UK City of Culture: What Next?

Garbhan Downey says it's crucial his hometown makes the most of what it's prayed for

The euphoria and, in certain cases, hysteria that greeted Derry’s historic UK City of Culture victory is at last beginning to settle, as a healthy dose of realism sets in. Sure, there is a strong temptation for those happy few who work in the arts sector to take a victory lap. You can’t overstate how important 2013 could be to the city, in terms of the economy, tourism, profile, and, of course, the cultural legacy.

And it was unprecedented, in my lifetime at least, to see so many diverse, joyous faces together at the Guildhall last week, all on the one team, and all batting unequivocally for Derry-Londonderry – or, as the cool peeps now call it, 'Legenderry'. But – and it’s a big but – it was one thing to win the crown, we now have to prove we’re worth it.

First and foremost, Derry has to be ready for 2013. The programme for the year must be a world-beater. Stunning. Unprecedented. It must set the international standard. To do that will require huge artistic commitment, both locally and externally, and massive preparation.

To this end, Derry must organise professionally and, indeed, corporately – given that this is potentially a £1 billion project. The winning bid, while perfectly pitched at the judging panel, is only the most tenuous of starting points. The long-term goals of the project and the means of attaining them must be developed fully, in collaboration with all. What’s more, it is imperative that the potential legacy of each proposal is addressed at every stage, and spelled out openly. In clear, accessible, reader-friendly language.

One recent press statement detailed the four core programmes for 2013 as: 'Unlocking Creativity focusing on children and young people, Digital Dialogue as the UK Digital Cultural Champion, Creative Connections offering an international cultural programme of events, and Telling a New Story which will create a cultural platform to explore issues of identity.' In my newspaper days, if a reporter had presented me with a sentence like that, I’d have stood him in the corner.

To date, there have been three agencies jointly running the campaign: the City Council; Ilex, Derry’s urban regeneration company; and the Strategic Investment Board, which advises the NI Executive on money matters. But, despite their success, it is not always apparent who’s in charge. To maintain the integrity of the process from this point, it is imperative that a transparent management structure be put in place, immediately, to oversee the project and ensure the involvement of the entire city community.

Any new super-structure must, unlike the campaign group, be directly accountable to both the city’s arts sector and the wider public. There can be no opportunity for dissent over backroom deals, preferential treatment and petty jealousies. The decision-making process must be open and democratic. Otherwise, beware the skulking carpet-baggers! And need I remind you, they are already very familiar with our territory.

A discerning eye scanning the celebrating crowds last week would have picked out a worrying number of highly-qualified outsiders and self-appointed consultants just ready to 'help' us. And within minutes of the announcement, senior Belfast politicians, who would normally get nosebleeds if they had to cross the Glenshane Pass, were openly predicting that the award would have knock-on benefits for 'all of Northern Ireland'...

Not that the city should be churlish. Derry will obviously want its friends and neighbours to share in its good fortune. But it has to service, and protect, its own needs first. The financial problems that dogged Impact 92 – a year-long international cultural festival which, despite some brilliant scheduling, left a battered Derry arts community in its wake – speak clearly to that.

The city must also move quickly. Very quickly. In terms of producing a world-class festival, three years is a tight turnaround. The big international names often work to five-year calendars. Belfast has apparently swooped in to claim the Brit Awards – part of the CoC 2013 package – on the grounds that Derry doesn’t have a big enough venue and couldn’t conceivably build one in three years. This cannot happen with the other major events we are being promised, such as the Sports Personality of the Year, the Baftas, the Turner Prize and, perhaps, the MTV Music Awards.

And yes, of course, we will need advice from people wiser and more experienced than ourselves to macro-stage the 2013 festival. But they must do this in tandem with and in partnership with us. For Derry to experience a 'step-change', we must enable the talent that is here, rather than import it. What we don’t need are fly-by-night producers, event organisers and PR companies moving to Derry en masse for 12 months and then heading on to Sheffield, or wherever’s next on the circuit for 2017. With our legacy in their pocket. The homebred skills are here.

The year-long festival will naturally necessitate a substantial budget. And that’s before you take into account what it’s going to cost to develop the Ebrington site as the city’s new cultural quarter. And did I mention the rail, road and air infrastructure. How are all our new visitors going to get here? And where are they going to stay if they arrive in the numbers hoped for?

Government has been cool about seed funding, so far. But it’s apparent to even the most primitive economist like myself that the city’s 'title-bump' alone isn’t going to cut it. If I’m starting to sound like a maiden aunt at a toga party, forgive me. It’s just that I lived through Impact 92 and still remember how even the greatest of plans can leave a bitter legacy. The Council/Ilex/SIB campaign to get us this far was first-class. And all those involved should take great pride in how they showcased this city to the world.

And regardless of the one-year festival, which will come and go with all its attendant joys and problems, the UK City of Culture award has already, for all time, established Derry as an international centre of excellence and a capital of the arts. And not a day too soon. We locals have known this forever – it just took a little longer to convince the rest of you.


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