May 30, 2012

City of Culture

Last week I attended (as a contributor) the AHRC Cultural Cities research network meeting. The event was called ‘It’s not the winning… Reconsidering the Cultural City’ and was held at the Merseyside Maritime Museum: (Tuesday 22nd April)

It was an interesting experience, not least as it had tasked me with thinking about the Government’s new City of Culture 2013 project (which I hadn’t given too much thought to). The ‘City of Culture’ concept is simply a ‘title’ -- an official government designation for the city who wins in a competitive bidding process. It comes with not a penny of funding, and despite being a New Labour innovation, the project still has the support of the Coalition government. The title was largely inspired by the success of Liverpool as European Capital of Culture in 2008 (and, in policy language, a way of ‘leveraging’ the strategic capabilities generated by that year long event).

On the face of it, the concept of a ‘UK City of Culture’ seems odd, but also in tune with the growing popularity for ‘event driven culture’ with both British punters, tourists and policy-makers alike. The concept is odd inasmuch as it seems to be a step back from a ‘European’ framework into a national British one (whatever that might be). And come to think of it, Liverpool ’08 didn’t have the big European theme that I thought it would have – given, that is, the way the European Commission normally demand. The second oddity is that the ‘city of culture’ concept suggests that culture in cities only substantially emerges by virtue of official commission or sponsorship. Publicly subsidised arts is still the model of what ‘culture’ is. On one level of course this is inevitable, but on another it effaces the actual social, urban, youth and sub-cultures that animate a city. Does a substantive city ‘culture’ only emerge with the investment-funding-driven objects of arts management? Why do people flock to visit cities like Marrakesh, Asian or African cities with no well funded arts programmes...?

However, whatever doubts I had were for the most part dissolved on reading the winning bid from Derry-Londonderry, which is very imaginative and impressive on several fronts. Its approach to the bid was itself ‘creative’ – policy-making as a creative act: imagine! Moreover, it refuses simply to import global cultural celebrity but instead finds ways of making the city active in cultural production, thinking of the city itself as a ‘cultural product’. This is a step forward. Here are the key documents for reference:

Derry City Council (2009) Derry-Londonderry Candidate City UK City of Culture 2013: Our Bid, Derry-Londonderry.
Redmond, P. (June 2009) UK City of Culture Vision Statement, London: DCMS.
UK City of Culture 2013 (2009) Bidding Guidance, London: Regeneris Consulting/DCMS.


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