Why Sunderland should look to Hull for cultural inspiration

Sunderland from the sky
Sunderland from the sky
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Hull was once the punchline for jokes. “From Hell, Hull and Halifax, good Lord deliver us,” pleaded a 17th-century verse that helped create a negative view of the city for the next 400 years. More recently the city was voted the second most undesirable place to live in England, and took the top – or bottom slot – in the book Crap Towns. But the mantle of UK City of Culture 2017 has changed the city’s image and how it is perceived. Could the same accolade change the way Sunderland is viewed regionally, nationally and internationally? asks Rob Lawson.

Sunderland used to be known as the UK’s capital of shipbuilding, a town of international repute also important for its coalmining and glass production.

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

These days if people from outside of the region have heard of the city it’s probably as a home to a Premier League football team, Nissan and as the first city to declare in favour of Brexit in June’s EU referendum.

The New York Times painted a negative, skewed, unfortunate view of the city as a ‘poster child of Brexit.’

But those of us who live here and are proud to be a Wearsider know the city for what it is and can be – a vibrant, energetic, welcoming place full of potential.

There is absolutely no doubt that one of the major benefits of landing the title City of Culture 2021 would be a re-calibration of how Sunderland is seen.

The city already has a story to tell – a history of which we can all be proud.

Our image would be transformed.

“The city’s current reputation is based on being a large, post-industrial city - and football. But should we become City of Culture 2021, it wouldn’t be too long – a few years – before the city would be famous for culture, creativity, our proud heritage – and of course football,” said City of Culture 2021 bid director Rebecca Ball.

“The city already has a story to tell – a history of which we can all be proud. A history of learning, of innovation, of doing things our way. A successful bid would give us the platform from which we could boast about everything that was and is great about Sunderland.

“And it will change the narrative. There will be a story before 2021 and after 2021. Post 2021 we would be known as a city of arts and culture, where art is appreciated and enjoyed and culture flourishes. A place where artists, performers and creators want to be and where audiences eager to be entertained, thrilled, excited and challenged flock to.

Fawcett Street, Sunderland City Centre

Fawcett Street, Sunderland City Centre

“It will be a different, better Sunderland.”

Not convinced? Ask the good people of Hull. Their year of culture doesn’t start for another three months, yet already the great and the good – and journalists – have flocked to be seen in the city on the Humber.

Chief among Hull’s champions are the BBC. Director General Tony Hall pledged his organization would be “unashamedly Hull-centric” during the city’s year in the cultural spotlight – and has already delivered on his promised to restore Hull to the BBC’s national weather map in time for 2017.

The nation’s broadsheets have in the past been decidedly sniffy about Hull, much as they have been about Sunderland. Yet now, without exception, they’re happy to revaluate their opinion, urging us all to visit in glowing, glossy features and supplements. Patronising maybe, but invaluable publicity all the same.

Rebecca Ball, director of Sunderland 2021.

Rebecca Ball, director of Sunderland 2021.

The only other recipient of the title UK City of Culture was Derry/Londonderry, who held the title in 2013.

Martin Bradley, from Culture Company, which delivered Derry’s programme of events, said the city had been transformed.

“Our sense of place, confidence, and civic pride is unrecognizable from the place we were,” he wrote in The Guardian.

Neither Hull nor Derry would be the first places to have their images massively enhanced through culture.

There was the ‘Bilbao effect’ of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum; Glasgow re-energised by its tenure as European City of Culture 1990 and even the huge boost our neighbours ‘up the road’ received when bidding for the title European Capital of Culture.

So how is Sunderland seen now, and how that image be changed by being City of Culture 2021?

Enjoying Seaburn beach.

Enjoying Seaburn beach.

Sunderland-born Leo Pearlman is a director and partner at Fulwell 73 Productions, a hugely-successful, London-based production company making films, documentaries and commercials.

He thinks Sunderland is developing an image regionally, but that identity is lost on a national stage: “Regionally Sunderland is seen as a new tech hub, with both light engineering and cutting edge technology coming to the fore. Since the demise of the traditional heavy industries in the region its taken some time for Sunderland to once again find its place in the world, but certainly over the last five years these new industries have come to define the city.

“Nationally Sunderland struggles to make its mark at times, especially when compared to neighbours Newcastle, sad but true. The two facets of the city that are recognised nationally are the football club and the Nissan factory, both of which have given the city an identity, but without which the city would struggle to make its mark.”

Barry Pollock, Managing Partner at respected local marketing, design and branding agency The Works, agrees that at the moment the city is defined by Nissan and SAFC.

“I don’t think the city is particularly visible at the moment. There is no ‘brand’, or what I would see as brand i.e. an emotional connection with something of value to me. Internationally, we’re likely to be known only for Nissan and the football team. Our profile would be a working class northern city where nothing much happens – but with nice people. Its’ a blank canvas, which is good.”

So what could be painted on to that blank canvas if we were to win the coveted title, and how would the city then be seen?

Leo sees a huge opportunity: “This is after all the city that inspired the likes of LS Lowry and Lewis Carroll, produced the likes of Dave Stewart, David Parfitt, James Herriott and Bob Paisley and has such sites to visit and inspire as Hylton Castle, Roker and Seaburn beaches and the Winter Gardens. We need to remind the world of these facts and wipe away this old and overused image of urban decay and poverty.

“A successful bid would make a huge difference, one only has to look at what it has done to the likes of Hull. Visitor numbers are predicted to be significantly up, the city is starting to be seen in a different light already and one has the opportunity to start to redefine the conversation around the city itself.

“Aside from the incredible pride that every resident and expat of the city should feel, which speaking from a personal perspective will certainly be the case, victory in this respect will hopefully have a significant commercial impact upon the city. Sunderland has a huge amount to offer and given the opportunity to show the world it has a chance to make a real mark.

“The main problem that Sunderland has is that so many people who come from the city, while retaining a deep seated love and affection for their birthplace, don’t actually stay and try to make the city a better place to live. We proselytise from afar, always singing Sunderland’s praises to all who’ll listen, but not necessarily actually making an impact. I absolutely include myself in this category and I guess my real hope is that by becoming the next City of Culture, Sunderland will become somewhere that attracts and keeps some of this country’s brightest talent.”

Barry agrees that a new image is needed for the city, and one can be delivered by the 2021 title: “It’s crucial. Even huge tourist destinations like New York, will continually re-invent its brand message and its story, to evolve with the evolution of the city itself. A city’s brand has to continually evolve. Preconceptions precede experiences in most things we do, so its crucial that Sunderland is seen in a more positive light if it wants to attract anyone new, or re-attract those who knew it from way back when.

“The City of Culture would definitely give Sunderland something to say on a national and European level.”

But Barry also has a warning, which echoes the Derry/Londonderry experience, where three years on and the legacy funding has dried up, some are asking what they have to show for the City of Culture title.

“For me, unless the event and city’s infrastructure is built with a realistic legacy in mind, then ultimately it would be a superficial fix for the perceptions and reputation and brand of the city.

“Yes, there would be an initial bounce, everything looks brighter and better for a while, visitor numbers up, communities engaged in arts and culture, jobs created.

“Then the real work starts. What happens afterwards is how the city will be perceived. The worst thing that could happen is that it would be known as this city that… and now, sadly its back to its old self. Hull will be an interesting case study.

“There is no doubt that in the short term it will be incredibly positive, no doubt attracting funds that will help the infrastructure making it attractive to tourists and businesses. But like any brand, managing this new reputation is key, making sure standards that are set are continually met, that the story is clear, the reason to choose remains, and that enough is happening to continually evolve its ‘offer’ and appeal to future generations who may know nothing about the City of Culture.”

So the benefits are clear, but so is the lesson – that the hard work starts with winning the title and a lasting and meaningful legacy can’t be taken for granted. But the opportunity is one that could transform our city – and how it is seen now and into the future.

To keep up to date with news about Sunderland’s bid to be 2021 City of Culture, log on to www.sunderland2021.com or follow @sunderland2021 on Twitter

Lnad between High Street West and Crowtree Road, Sunderland City Centre

Lnad between High Street West and Crowtree Road, Sunderland City Centre