thriving communities and drive economic growth.

For Absolutely Cultured, the transition years of 2018 and 2019 saw, amongst other things, ground-breaking exhibitions, national partnerships, and the continuation of a celebrated volunteer programme. Throughout this the company has continued to ask: what were the achievements of 2017 that we should strive to build on? We must consider what the city needs, where can we have the greatest impact, and how we build partnerships that make legacy a collective responsibility.

What comes next

Of course, the pandemic has affected our plans and aspirations, as it has with everyone. But the questions we have been asking ourselves are even more relevant now. We’re finding ourselves in more and more conversations about how we can work with our cultural colleagues, as well as with health, education and businesses across the city, to become part of the social, economic and cultural recovery.

We recognise the need for culture to reflect the priorities of place; now more than ever culture must feel relevant to peoples’ lives. We aim to strike a balance between city-centre based events and the work we do within neighbourhoods to bring more opportunities to people where they live. We’re looking to build on the achievements of 2017 and see where we can nurture and retain more local talent by developing a multi-faceted learning programme with stronger creative career pathways. Hull’s ambition is to be recognised as a world-class cultural city. We see our role as creating space to innovate, test less traditional models, and share risk.

2017 changed perceptions of Hull internally and externally, but it’s not “job done”. It is our collective responsibility to grow the city’s aspirations and ambitions and allow them to be realised.

Lee Corner is Chair and Stephen Munn is CEO and Artistic Director of Absolutely Cultured.
 @LeeCorner | @AbsCultured

Link to Author(s): 
Stephen Munn
Lee Corner


Many Hull artists and cultural community members would not recognise the perspective and experiences highlighted here. ‘Exhaustion’ was primarily felt by the City of Culture team, but not shared by local arts people who were, in the main, not really included in delivering the C of C programme, and had little to exhaust them. Beyond a few small local commissions (under £5K in the main), most of the programme was delivered by others beyond the city. In fact, some local artists went under or moved out of the culture sector during 2017. Hard to believe but, sadly, true. The post-2017 disappointment mentioned here was certainly real. Much of it borne out of the situation above and the almost total disappearance of the Culture team off the radar. Interesting that BBC’s Burnsy is described as a ‘challenging’ presenter. He’s actually widely renowned as a supportive and positive guy, and a radio interview with him is, in fact, almost guaranteed to be encouraging, friendly and favourable. That he ‘grilled’ the team is an indication of just how let down local people and the local cultural community felt, and his sense of obligation to weed out the facts. The debates around the ‘ownership of legacy’ mentioned in this article entirely fail to mention that Martin Green, Director of Hull City of Culture had repeatedly triumphantly announced that the title of City of Culture was held for 4 years, until passing the baton to the next city. Much was made of the long-term legacy programme which we could expect for coming years. And the narrative around the setting up of Absolutely Cultured was that its function was to deliver that legacy programme – evidenced by the size of the team and the budget – both sizeable. Once the year of culture ended, there was silence. We were told that the team were regrouping. More silence. One event. More silence. Then finally – after much probing from Burnsy – the astonishing announcement that in fact the City did not in fact hold the title for four years, and that legacy was the not the responsibility of Absolutely Cultured but of everyone in the city. The obvious question of AC’s role was never fully answered, nor was the issue of funding for everyone to ‘play their part’. Since then, a couple of events from Absolutely Cultured, but mostly silence. Notably almost totally invisible in lockdown – in sharp contrast with other, much smaller and less funded, organisations in the City like Back to Ours, amongst others who have been highly visible and active in reaching out to local communities, and harnessing the power of the arts to support, cheer and uplift. While other organisations and practitioners are making the difference in Hull, the legacy of Absolutely Cultured is, sadly, minimal and if they closed, may not be much missed. Certainly 2017 has changed Hull’s cultural scene and engagement for the better. Culture is now on the radar as an important and powerful facet of local life. And that is a huge achievement. As we tell the story of what happened, and what is happening now, let’s tell the full story – warts and all – but more importantly, let’s move forward more progressively now and support those who are doing a really great job in connecting people, communities and culture.

Thankfully the success or otherwise of Hull’s City of Culture year will not be measured by a blob on a weather map. If it is we’re in deep trouble, and it is a concern that this cliché is still the first thing that comes to mind for many people. It was a fantastic year and from the outset there was a sharp focus on legacy, as is the norm these days with all big, expensive cultural and sporting events. But somewhere along the way that changed. Instead of legacy the City of Culture team started talking about impact, without really explaining what that meant. And the belief that Hull had a four-year term was also rock solid until someone, again for no apparent reason, said it was just one year. It was particularly unhelpful that this wasn’t revealed until after that first year had ended, and there was a whiff of someone calling a halt simply because not much was going on. We don’t need a Captain Hindsight to tell us that more should have been done during 2017 to pave the way for more activity in 2018 and beyond. That was one of Burnsy’s concerns, as was the frustration that so many of Hull’s own cultural practitioners were side-lined throughout the year only to then be expected to drive the… erm… legacy. Bit by bit things started to fall off. The local paper’s daily arts and culture page became less frequent then disappeared altogether. The arts and culture rarely gets coverage in the news pages and the weekend supplement is all national content – recipes, clothes, TV listings. The regular culture show on Radio Humberside has also gone. The Business Angels kept going and still support cultural events around the city but much of the other corporate support dried up, particularly from small firms. The Chamber of Commerce launched a culture fund which supported grassroots projects but was pulled after two rounds, apparently because they didn’t see much happening in the wider business community and nor did they see a great deal of passion or leadership from Absolutely Cultured. It didn’t help that one of the Absolutely Cultured leaders left the job soon after being appointed and the second one also shuffled off before they’d had time to really do anything. An evaluation report on City of Culture was a work in progress when it was presented in a two or three day conference at the University of Hull and has never really been completed. The culture directorate set up at the University has gone. No legacy, no impact. City of Culture was always going to be a challenge, but one which Hull was more than capable of knocking out of the park. However the impact of the Brexit vote in 2016 was underestimated. Money became tighter and business uncertainty rife even then, and the situation has worsened over the years. Now we have Covid crippling the cultural calendar. But the pandemic also presents an opportunity. Let’s blame the inactivity on that. Let’s revisit 2017, review the good and bad of an amazing year, re-boot the feelgood factor and bring new energy and ideas to Sesh, Freedom and an array of new events making more of the dry dock, Queens Gardens, Wrecking Ball and the outlying districts. Let’s pretend we never stopped. We’ll need money and even more importantly we’ll need the people onside. So that’s the new challenge and the response has to be led by Absolutely Cultured and Freedom Festival. They need to get the local authority and businesses on board by demonstrating the ability of the arts and culture sector to rebuild places and communities. Above all they need to get local arts and culture practitioners on board with the sort of uncomplicated, ground upwards approach that didn’t really happen in 2017. Start it now. Be seen to be doing it. Get some great things ready to happen as soon as the restrictions are eased. Alternatively we can all stay in and watch the weather forecast.