Culture 2021 ‘could be totally transformative for Sunderland’

Artist Frank Styles created a new piece of work on the Old Fire Station to mark the premier of Asunder.
Artist Frank Styles created a new piece of work on the Old Fire Station to mark the premier of Asunder.
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The UK’s creative industries are now worth a record £84.1billion to the economy, and are growing at almost twice the rate of the wider UK economy.

While Sunderland is fast-emerging as a creative hub, Louise Bradford looks at the impact that a successful City of Culture bid would have on the development of this fast-paced sector.

Artist's impression of Tombola's new offices in Sunderland.

Artist's impression of Tombola's new offices in Sunderland.

From LS Lowry to Lewis Carrol, Sunderland has long been a beacon of light, drawing in some of the brightest creative talent the country has produced.

And the city’s homegrown stock is just as high. Visionaries in their field, like Gareth Pugh and Dave Stewart are but two of the names that spring to mind when you think of more high-profile creative industries. But beneath the surface, the city is bustling with creative businesses that are setting the pace in their market; firms like American-owned Epic Games, and Tombola, which between them create scores of high value jobs for people in and around the city.

However, despite Sunderland growing a strong reputation for its creative talent, the city’s creative industries still only account for 4.8% of all businesses, and 1.1% of employment in the area.

“We’re scratching the surface when it comes to the creative economy in the city,” explains Rebecca Ball, Bid director at Sunderland 2021.

An artist's impression from Ainsworth Spark Associates showing how the Old Fire Station in High Street West might look like.

An artist's impression from Ainsworth Spark Associates showing how the Old Fire Station in High Street West might look like.

“We have some of the brightest talent here, but there is tremendous opportunity to grow its impact, creating more jobs and more wealth in the process. We believe that the status that would come with being named City of Culture for 2021 would be the impetus for this – it would help us realise our vast potential.”

The creative economy in the city covers a huge array of businesses. From graphic designers, to games engineers, all play a part in the colourful economy Sunderland is building.

One such creative contributor is Kent-born street artist Frank Styles. Frank is the artist behind some of Sunderland’s best known ‘graffiti’ art, including a gable-end mural of Sunderland AFC icon Raich Carter, and an equally large piece featuring butterflies, that proudly decorates a street in Sunniside.

“Sunderland has a small community of creatives, but some really talented people, which is what made me come to the city and stay here. It’s like a Petri dish – it’s a relatively small community, but that has created an opportunity to come here and make a big impact,” explains Frank.

“I think the creative community would benefit immensely from more funding and a greater platform. Look at places like Newcastle and they’re a huge draw for creative people and businesses. Sunderland definitely has the talent to be like that.

“I have a lot of friends who have moved away, because they want to be somewhere they can really achieve; really make something of their talent. I want Sunderland to be that place for them. And I think being a City of Culture would achieve that.”

The artist believes that other grassroots creative people and businesses will benefit too.

“We have some incredible enterprises here that are creating real vibrancy in Sunderland, from Pop Recs to Creative Cohesion – two examples of incredible grassroots businesses we have here.

“These small enterprises are the backbone of the creative scene in Sunderland and I hope they will be given a chance to expand and grow if we are awarded City of Culture status. I hope the status will help to promote these bottom up grassroots ventures, allowing them to take an active role in infrastructure developments that will support their enterprises.

“Closer to home, artists like my wife, Penella Bee, who is a choreographer and also runs Bee Enchanted, an entertainment company, could also benefit massively from the platform Sunderland will benefit from. It will be great to see money coming in from outside the region, that will benefit other local performers and the local economy in general.”

It’s not just artists that would benefit from a successful bid. Sunderland 2021, the team behind the bid, estimate that as many as 100 new city-centre based creative businesses could be created, thanks to the platform created by City of Culture status. It is also hoped a 25% growth in the creative economy would lead to creative careers making up more than 5% of the cities workforce. Rebecca Ball explains: “We know that the future is bright for the creative sector, nationally it has been growing a more than twice the rate of the wider economy in recent years. And this is our opportunity to capitalize on that – to secure investment and profile that will grow our economy and create new jobs here in Sunderland.

“But that is just part of the picture. Creative industries and creative people create attractive places; we know the power of art in place-making; we see the hustle and bustle of public markets, where people can buy unique art and crafts; we all reap the benefits of a vibrant college and university, both of which are bringing in people from beyond the boundaries of the city and often from around the world to be part of what they see as a diverse community.

“Creative industries will be vital in growing Sunderland’s appeal as a place to live, work, study and do business – and as a place to visit, not only during 2021 if we are successful, but well into the future. Culturally vibrant places are magnets – and we believe we could attract a great many benefits if we are awarded this title.”

The city is already building its capacity as a creative place. Both Sunderland’s college and its university have invested heavily in facilities and resource to spur on the city’s creative people and this in turn will ensure that Sunderland is well-placed to fully capitalize on a successful bid.

Ellen Thinnesen, principal and chief executive of Sunderland College, said that there was a city-wide strategy in place to support and grow creative industries.

“Creative industries are seeing phenomenal growth, and will provide millions of additional jobs in years to come. We as a college are very much focused on matching our curriculum to industries that will create opportunities for our young people in the medium to long term, and we recognise that one of those key areas for this region is the creative sector.

“Having the title of City of Culture will support the growing renaissance in the cultural sector across the city, and I think the benefits can be long term. We’ll be ready as a college to ensure that the talent exists to deliver a sustainable creative sector for the city.”

Many of the building blocks for that sustainable sector have been put in place, with work on a new Cultural Quarter well under way, creating a physical haven for the city’s creative talent. Alongside this will sit the New Enterprise and Innovation Centre – an incubator hub for creative business, that will be supported by Sunderland’s Fab Lab, a place where inventors and creatives can turn their concepts into a reality. When coupled with Sunderland’s existing facilities, like its super-connected business centres which provide a home to many of the digitally focused creative outfits the city has to offer, it is clear that Sunderland has the capacity to cater for creative businesses of all kinds – something the judges of City of Culture will consider carefully when awarding the title.

Tom Beardsmore, who founded and runs Sunderland Software Centre games developer Coatsink, said that the title would build upon the reputation Sunderland is already establishing in this field.

He said: “Sunderland has a really strong proposition for businesses like Coatsink, created by having the right infrastructure in place to support growth.

“The more businesses that locate here, the more that Sunderland will grow its reputation as a creative hub, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – before you know it, all eyes are on the city.

“We are already doing our bit to attract the gaming community to the city, and I think people are starting to sit up and notice.

“With City of Culture status and the fantastic programme that would bring, I think we could really transform the city and grow a vibrant, booming creative economy that could be the envy of cities the length and breadth of the country.”

Another major employer in the sector is Leighton, whose chairman Paul Callaghan has played an instrumental role in the decision of city leaders to bid for the status. He is also a driving force behind the MAC Trust, one of the partners delivering the Bid and the organisation that is leading the charge for a Cultural Quarter.

He adds: “With several hats on, I am able to see the huge cultural stimulus that would be brought about by a successful City of Culture Bid. This could be totally transformative for Sunderland, not only in terms of a cultural rebirth, but in respect of the economic value it would add.

“It’s great to see the creative community getting behind the bid, and we hope businesses of all kinds lend their support and help us lead a charge to a brighter future.”

To find out more about Sunderland’s bid to become a City of Culture and what it could mean for the area, visit or follow @Sunderland2021 on social media.