In May last year, Coventry began its year as UK City of Culture.
It was the culmination of over four years of hard work by residents, the Coventry City of Culture Trust, Coventry City Council and partners across the region.
Our aim, when we launched Coventry’s bid for the title of UK City of Culture 2021, all the way back in 2015, was to use the award as an opportunity to deliver social and economic benefits for Coventry, Warwickshire, and the West Midlands. We sought to ensure that the value of arts and cultural activity was more fairly dispersed, that seldom heard voices took centre stage and that the impact would be felt for many years to come.
In Spring 2020, we launched our manifesto, committing to tell the story of a city that moves:
“This is the city where movement began.
We have transformed raw steel into racing machines. We move every heart, turning flames into hope and ruin into beauty.
Two tones into one voice.
We are young streets and curious eyes. Boundless energy will move us forward. As timeless words are made new on city streets, a million and more journeys begin here.
The power to move is always in our blood.
In preparation for Coventry’s year in the spotlight we faced a number of challenges as the only UK City of Culture to ever take place during a global pandemic. To ensure a safe and high impact programme, COVID-19 saw us delay the start of the year by five months. While this was a major obstacle, city partners quickly recognised that the lost opportunities would be many, so were galvanised to protect the investment made so far and to ensure that Coventry, the phoenix city, prospered once again.
Working hand-in-hand with a wide range of local artists, voluntary organisations, event producers, venues and city stakeholders, our team is co-creating an outstanding programme that is engaging communities across Coventry and the wider region, reimagining what a City of Culture can be and celebrating our most youthful and diverse city.
And there is no doubt that the people of Coventry and beyond have embraced the opportunities that City of Culture status has offered. To date we have welcomed 200,000 attendees to events which have taken place in every ward across the city. Through partnerships with the BBC and Sky Arts we have significantly expanded our broadcast and online events programme and, so far, have had over 250,000 engagements with our online events. More than 1,100 volunteers are providing the warmest welcome to Coventry as City Hosts and through our leadership, apprenticeship, and sector development programmes, we are supporting more than fifty future creative and social leaders.
So far, the City of Culture programme has brought in over £150 million in direct capital and revenue investment while supporting thousands of local jobs. City of Culture status has allowed us to invest in the local arts eco-system, creating opportunities which develop and retain local talent.
Meanwhile, our partnerships with key third sector organisations, including those working with young people at risk of exploitation, newly arrived communities, young people experiencing mental health issues and those facing homelessness ensure that we will have used our year to throw a spotlight on some of the major social challenges facing all cities, while supporting those who seek to “Reform the Norm”.
Mega arts (or sporting) festivals typically focus on a few major moments which create fleeting memories for those who can afford to participate. Engaging with grassroots artists and organisations across Coventry, and ensuring that our programme is co-created with communities, has been the cornerstone of our approach. We have been supporting culture beyond traditional art gallery and theatre settings and highlighting the dynamic social movements already taking place in local communities.
From the outset we believed that the title of UK City of Culture is for everyone and belongs to each-and-every person in Coventry. The programme has been city wide, with producers and Community Connectors working in all eighteen wards and rooted in neighbourhoods. They have supported the co-creation of events and activities in faith spaces, shops, schools, libraries, grey, blue, and green spaces. This approach has complimented the programme of live and broadcast events in the city centre, which are perhaps more commonly associated with a City of Culture programme.
We share our partners’ ambition that the new civic spaces and refreshed cultural spaces will remain open to all when the spotlight on the city has dimmed a little beyond May 2022.
We have been testing our approach to “legacy” since winning the title in 2017. The Trust and its partners have been “outcome focussed” – insisting that every bit of investment, every new initiative, every programme and project contributes towards the successful delivery of fifteen agreed outcomes – which would assist in the delivery of four longer term impacts.
Starting with the premise that legacy programmes after big cultural events are mainly disappointing, vague, and buzzwordy we have decided to be more single minded. Assuming that the overall goal is to make Coventry a more future-facing and fairer city, we have identified sustainable development (‘green futures’) as the key to making that happen. This builds on much of what we have been doing so far.
Our Green Futures programme is an ambitious series of cultural programmes and events that seek to help increase understanding and support for positive environmental change. Through events such as Observations on Being, an immersive audio-visual exhibition that examined our relationship with nature, and Small Bells Ring, a floating library based in Coventry Canal Basin, the Green Futures programme has explored Coventry and Warwickshire’s wildlife, natural heritage, and landscape, uncovering the story of its ‘hidden nature’ and reconnecting communities with their local environment.
“I’m not interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, boys. Can’t you understand? There’s a big blaze going in all around”.
Nils Leonard, the Creative Director of Uncommon Studio, our campaigns agency, introduced me to this lesser-known quote from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. And while I’m personally likely to be more interested in the stories of the past than perhaps Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman was, I love the sense of urgency here and will be guided by this as we move into our next phase.
Coventry City Council and many partners are working on a range of initiatives to fight climate change and environmental degradation. For these innovation and infrastructure projects to work, they need locals and partners to buy into a long-term vision, one they believe they can shape and benefit from.
That’s where the legacy of City of Culture can help. Arts, culture, and creativity can turn up the volume on Coventry’s progress, with creative initiatives and events that help people get excited about defining their future.
Work therefore continues to ensure that Coventry Moves, again.