Ian Streets, managing director of About Access, looks at the clamour for culture and the need to embrace inclusivity
Whether it’s in response to Brexit, Covid or any other source of uncertainty, the decision by a record number of places to bid to become the UK City of Culture 2025 is a bit of a head-turner.
There were 14 expressions of interest for the inaugural competition, which awarded the 2013 event to Derry-Londonderry. Hull overcame 12 rivals to host the 2017 edition and there were 10 challengers to Coventry to become the 2021 destination.
Now the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) is weighing up the respective merits of 20 bidders.
We won’t list them all here, but they come from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and in addition to cities they include partnerships, such as Torbay and Exeter, and entire regions. The Borderlands region comprising Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders, Northumberland, Cumbria and Carlisle City is likely to need the longest letterhead!
This clamour for culture is without doubt triggered in part by the big numbers reported by the previous hosts, including 5.3m visits to Hull and £100m of capital investment to support cultural projects in Coventry.
But with such achievement comes responsibility. The title doesn’t go to the candidate with the best cultural offer. Candidates will need to show how they intend to use culture to drive transformation through social, cultural and economic regeneration. And afterwards, the winner will have their homework marked when the evaluation is published.
Making cities more accessible
Our focus is on accessibility. We’re pleased to see signs of progress as City of Culture moves from one destination to the next, and we’re also heartened to see a growing recognition that more can be done.
The biggest question mark after Hull 2017 was legacy and there are many in the city who still feel that aspect was unfulfilled, although it can legitimately claim to have been hit by unforeseen circumstances in shaping its future.
The hugely successful volunteer programme is in the process of being relaunched and the final evaluation report, eventually revised and published earlier this year after a preliminary study in 2018, itself highlights some lessons learned.
A programme of engagement was created with partners including Hull & East Riding Institute for the Blind. Disability confidence training formed part of the coaching for the volunteers. A year-long programme of artists commissions, exhibitions, interventions and other events tackled the stigma around disability arts.
Audience data showed that significant progress was made in engaging audiences who were “limited a little” by a health condition or disability but that more work needed to be done to reach those who were “limited a lot”. In Hull, that section has a higher than average proportion of residents and the report noted that a longer-term approach is needed to build trust and engagement.
We were therefore delighted to work with Hull’s museums and galleries team and to lead consultation sessions with representatives of disability groups on how to make premises, displays and exhibits more accessible. Apart from anything else, it showed that Hull saw its City of Culture year as part of a journey and not a destination.
Coventry’s commitment included the appointment of a disability and inclusion officer and the launch of a programme to equip creatives with the knowledge and strategies to provide for audiences with different needs. Workshops are planned to cover conditions including visual impairments, hearing impairments, learning difficulties, dementia and housebound audiences.
Coventry’s evaluation will no doubt be essential reading for the cities which progress to the shortlist for 2025, and all 20 candidates can be expected to examine every aspect of the current programme as they work towards a deadline of January to lodge their final applications.
In announcing its long list, DCMS set out a wide range of criteria and guidance including working with local, national and international partners, committing to innovation, having the capacity to deliver a programme and to maximise the legacy.
It highlights the requirement to develop innovative ways to open up access to culture and to engage a wide range of audiences, visitors and participants. It also asks applicants what steps they propose to take to broaden the diversity of leadership, governance and partnerships.
So you don’t have to win the UK City of Culture competition to get the opportunity to place diversity at the heart of your community’s cultural offer, from influencers and decision-makers to producers, performers, participants and audiences.
Our hope is that the successful candidates and the also-rans learn from each other, share their experiences and sharpen what they can offer to make culture the overall winner.
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