City of Culture 2021: Bidding to put Sunderland on the international stage

Sunderland last year confirmed it would be bidding to become the UK's City of Culture 2021. But what would this mean for Sunderland's profile on a national and international stage? We find out more.

Tuesday, 12th July 2016, 1:20 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th July 2016, 2:37 pm
Art in Sunderlands Keel Square.

Rewind the clock a few years and Hull was a city with a less than positive reputation.

But look ahead to 2017 and it will become a cultural hotspot, with artists from around the world descending on the city to enjoy its year in the spotlight – the year it becomes the UK City of Culture.

Sunderland City of Culture 2021 bid logo.

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Despite the fact there is still another six months to go until it is Hull’s year, the city is already undergoing a cultural renaissance.

Named in the Rough Guide for 2016, which showcases some of the most vibrant cities on the planet, Hull has been thrust into the limelight for months already, as excitement builds for its year of music, arts and culture.

“It’s helpful to look at other cities and how they have benefitted from this kind of attention,” explains Rebecca Ball, director of Sunderland 2021.

“We know that this competition provides a platform that reaches national and international audiences, but seeing the reality of how it changes places – how it elevates them – is fascinating, and very exciting if we are to be successful in our bid.

Sunderland City of Culture 2021 bid logo.

“If we look back to when Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture in 2008, the city achieved more than £250million in coverage. Even achieving half of that with our UK City of Culture bid would have a seismic impact on our city.”

Success would mean beating stiff competition from places like Coventry, Stoke and Paisley.

But the bid team are optimistic about the city’s chances.

“If Hull can do it, why can’t Sunderland? I think Hull scooping the title for 2017 really did prove to towns and cities the length and breadth of the UK that anything can happen in this competition,” says Rebecca, who was appointed to lead the bid last year.

“You don’t have to be a big city known around the world, or be featured in any Hollywood films to win this title.

“You just have to prove that you have the potential – the capacity – to deliver a year of major events and activities, prove that it would make a huge difference to your area, and, crucially, to prove that the local people really want it.

“Sunderland has so many great assets, and it does have a distinct identity. However, it is a city that has long lived in the shadows of its neighbours.

“That is what I think is so exciting about the potential of Sunderland winning. It would take us out of the shadows and into the limelight. And it feels to me – and I am sure to many more people – like this is Sunderland’s time.”

Londonderry was City of Culture back in 2013. The city was the first ever UK City of Culture – and many described the ‘confidence’ and sense of cultural identity that had been borne out of winning the crown.

Thanks to its status as UK City of Culture, Londonderry had over 12,000 articles written about its city and its people, reaching eyes across the world and cementing its reputation as a thriving cultural hub for years to come.

“Derry got a great deal from the status,” says Paul Callaghan, founder of Sunderland-based Leighton Group, and one of the driving forces behind Sunderland’s bid.

“I believe Sunderland would too. If you look at what people think about Sunderland if they don’t know the place, they probably don’t have particularly positive perceptions of the city.

“Many don’t even know that we have a beach. Think of how transformative it could be for the city if people knew that.

“Imagine if people realised that they could come to our city and enjoy a host of inspirational events and see world class art too. And think about how the profile of the city would change if we had some of the most visionary and high profile artists and influencers talking about all that makes Sunderland special.

“City of Culture status could catapult Sunderland. The best thing is that it is being backed up with a £1.2 billion programme of infrastructure development between now and 2024.

“The physical change is happening, and what a perfect way to celebrate our new city with a cultural celebration like nothing we have seen before in Sunderland.”

A successful bid is something both Paul and Rebecca believe will benefit the wider region, as well as just Sunderland.

“Newcastle is beautiful, Durham historic, Northumberland scenic.

“It is hard to imagine someone coming and enjoying only Sunderland without also experiencing other parts of our region.

“However, the difference would be that we would be first choice; and that would be game-changing for Sunderland,” explains Rebecca.

“Sunderland has – for a long time been seen as a second city.

“Here is our chance to change that.

“To become a destination in our own right. To be the city people want to explore; a city with a unique identity that is nationally and internationally admired. I think we have those qualities now.

“It’s just about bringing them to the fore.”

NewcastleGateshead has itself taken part in a similar competition. The area bid in 2008 to become European Capital of Culture, and was pipped to the post by Liverpool, despite being the bookies’ favourite.

“The profile bidding gave NewcastleGateshead was phenomenal. And if we are smart, we could use this bid in the same way – whether we win or not,” says Paul.

“We are already seeing our star rise in the arts and cultural world, and I think that has been helped by this bid. There is a reason now for people to look at Sunderland. For years, we have hidden our light – now we are confident enough to let it shine for all to see. And we dare to dream that we could be successful.”

Durham is another North East city that has bid – again unsuccessfully – in a cultural competition. Durham put its hat in the ring for the 2013 City of Culture competition – eventually won by Londonderry, and was well supported but failed to deliver.

Rebecca feels that NewcastleGateshead and Durham were two very different propositions.

“Sunderland does not have the same historic landscape that makes Durham famous. Nor does it have the same assets as Newcastle, which is an equally impressive North East city.

“And that is what makes our bid very different to those two.

“Once a famous city world-wide for our shipbuilding, Sunderland’s talented, creative and passionate people have been out of the spotlight for too long. But that can all change overnight, next year, if we are chosen as the UK’s City of Culture. It would be a unique chance to get our mojo back, and to open our doors to the world and invite them in.”

l To find out more about Sunderland’s City of Culture Bid, visit