Bid brings opportunity to host world-class events

Sunderland launched its City of Culture bid in the city's Keelmans Square. Picture by Tom Yeoman
Sunderland launched its City of Culture bid in the city's Keelmans Square. Picture by Tom Yeoman
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Hull’s successful UK City of Culture bid will be worth more than £60m to the city.

And that’s before putting a value on the dramatic change of image one of the nation’s poorest cities is undergoing.

Sunderland City of Culture 2021 bid logo.

Sunderland City of Culture 2021 bid logo.

But what about the cultural impact of a successful UK City of Culture Bid? What impact would a successful Sunderland bid have on the local and regional cultural sectors? And what would be the legacy of Sunderland, UK City of Culture 2021?

ROB LAWSON talks to those who know …

As you would expect, Sunderland 2021 bid director Rebecca Ball has no doubt about the enormous impact a successful bid would have on the city.

“The city won’t have seen anything like it,” she said. “It would be an amazing opportunity for Sunderland to host a world-class programme of events, performances and performers.

“For people in the city to be able to see some of the best artists and musicians perform ‘on their doorstep’ and the wider region to see world-class events, performances and performers on their doorstep.

“A City of Culture programme would enable us to attract national and international events and artists.

“The Turner Prize and other nationally-significant prizes could be hosted here, and what we’ve seen in Hull and Derry/Londonderry is major BBC events and festivals held in successful bid cities – events such as the Proms. We’d expect to see events that traditionally would only be seen in London or perhaps Manchester.

“The impact on Sunderland and regional audiences is hard to over-estimate. Both in the year itself and the years leading up to 2021 would see fresh, exciting, diverse and stimulating programmes of activity. There would be a real sense of energy.

“A successful bid would also be an enormous opportunity for home-grown local talent. They’d have access to audiences and opportunities they otherwise could only dream of. The eyes of the cultural sector nationally will be on us, so it would be a golden opportunity for local talent to raise their profile.

“So a successful bid would be great for local audiences and artists, but it would also hopefully lead to new venues and facilities. There is so much going on in Sunderland at the moment- like the MAC Trust’s exciting plans for a culture quarter based on and around the Old Fire Station, but a successful bid would undoubtedly lead to an increase in the need for artists’ workspaces and cultural venues.

“Of course, we’d expect to see major events at existing high-profile venues like the Empire and the Stadium of Light, but I’m sure new and interesting venues would spring up too. Sunderland Stages is doing some great work in introducing theatre into unusual and unexpected places and I’m sure our programme would be looking to do something along the same lines.

“It’s also important to think about the legacy a successful bid would leave the city. Having such high-profile, excellent art and artists in the city would undoubtedly inspire and encourage more people to participate in the arts, but also look for employment opportunities in the sector.

“And it’s not just about career opportunities and developing new skills, culture can be a powerful tool to increase confidence and improve people’s quality of life.

“The impact on the cultural ecology, the cultural infrastructure of both the city and region wouldn’t just be significant, it would be huge.”

That’s a view also shared by Paul Callaghan, Sunderland entrepreneur, chairman of the city’s Economic Leadership Board, driving force behind the Sunderland MAC Trust, and chairman of both the Newcastle/Gateshead Initiative and Live Theatre, Newcastle.

He says: “In terms of a regional presence in the arts and culture sector, we’ve suffered because of our proximity to Newcastle/Gateshead who have had an 18-year headstart on Sunderland.

“Their activity started with the Angel of the North and has continued with fantastic developments like the Sage and the Baltic.

“Newcastle’s bid to become European Capital of Culture became a focus for the sector, and even though they didn’t win it, that momentum continued.

“Something similar to what has happened on Tyneside could happen here, benefitting the city and the region hugely.

“Liverpool gained enormously from being European Capital of Culture when they beat Newcastle to the 2008 title, while Newcastle benefitted far more than they expected from their Newcastle 2010 initiative, even though they didn’t win the 2008 bid.”

A five-year research project analysed the social, economic and cultural impact of Liverpool’s 2008 European Capital of Culture title and found the festival year saw 9.7m visitors to the city, an increase of 34 per cent, and generated £753.8m for the economy.

Media coverage of Liverpool’s cultural attractions doubled and for the first time in decades, positive stories outweighed negative ones focusing on social issues.

The research also found 85% of people living in Liverpool agreed it was a better place to live than before.

Dr Beatriz Garcia, director of the research project, Impacts 08, which was released in 2010, said: “We found that general opinion of Liverpool was informed by very dated images of the city, which ranged from positive but fixed associations with the Beatles in the 1960s to more negative views of social deprivation in the 1980s.”

She said it presented a richer picture of the city as a modern, multi-faceted place with a vibrant cultural life that reaches far beyond music and football.

Paul agreed about the enormous impact on the cultural sector of a successful bid: “With regard to the arts establishment, Sunderland is seen as having only one venue of national significance – the National Glass Centre. There’s no doubt the NGC does some great work, but then so do other arts organisations across the city. A successful bid would shine the spotlight on all the other fantastic work, performers and artists across the city.

“We’d also get more events, programmes or performances of national significance, such as the Asunder project which is being performed at the Empire on July 10. We’d attract world-class figures and organisations to the city. It would put us on the national cultural map across all artforms. There is a momentum building within the city’s artistic and cultural sector and a successful bid would recognise this and our capacity to deliver a successful City of Culture. It would be a real vote of confidence in what we are doing and what we can do.

“We certainly have the capacity and talent to deliver. The bid has the firm support from the university, the college, the council, Sunderland Business Group, SAFC, the MAC Trust, and companies from throughout the city.

“And in people like Rebecca Ball; Keith Merrin at NGC; Helen Green at Arts Centre Washington and Helen Connify at Sunderland Cultural Partnership, we have a talented and experienced team of cultural leaders who are shaping the city’s artistic sector and are helping to shape the bid.”

If the bid is successful, a programme director would be appointed to oversee the events, performances and activities delivered on Wearside.

Rebecca Ball believes, however, that there would be local input into the cultural calendar: “We’ve seen the power of community-based decision making through projects like the Cultural Spring, and we’d be keen for this to be replicated.”

But what artforms and work could we expect to see in the 2021 programme?

Rebecca thinks there would be plenty of opportunities to explore areas that Sunderland already has a solid reputation for – music, glass and ceramics and lens-based work.

“But this would be a year-long programme so there would be plenty of opportunity to explore opportunities in dance, theatre and other areas without just playing to our strengths,” she said.

Both Rebecca and Paul are confident the bid can be successful.

Paul summed up his feelings: “I believe that it’s Sunderland’s time. It’s time to stop thinking that things happen elsewhere, and time to start thinking that things happen here. There is a renewed sense of confidence and optimism in the city, a real momentum building – and a successful 2021 bid is what this momentum is building toward.”