With a mission statement claiming that ‘our story has only just begun’, why did all the activity and excitement end so soon?

Hull City of Culture, one year on: from fireworks to failures

Olive Pometsey

Olive Pometsey wonders whether 2017’s initiative will reap long-term benefits for the city

20 September 2018 07:49

Ask Katy Fuller, Creative Director and CEO of Hull City of Culture’s rebranded enterprise Absolutely Cultured, and she’ll tell you that Hull’s year in the spotlight as the UK’s cultural capital was a ‘tremendous success’. From an outsider’s perspective, there’s not too much to dispute with this statement. Previously under the management of Martin Green, the brains behind the 2012 Olympic ceremonies, the initiative put on over 2,800 cultural events throughout 2017, drawing in a 5.3 million audience of both locals and visitors from across the country. Highlights included the impressive firework display and Made in Hull installation that took over the city’s centre at the beginning of the year, and the Turner Prize exhibition hosted in the Ferens Art Gallery. According to a report from the University of Hull, 40 per cent of residents felt happier during that time.

But, as with all good things, the year came to an end and took this packed programme with it. Last week, the National Lottery Awards voted Hull City of Culture ‘the Best Arts Project of 2017’ – and ‘2017’ is right. In 2018, it took eight months for Absolutely Cultured to put together another major event in the city after their rebrand. With their mission statement claiming ‘our story has only just begun’, why did all the activity and excitement end so soon?

That belated major event took place on 11 August. 12,000 breeze blocks were lined up around Hull for a 3.5km domino run, a project by Station House Opera, which drew in the huge crowds that had gone missing in previous months. While many citizens revelled in the concept and its Instagrammability, others were less impressed by the spectacle. ‘The event was bloody terrible, and it was only about however many views they’ll get on YouTube when the film comes out,’ says a local journalist. ‘City of Culture was very good for some people, but the magic has definitely gone. We’re just back to where we were 3 or 4 years ago in terms of the way that the city and local organisations think and talk about art. It feels like we’ve taken a massive step backwards.’

The most disappointing regression, over the past year, has occurred at the Hull School of Art and Design. Poor financial management has threatened not just the only institution in the city that offers higher education in practical art subjects – but also the futures of those in Hull who wish to pursue creative careers. Since September 2017, students’ contact with tutors has been reduced to as little as 8 hours a week, partly a consequence of severe cuts that have seen 38 out of 40 members of staff take voluntary redundancy as of the last day of term this July. The affected staff, many of who had worked at HSAD for decades, were given contracts with gagging clauses and threatened with legal action when students decided to protest on their own accord.

Compounding the problem, the school will also no longer be offering degree programmes to students. These have been replaced by two-year foundation courses, a poor consolation prize to members of the community who have no other option but to study in Hull.

‘City of Culture was very good for some people, but the magic has definitely gone.’

‘There were a lot of good artists coming out of that school,’ says 22-year-old student Rachel Anderson, who enrolled at HSAD in 2016 and started the final year of her degree course this month. ‘I wouldn’t have wanted to do a foundation course. Because HSAD was the only provider of BA arts courses like Art & Design and Textiles in the city, it was good for people like me that don’t want to move away. There are a lot of carers and mature students on my course too, so they can’t move away. This was their only place to go to get that provision and now it’s gone.’

Although the City of Culture title and HSAD are not directly linked, you have to wonder how Hull can proudly look back on 2017 when its only provider of higher education in the arts falls to demise. With no other options, artists from Hull who wish to pursue practical degree courses will either have move away from the city or simply give up on their aspirations.

As someone who grew up and studied in Hull, I know first-hand that the area already had a thriving creative community before being awarded the City of Culture 2017 title. When news first broke that the Hull City Council had won the bid for the initiative in 2013, many were sceptical, but there was also a sense of optimism at the potential for the existing arts scene to get involved. It was anticipated that the local establishments and music venues I spent my teens in would flourish under the programme; that their pre-existing value to Hull’s community would be harnessed and ultimately bolstered. Developments in areas such as Humber Street – locally renowned as a creative hub in the city, thanks to annual event Humber Street Sesh and the artists that have studios there – promised to bring in more business and, soon enough, crowds were flocking to the area.

The problem is, they flocked to the fancy new gin bars and chain restaurants that sprung up and, a year later, two of the area’s original establishments, music venue Fruit and Kingston Art Gallery, have both closed down.

Humber Street, Hull

‘It’s not the creative quarter anymore, it’s the trendy bar quarter,’ says the journalist, who believes that Hull’s homegrown talent wasn’t utilised properly during 2017. ‘[Hull City of Culture] hired in a lot of artists from other places, and a lot of the local artists were not happy about the fact that there was an emphasis on importing culture rather than supporting artists who already lived here.’ It’s a classic case study of gentrification, but paired with the apparent collapse of the Hull School of Art and Design, it feels as though the creative community is being continually overlooked.

But it’s not all redundancies and closures. Local presenter Kofi Smiles, who won a competition to become the BBC’s Face of Hull, spent the year reporting on City of Culture events for the broadcaster, and through this was able to progress his career. Given the city’s complicated past with racism, his appointment marked a cultural shift that was brighter than any firework display, and his achievements served as an inspiration to other minority communities in Hull, who may have once felt isolated in the area.

Smiles’ own personal highlight from 2017 was having the opportunity to interview Kofi Annan when he visited the city last summer: ‘He really threw himself into the Ghanaian community in Hull. We arranged a welcoming ceremony with dancers and kids in traditional dress. The community all came together and it was really nice,’ he says. It’s a testament to how unifying and celebrating different cultures doesn’t always have to involve giant dominoes and a movie afterwards; it simply requires respect and real purpose.

Absolutely Cultured have a programme of events scheduled in Hull for the coming months, but whether they will make a meaningful impact on the community is yet to be seen. Well-intentioned, yet fundamentally shortsighted, there’s no denying that the efforts of the team behind 2017 did reap spectacular, Olympic-standard results. But the city of Hull doesn’t need to put on a performance extravagant enough to entertain the whole world. It just needs to take care of the performers, artists and creatives who already live there. If, as Absolutely Cultured claim, Hull’s story has only just begun, let’s hope there’s a plot twist soon.

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With a mission statement claiming that ‘our story has only just begun’, why did all the activity and excitement end so soon?