As Keith Merrin walks along the banks of the River Wear, the foundations of the city’s rich cultural heritage merge with the vision for the future.
At the National Glass Centre he stands in the very footprints of the glass makers of the seventh century, pioneers in their field, who crafted stunning stained glass windows for Benedict Biscop’s nearby monastery.
Fast forward to this summer and the River Wear itself will play host to the mighty masts of the Tall Ships Races and its imaginative spin-off cultural programme while, as the river meanders inland, the distinctive Northern Spire, the newest addition to the skyline, will be twanged and plucked like a harp in another arts spectacular.
These are just some of the cultural highlights of a programme of events overseen by Sunderland Culture, a new organisation, formed at the beginning of last year by University of Sunderland, the city council and Sunderland Music Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust, aimed at singing the praises of Wearside’s rapidly changing arts and culture scene.
At the helm is Keith as chief executive, a title he juggles with his role of director of National Glass Centre.
Born in Sunderland and raised in Jarrow, Keith is no stranger to the region’s passion for keeping industrial heritage alive through the arts, whilst carving a new cultural path for the future.
In many ways, he says the formation of Sunderland Culture, which operates the city’s cultural venues, while delivering major projects, is about shouting about what we already have.
“It’s a way of bringing together all the cultural venues and opportunities in the city to get more people involved while, behind the scenes, it’s a way of bringing new investment into the city.
“For people living here, it’s a way of joining up the dots and making them aware of the cultural opportunities that already exist, while also promoting the city far and wide to visitors,” he explained as we sat for a coffee overlooking the new 3,000sq ft home for Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art within the Glass Centre, the region’s first contemporary art gallery which dates back 50 years.
Already, Sunderland Culture has attracted £4million of new investment from a range of bodies, including the Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund, local businesses, trusts and foundations.
Keith said: “We have this amazing heritage, built on industry, but for years Sunderland has been under invested in by big funders in arts and culture, and Sunderland Culture is a way to reverse that.”
He added: “What’s important to remember is that this is new money, set aside for cultural activity, it’s not taking away from anything else. A lot of businesses have wanted to invest in cultural activity in the city, but haven’t had that opportunity, so we are giving them that.”
A cornerstone of Sunderland Culture was Wearside’s City of Culture 2021 bid, a much-coveted title which eventually went to Coventry.
Far from licking their wounds, the group are forging ahead with many of the plans put in place as part of the bid, such as the new auditorium next to the Fire Station arts hub, the foundations of which will be laid later this year.
Keith says the momentum of that bid still gathers pace, five months after Coventry scooped the crown.
“What was great about the City of Culture bid is that it wasn’t about expensive consultants brought in from outside, like other city’s bids,” he said. It was done by the people of the city, and from organisations such as the university and the council, and because of that it felt more authentic.
“What it did was to put in place building blocks. It started something and we’ve ended up in a much stronger position because of it, with more people working together than ever before. We’ve used the bidding process to push forward the plans we already had. All the things we said we would roll out, we will be, so, in a way, it doesn’t feel like we lost.”
As well as attracting visitors, who sleep, eat and drink in our businesses ploughing money into the economy, Sunderland Culture is aimed at retaining talent, keeping hold of students who, 10 years ago, may well have left the city to pursue their artistic careers.
The group’s central programme of delivery is Sunderland Twenty Four Seven, a seven-year project aimed at increasing the number of people involved in arts and culture between now and 2024, which is expected to bring a further £60million of cultural investment into the city.
It builds on many of the themes of the bid, including friendship.
“People told us how important friendship was in the city and we listened to them,” said Keith. “And arts and culture is a great way of expressing that.
“We see that every day here at National Glass Centre when people of all cultures and backgrounds come together in one space. And you see it in events like Tall Ships Races when hundreds of thousands of people come together for a moment of joy and celebration.
“In many ways Sunderland is already home to so much culture, such as Sunderland Museum which attracts major exhibitions, which usually go to much larger cities, and next year will display drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.
“Many things may have gone unnoticed in the past, but not anymore. In these last few years we have a much greater sense of Sunderland taking its place on the national stage as a cultural city.”