How do you measure culture? How do you evaluate something that involves thousands of activities over a year?
With a sophisticated multi-methodology approach. That’s the answer given by academics at the University of Hull, which is launching a preliminary evaluation of the Hull UK City of Culture 2017, at a conference today.
The research finds that the focus on “culture” has helped to bolster the aspirations, skills, creativity, and economy of Hull. It also suggests what the social and economic impact of arts and culture activities can be, especially in supporting the renewal of the ‘left behind’ bits of Britain that Theresa May talked about.
In 2017, an audience of 5.3m people were reached by a varied programme of over 2,800 cultural events in Hull. Over half of those people came from the city itself, with 95% of residents attending at least one event. Many got even more involved. Over fifty thousand children took part in the No Limits programme, at over a hundred education institutions. 2,400 volunteers put in 337,000 hours, and most felt more positive as a result. Perhaps most memorably, thousands of people went as far as getting naked, painting themselves blue, and being photographed for Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull artwork.
Self-deprecating Hull was also in the national and international spotlight, with over 20,000 stories in the media. It’s projected that there were c.6m visits in 2017, about 1.3m more than 2013 when Hull City Council successfully led the bid for the title. A fifth of those visits were people coming to the city for the first time. This translates to up to 1m visitors involved as audience members or participants, about half of which were locals.
The data suggests that this started to change attitudes towards Hull, by locals and others. 75% of residents say they are proud to live in Hull, and they appear to be more engaged with local culture as a result. The research also found other knock-on effects, for example in how likely people are to volunteer or to be physically active.
This didn’t just happen though. Almost £220m was invested in Hull’s cultural and tourism sector, in large part due to the City of Culture 2017 label. This included council-funded refurbishments of the Ferens Art Gallery and Hull New Theatre, as well as money from businesses, foundations, and national arts organisations.
The university’s report finds that the events of 2017 should mean at least £300m extra for the local economy and almost 800 new jobs since 2013.
But a proper evaluation isn’t just about public relations, it’s also about asking difficult questions and not shying away from discussing what could have worked better.
As a local lad myself, I’ve heard grumbles about how inclusive the cultural offer really was. Did the proportion of events reflect the multi-cultural mix of modern Hull, in particular, its recent additions of Syrians, Poles, Kurds, and Kosovars?
Some grass-roots cultural organisations have also voiced concerns about being excluded for being either too political or too off-brand for the events of 2017. Similarly, some local artists have told me of an overly corporate and hierarchical take-over by “culture-industry types”, some from outside the city, and some self-appointed local “gombeen men”. Rising rents and competition from City of Culture events have forced some cultural organisations to relocate.
But perhaps this is inevitable. For a city marred by low self-esteem since the blitz, the decline in the fishing industry, and decades of geographic and economic isolation – maybe a bit of positive whitewash was what was required, to get the majority of people on board? Perhaps it was always inevitable some people would feel marginalised.
The research also found that many of the young people disengaged from “culture” before 2017 remained so, with over-representation amongst visitors in the 55 to 64-year-old bracket, and under-representation among those aged 16 to 34.
Critics may also ask how independent the evaluation is, given the university was a major partner in Hull UK City of Culture 2017, producing and hosting many events itself. Major cultural events such as this involve a lot of funding and a lot of politics. The stakes are high. Universities which get involved will need to navigate all this while maintaining academic independence and rigour. That’s a tough act with the post-Brexit “sick of experts” narrative still playing out in some quarters of the press.
A culture of learning
So what happens next, what will be the legacy of 2017? There are green – social, economic and cultural – shoots across the city, with the university often involved. Unemployment is at its lowest for twelve years, at 6.6%. Growth is above the national average, at 5% GVA. A cutting-edge medical centre on the university campus, recently opened by the Queen, should help provide the range of medical professionals that the region so badly needs. Likewise, Hull’s exploding green-energy sector involves a range of partners in the research, development, production and maintenance of wind turbines and other technologies – again underpinned by the university’s expertise, research and teaching. Other plans include a cruise terminal, a maritime history attraction, and a conference centre, as well as a 10-year cultural strategy for the city.
There’s still much hard work to do in Hull, and it remains to be seen if the government’s industrial strategy will deliver new investment and economic growth to such places, where austerity has hit hard.
But reading the university’s report, Hull clearly has some lessons to teach, not just for Coventry which will carry the culture mantle in 2021, but also perhaps how all cities can work better with their local universities on culture-led regeneration.