Not the City of Culture
Last week, Stoke-on-Trent was one of four cities not to win the title of UK City of Culture 2021. This may have been drowned out by the ongoing noise of European Capital of Culture uncertainty, but it was big news for Coventry who now follow Hull and Derry~Londonderry to hold the award. In this blog, Mark Ball is reflecting on not winning City of Culture, pitched as a follow-on to Jonathan Ward’s post a few months ago.
Competition is cruel, and Stoke didn’t win the title of UK City of Culture. In the hours following the announcement that Coventry won the coveted title for 2021, Twitter filled with messages of honest disappointment and respectful congratulations from Stoke supporters to the winners. Having followed the bid for the last year, I felt a bit gutted too. Whilst The One Show beamed out jubilant scenes in Coventry, it was hard not to think of all the other cities and their bid-makers and volunteers, and all the hours they’d put in to come up short. Jobs and funding rested on the outcome of DCMS’s decision, and whatever you think of the City of Culture competition philosophy, in that moment you had to feel for the runners-up. Not only did Stoke, Sunderland, Swansea and Paisley seem worthy enough winners, but also in need of something to rally around. And a cash injection. It all seemed too cruel.
Just hours after the announcement of Coventry’s victory, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the Stoke City of Culture website had messages up with plans to “forge ahead” despite not winning the title. The Plan B will continue investment in cultural initiatives, and piggyback off the momentum garnered in the bidding process. Others involved in the bid are keen to keep spirits high, celebrating the positive bidding experience and the connections made. In a reflective piece for The Sentinel, editor Martin Tideswell set the bid against the negative press coverage that swirled around Stoke following the Brexit vote. Earlier this year Stoke was thrust front and centre as ‘left behind Britain’ example extraordinaire when Paul Nuttall and the national media descended for a timely bi-election. Labels like ‘Brexit capital’ stuck to Stoke at least in part because of the general anxiety around a politically and socially divided country, and like all good arguments it helps to have a case study. The successes of the bid were in challenging these perceptions and bringing people across the city together. The alternative of “talking down” Stoke and “adding to the chorus of negatives” doesn’t do anything with strapped-for-cash councils argues Martin Tideswell, and it’s now up to Stoke and Stokies to “roll up our sleeves” and “champion our patch”.
Culture is a messy word. Keenly following #sot2021 over the last year there have been many examples offered to evidence the vibrancy of Stoke culture: the local darts scene, the oatcakes, how friendly everyone is, the New Vic theatre, The Potteries Museum, and Arnold Bennett. Culture is in both the history of ceramics production and in the local music and arts scene. It’s also in the everyday goings-on and greetings of locals: one of the final charming acts of the bid was touring a large yellow duck around the city’s towns in reference to the typical ‘ay up duck’ greeting.
The culture of culture-led regeneration though, which is foundational to the City of Culture logic, is the more formal and ‘high’ culture of theatres and galleries that encourage high spending visitors to the city’s venues: if people come for a play they may come for a meal, and if they like the play and the meal they may stay for a drink, if they have a couple of drinks they might stay overnight. If enough people come for the play/meal/drinks/overnight combo then others will come too, and more theatres and restaurants and bars and hotels will pop up to meet the demand for this stellar package. Before long you’ve got a scene, and a pretty cool one at that given the sophistication of these more artistic and artisanal practices, so the theory goes. The cherry on top of this one-size-fits-all approach is that it doesn’t require much central funding: just start the process off with a little cash and an incentive and the rest takes care of itself. With wow-ing statistics like Hull’s £1billion boost to back this up, the City of Culture competition was naturally an attractive one for cities like Stoke who find themselves in the wrong half of the Indices of Deprivation table.
The £1billion stat is loud enough to drown out questions of how sustainable these new creative economies are, whose precarious labour they require, and how well this money filters down. It is also loud enough to quieten other questions: why isn’t more money available for urban regeneration projects, why are council budgets being cut, and why do we value arts and culture only in respect to how they stimulate economic growth? And what about the cities and their councils that spend £300,000 on a bid they don’t win?
Stoke’s City of Culture bid has clearly brought artists and cultural workers in the city together, and gone some way to challenging lazy stereotyping. It brought with it an eclectic understanding of culture, and offered a more diverse image of place than much of the coverage post-Brexit was able to. How the council will finance Plan B is clearly a challenge: without the much talked about boost in tourism and investment, it’s tough to see how they’ll pull it off.
With so much resting on its outcome, the City of Culture title carries a lot of weight. Artists and cultural workers are asked to do the work of urban regeneration, as plans are altered and tailored over the two years of bidding. A lot has been written on how sustainable culture-led regeneration really is, and there’s another question here of how sustainable this City of Culture bidding model is if four cities don’t get it each time. As much as the “roll up our sleeves” attitude is both positive and galvanizing, it perhaps speaks to a broader failure to think up and support other solutions.
Finally, if we really think arts and culture are central to prosperity and wellbeing, perhaps we shouldn’t pit places against each other to compete for it. If nothing else the bidding cities demonstrated they needed some investment, and four years is a long time to wait for another chance at a helping hand.