TAITMAIL A glimmer from Coventry

Tentatively, it seemed, and with nervous sideways glances at whatever new horrors fate might have lurking, Coventry has announced its programme as City of Culture 2021. 

Some suggested that given the circumstances it should be scrapped altogether and whatever money was raised put into cultural infrastructure in the city, but they’ve stuck to it, just delayed it by five months. 

The programme at this stage is perforce more of a sketch with firmer lines being drawn in January, but what the creative director Chenine Bhathena has come up with is a programme that is about Coventry and its people, rather than international companies and individuals being hired in for spectaculars. That’s her thing – before this job she was the London mayor’s cultural place-making guru who came up with the Borough of Culture programme. She’s one of the non-political generation that knows that people from lower income backgrounds like the arts too, and for her culture is not the middle-class plaything it is often portrayed as but a resource for communities of all sorts.

So the year will open on May 15 with an as yet undefined but vast collective event reminiscent of Olympic openings, this time portraying the city’s past transmuting into its future; rock giant Terry Hall of The Specials returns to his birthplace to run a three day music event; the RSC from down the road at Stratford will be there exploring faith as “an epic overarching story” in different places across the city; and on December 1 as a kind of tent pole for the whole thing the Turner Prize winner will be announced from the Herbert Art Gallery.

One incomer will be Amal, a 3.5m nine-year-old Syrian refugee girl in puppet form, strolling from event to event in search of her mum through the city that has welcomed more Syrian refugees than any other in the UK.

The enforced flexibility, then, has democratised the whole programming process. It’s costing a modest £33m, and it would have been a lot more modest without the determination of the city authorities and local businesses to keep it in the calendar and make it meaningful. ACE’s input is to do up major buildings such as Belgrade Theatre, the Herbert and the cathedral, community assets all. Three-quarters of the pot, half of which is for the programme, has come from  central and local government, the rest from sponsorship, charitable trusts, trading and just 2% from philanthropy.

Which is all in the zeitgeist that is counter-intuitive to the government’s apparent assumption that there is no future for the creative instinct post-Covid, and therefore no jobs – Rishi Sunak mooted last week that retraining might be a good idea for artists, with ballet dancers perhaps becoming cyber security experts as the now notorious government ad proposed.

That the industry has no future for young creatives is put the lie to by this week’s Weston Jerwood Bursaries, set up a decade ago to encourage young artists from working class backgrounds to get a big step on the ladder. This time there will be 50 of them, their places already on offer from 50 arts organisations ranging from the British Library and Liverpool Philharmonic to Clean Break Theatre in London and Wildworks in Cornwall. They’ll get 90% of their salaries paid by the bursary.Social mobility in the arts is the issue, which Coventry seems to have built into its programming. Young people from middle-class backgrounds are 2.5 times more likely to end up in creative occupations than if they were working-class. The creative industries sector created over 300,000 jobs in the last five years, just 33,000 of which have gone to workers from lower socio-economic backgrounds, according to the Policy Evidence Centre. Covid is expected to make that hiatus worse. 
And these are not just dressed up internships, they’re real jobs. The Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth wants an assistant curator to work on its 40th anniversary programme. Clod Ensemble in London wants a sound artist to deliver its music education programme. National Theatre Wales wants an associate director to work on four productions in non-theatre venues. Ffotogallery in Cardiff wants a creative producer. The Tramway in Glasgow wants a dancer/choreographer. And so on.

Sheffield’s Site Gallery, another of the Weston Jerwood questing employers, wants a programme assistant. It is critical that our team is representative of the wide range of communities we engage with” says Side’s executive director Judith Harry. “Fair access to working in the arts and cultural sector is an urgent issue with people from lower socio-economic backgrounds still significantly under-represented among the artists and employees of UK arts organisations”.

So the Chancellor may not think there’s a future in the creative sector, but Coventry and at least 50 arts organisations in the UK beg to differ. “What we’re doing” said Bhathena “is creating a glimmer of hope for 2021 and showing that we can still do live events, we can still put on a great show in this new world”. It’s what the arts does can do and cyber security probably can’t.

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