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A look back on Hull’s UK City of Culture celebrations

PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 December 2017

Crowds poured in to celebrate Hull

Crowds poured in to celebrate Hull

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Martin Green was the man behind Hull’s hugely successful UK City of Culture 2017. Tony Greenway asks him to name his own highlights from the last 12 months

Martin Green was the man behind Hull's hugely successful UK City of Culture 2017Martin Green was the man behind Hull's hugely successful UK City of Culture 2017

How nervous was Martin Green at the start of 2017? He was, after all, about to mastermind Hull’s City of Culture year, which received a certain amount of sneering criticism in some quarters before it had even begun. You know the kind of thing: ‘Culture? In Hull?!’ That sort of comment was hugely unfair, of course, not to mention spectacularly ignorant. Even so, being Director of Hull 2017 – Green’s title – must have felt like walking into a lion’s den while wearing a meat overcoat.

‘You’d have to be some kind of egomaniac not to be supremely nervous,’ admits Green, the former Head of Ceremonies at the London 2012 Olympics. ‘You have some faith in your own experience and an enormous faith in the extraordinary team that has worked tirelessly all year. But until a project has an audience, it doesn’t exist. So you’re always wracked with nerves that you might have got it wrong or misjudged it.’

But Green hadn’t got it wrong and he hadn’t misjudged it. And when he (metaphorically speaking) flung open Hull’s doors on January 1st of last year, the crowds began to pour in and the acclaim started. In the first three months of 2017, nine out of 10 people in the city had attended at least one cultural event. At the world premiere of The Hypocrite at Hull Truck, 38 percent of ticket holders were coming to the theatre for the first time. Plus, Green reveals that visits to the Ferens Art Gallery have gone up by a whopping 500 percent. That’s some return on investment.

The key, says Green, was making Hull 2017 an event that inhabitants of the city owned and wanted to participate in. ‘There’s a danger that people can feel as though projects like this are being “done to” them,’ he agrees. ‘But that simply didn’t happen in this case. Instead it’s been embraced by everyone: look at our visitor numbers, our fabulous volunteers, our education programme and our community programme. It’s an event which has pervaded the whole city. As a result, Hull seems to have re-found a confidence and an enjoyment in itself – and a love of itself, too. Ultimately, confident cities can achieve anything they like.’

Visits to the Ferens Art Gallery have gone up by  500 percentVisits to the Ferens Art Gallery have gone up by 500 percent

It must have been pleasing to prove the naysayers wrong, mind you; yet Green isn’t feeling smug about it. ‘The curious thing about external negativity is that you can never really pinpoint where it comes from,’ he says. ‘It’s mythical, almost. What we’ve been able to do is introduce the city to a whole new audience and rewrite certain myths – and create new ones. That becomes self-reflective. People in Hull can now feel the positivity coming towards them from the rest of the country and internationally.’

Not that Hull hasn’t always been a great, cultural, proud city. ‘And,’ notes Green, ‘periodically, it’s good to shine a light on that and give it new reasons to be proud, new voices and new stories.’ Some new stories unveiled during Hull 2017 were on the edgy side. Take the headline-making Sea of Hull, for instance, Spencer Tunick’s photos of thousands of people in the city, stripped naked and painted blue; or Blade, the 75-metre long rotor blade from a wind turbine that was positioned in Queen Victoria Square; or even The City Speaks, where spoken words were turned into text and shown on the west tower of Hull’s tidal surge barrier. Ultimately, all of those ideas were brilliantly received, but they weren’t surefire things from the start. They could have gone either way with the public.

‘I would argue that you shouldn’t commission anything if you don’t think it could go either way,’ says Green, ‘because it probably means you’re not dealing on the edges of what art can do. To paraphrase Larkin, this is a city that gives you permission. It wants to take chances and risks. One of the absolute joys is that we’ve been able to work in a city that’s said: “Go on then.” So when we walked into the council offices and said “We want to put a 75-metre wind turbine blade in middle of the city, and we have to remove 40 sets of traffic lights and do it in secret”, they replied: “Yes, OK.” It’s a place that likes to say “yes”.’

What were Green’s personal cultural highlights of Hull 2017? It’s not the first time he’s been asked and it won’t be the last, but he obviously dreads the question. ‘Look,’ he says. ‘I found the Pride celebrations in July incredibly moving – particularly because it was the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality in this country. Thousands and thousands of people turned up for it and it was just an incredibly exciting week. Seeing the Royal Ballet open the (refurbished) Hull New Theatre – and seeing what the city council has done with the Hull New Theatre – was another highlight.’

On the edgy side: Sea of Hull, Spencer Tunick's photos of thousands of people in the city, stripped naked and painted blueOn the edgy side: Sea of Hull, Spencer Tunick's photos of thousands of people in the city, stripped naked and painted blue

He also mentions Hull 2017’s last commission of the year, Jason Bruges’ Where Do We Go From Here? a mix of art and technology in the Old Town; and the world premiere of James Graham’s play Culture: A Farce in Two Acts, about Hull’s City of Culture year, which opens this month. ‘But on a personal level, Hull 2017 has been utterly life-changing for me, and I’ve learnt so much because it’s been a unique experience in a unique city with unique people. It’s required the programming of 365 days of work. As a team we always said that the one thing that unites us is that we’ve never done anything like this before.’ It’s not ending here either, he stresses. The company set up to deliver Hull 2017 will continue on as a national arts organisation based in the city, commissioning programming aimed at residents and visitors. It’s also developed a 20-year legacy plan.

Hull might still be dancing in the streets, but the cultural mood is considerably more downbeat in Leeds, Dundee, Nottingham, Milton Keynes and Belfast/Derry, which have spent the last four years preparing bids to become European Capital of Culture 2023. Those dreams now appear to be dead. In late November, the European Commission pulled the rug out from under the five cities when it announced that, due to Brexit, the UK would no longer be eligible to host the event. It was utterly devastating: Leeds, for example, had spent £1million preparing its bid. So what does Green think about the Commission’s decision?

He chooses his words carefully. ‘I think it’s a great shame for the cities involved because they’ve put so much time, energy, passion and money into the bids,’ he says. ‘And I think it would have been more useful if the European Commission had reached a decision earlier. But, you know, we took the decision to leave the European Union, and I’m afraid that this is just the tip of the iceberg about how much we stand to lose by coming out of Europe. What I hope is that the reaction to it underlines how passionate we are about cultural activity in this country. It is, and remains, one of the things we are world leaders in. Therefore, we need to make sure that cultural activity continues to be well-funded and well-regarded now that we stand alone.’

For Hull, 2017 was a defining year. Standing on the brink of 2018, Green’s New Year message to the city is a simple one. ‘Carry on,’ he says. ‘Carry on being brilliant and edgy and risky. There’s huge ambition in this city. Let’s make sure it continues to be evermore outrageous.’

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