Hull – after 2017

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No longer the city the world forgot. Simon Tait on what happened, and what comes next

Here’s a quote: “We felt left out. We were up in a corner of the country no-one wanted to go to, and we thought we hadn’t got anything to offer. We don’t think like that now”. They are the words of one of the small army of powder blue-clad volunteer guides recruited for Hull City of Culture 2017, on duty in the Humber Street Gallery, a revelation of new insight in contemporary art which has earned a national reputation. It was in June, half way through the year, by which time Hull knew that it had cracked it: Hull would never again be the city the world forgot.

I’d been to Hull many times over the years, to the Ferens Art Gallery, to the museums in the old harbour quarter, to see John Godber’s work at Hull Truck, but the place was somehow shy about these cultural assets. It had been devastated by German bombers and then lost its fishing industry, and nothing could ever compensate that.

There was surprise and perhaps even a shock when in 2013 it was announced that Hull had beaten Leicester with its thrilling diversity, Dundee with its new V&A design museum coming, and poor old Swansea to succeed Derry, the first ever UK City of Culture.

Derry achieved business and development investment from its year, 2013, but the cultural legacy has been negligible. Hull’s aftermath, its leaders say, will be very different.

In the New Year Honours List there has been a sheaf of gongs for the year’s organisers (, led by the CBE for its director, Martin Green. "We've always said that Hull's journey as UK City of Culture does not end on 31 December” was his new year message. “While there has been immense effort put into making this year a truly memorable one, our aim has always been to see these types of events and conversations continue well beyond 2017. The positive response during the last 12 months has underlined Hull's reputation as a great city of culture and creativity and shown the appetite for first class arts, whether produced locally or from visiting artists and companies. The people, places and spaces are ready for more and that's what they're going to get".

Over four programmed seasons of 2017 there were 2,000 events, exhibitions and cultural activities have taken place at more than 250 venues, galleries, museums and performances spaces. Key to the support of the cultural activity were the 2500 volunteers who donated a total of 33 years of work, more than 300,000 hours.

One of the key strategies was to involve local people in 60 arts projects in the Creative Communities Programme, and in the Back to Ours Festival there were 85 events programmed for the three half terms of the year brought circus, comedy, theatre, music and film to schools, shopping centres, community centres and other “on the doorstep” venues. Schools were a big part:  over 100 – 60,000 young people - took part in No Limits, the Hull 2017 learning programme.

The Culture Company, set up to deliver the 2017 programme, raised more than £32m from 80 funding partners, kick-started by Hull City Council's £3.6 million. Nearly 80% of the funding was dedicated to public facing activities, but there had also been preparations like the refurbishment of the Ferens, which became a daytime social centre in the city’s heart.

It looks like earnings from the year will exceed the forecast of £60m – the full economic impact will be available on March – but hotel occupancy in the city centre was up 10% with an average 83%.

There are many memories. The opening event, Made in Hull,  drew over 342,000 people over seven days; there was public art including Blade, the 75m wind turbine blade transformed into a massive art installation in Queen Victoria Square, acknowledging the commitment of the global giant Siemens to Hull; the Royal Ballet made its first  visit to Hull ever to reopen reopening the New Theatre; the Ferens Art Gallery reopened in February and  brought more than 500,000; the West End musical Jersey Boys; Hull Truck Theatre had a sell-out with Richard Bean's comedy The Hypocrite, based on an incident in the city on the Civil War; there were  experimental productions, including Slung Low's Flood, dreamthinkspeaks's One Day, Maybe and Blast Theory's 2097: We Made Ourselves Over; there was the extraordinary COUM Transmissions at Humber Street Gallery, featuring Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge; Mind on the Run celebrated the life and work of Hull's forgotten musical pioneer Basil Kirchin; the Back to Ours Festival with its “doorstep performances” so was so successful will return this year; Maxine Peake's The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca was produced by Hull Truck Theatre and staged in Hull's Guildhall.

And then what? The Culture Company has appointed two young arts administrators to direct the legacy – Katy Fuller (pictured left), who was executive producer for Hull 2017 and is now creative director, and Emma Morris who has come from the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne to be executive director – taking over from Green and executive director Fran Hegyi who leave next month.

The positive mood is going to be compounded in June when the £36m Hull Venue opens, the longed-for 3,500 capacity music and events complex overlooking Princes Quay to match the large scale venues in Manchester and Newcastle, and bring the star names Hull never could before its year of culture.

This month a new play, The Culture - A Farce in Two Acts from the Hull University alumnus James Graham who had four plays running the West End last year, gets its world premiere with Hull Truck; those volunteers are celebrated at the Humber Street Gallery with The Big Picture, portraits by Hull-based photographer Leo Francis (main picture); the RSC comes in February with Hamlet and in March with First Encounters: Julius Caesar. These are just a few highlights from a packed first few weeks of the year.

 The success of 2017 owes a lot to the commitment of the local authority to the arts and culture as a way of lifting a subdued society, and its leader, Stephen Brady, was also one of the recipients of New Year honours with an OBE, put it down to converted effort at all sections. "The confidence is the city is at an all-time high and we will build on this over the coming years” he said. “2017 was a catalyst for change and our ambitious plans will carry on with Hull Venue opening and plans for the Yorkshire Cruise Terminal (a £50m development due to open in the mid-2020s) are progressing very well.

 “This is the city’s renaissance and we will continue to capitalise upon it."


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