The Guardian view on Hull, city of culture: arts for all? | Editorial

Hull has announced a glittering programme for 2017. Its success will rest not on the glamour of big arts events, but on how it enriches its citizens’ lives

Hull has announced its programme for its year as UK city of culture 2017. The city that brought the world everything from Mick Ronson to the Hull Truck Theatre, from the Housemartins to Philip Larkin, will be awash with events. The elegant Ferens art gallery will reopen after a £4.5m renovation and host exhibitions including the Turner prize and a show of Sienese old masters. There will be a chance to admire, at the new Humber Street gallery, the work of COUM Transmissions, a collective founded in Hull by Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti in the 1960s. The Hull-born playwright Richard Bean – writer of National Theatre dramas such as One Man, Two Guvnors – will premiere The Hypocrite, a play about the local aristocrat who set in train the violence of the English civil war. The year will start as it means to go on – with fireworks.

Hull is the second city, after Derry in 2013, to be accorded the title UK city of culture. The scheme was established as a homegrown way of emulating the European city of culture programme, whose crown Glasgow and Liverpool wore in 1990 and 2008 respectively. In the UK version, there is no central government funding to help the winner, which is accorded the title after a bid process. Instead, the accolade is used as a lever to attract investment and partners, such as the BBC and Tate.

For all the fun and excitement, these years of celebration for cities can be problematic. The glamorous artists and performers may arrive like bright exotic creatures – and then depart, leaving a place much as it once was. Vast sums of money can be spent on cultural programmes and improving physical infrastructure, without a long-term difference being made to citizens’ lives. Art projects can attract the people whom art projects usually attract, without really penetrating into the hard-to-reach places of a community. There can be unrealistic expectations of what such a year can achieve, with councils desperate to fill hotel rooms, cut unemployment and attain that elusive goal of “cultural regeneration” without a nuanced view of the subtle manner in which art, encountered in the right way, might just shift the arc of a person’s life. The 2012 London Olympics is a case in point. Though the bid, which put culture at its centre, was obsessive about the importance of “legacy”, it has often felt unclear in what that legacy has actually consisted – and whether it has been squandered.

Early signs are that Hull will make a success of its year in the spotlight. Crucially, its programme involves not only big-ticket events that visitors will want to come to see, but projects that will start in communities: an estate that will throb with a colourful light installation; mini-festivals that will break out in residential areas; and, all around the city, free outdoor events. The Humber bridge itself will resonate with a sound installation featuring the voices of Opera North. For the year to work, it has to feel as if everyone is invited – visitors, of course, but more importantly residents. People must have a stake in it: to feel that it is theirs to make, rather than something that is being done to them. Two thousand people from Hull have already offered themselves as volunteers. Sixty thousand children are going to be involved in education projects. That is a brilliant start. The city of culture tentacles need to reach absolutely everyone.

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