Birmingham will has submitted its initial pitch to be UK City of Culture 2013. Terry Grimley looks at the bid and the chances of success.
A new state-of-the-art library, a city centre university campus and an international autumn festival are three pillars of Birmingham’s bid to be the first UK City of Culture.
Friday was the deadline for entering the Government’s competition, and Birmingham will be one of an anticipated 22 cities throwing their hats into the ring for 2013, along with Manchester, Sheffield, Brighton and Swansea.
The coincidence that the Library of Birmingham and expanded Birmingham Repertory Theatre are scheduled to open during 2013 is the linchpin around which the city is constructing its bid. The year also happens to be the Rep’s centenary.
Other events planned for 2013 are the opening of a new Eastside campus for Birmingham City University, including many of its arts departments and the launch of a festival over nine weekends in the autumn.
Provisionally titled Birmingham Autumn, this will be programmed by a different guest curator each year and will feature new collaborations between arts organisations in the city and international partners. The cost of the festival is estimated at almost £9 million, of which around half would be recovered through earned income.
Other new developments linked in to the bid, which has been given the theme “Big City Culture”, include the redevelopment of New Street Station, phase one of which should be completed by 2013 and new galleries at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery devoted to the history of the city, funded by a £4.6 m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The bid is being promoted by the Birmingham Cultural Consortium, whose partners include the city council, Advantage West Midlands, Marketing Birmingham and a range of cultural organisations.
Plans for a UK City of Culture, to be awarded every four years, were announced by culture secretary Ben Bradshaw in July, following the success of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008.
Discounting the capital costs of the library and university campus, it is estimated that Birmingham’s proposed programme would require approximately an additional £20 m above existing funding.
Although there is no cash prize for winning the competition, it is understood that the Government would encourage support for the winning city from various sources including the Lottery. It is likely that a number of high-profile national events, including the Turner Prize and the Brit Awards, would be held there, as they were in Liverpool during 2008.
When the list of cities planning an initial bid was announced, culture minister Margaret Hodge said: “The city or place winning the title for 2013 will enjoy a golden opportunity to have the spotlight of national attention focused on them.”
The competition defines cities loosely to include regions and bidders include the whole of Cornwall. It requires candidates to demonstrate not only a strong existing cultural infrastructure but a strategy in which the year can deliver a permanent step-change, with a lasting social and economic legacy.
Birmingham’s 30-page bid document points to the strongest artistic infrastructure in an English city outside London, with world-class organisations and facilities including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Symphony Hall and the Hippodrome, Britain’s busiest theatre outside London.
On the downside, it points out that external perceptions of the city lag stubbornly behind the reality while cultural participation among the population is significantly below the national average. The city has also suffered disproportionately in the current recession, with the UK’s highest level of unemployment.
Suggested explanations for the relatively low cultural take-up among the city’s population are its socio-economic make-up, the sheer size of the city, which makes the city centre remote for many people, and the lack of cultural infrastructure in the neighbourhoods.
The council is currently taking an audit of cultural activity outside the city centre through its Big Blank Canvas website www.canvasbirmingham.com which was launched last month and is intended to provoke a debate on how more cultural opportunities can be spread outside the city centre.
The city is playing up its youthful demographic and has plans for a significant part of the programme to be organised by young people.
As well as raising levels of participation among citizens, the bid strategy ultimately aims to make a significant difference to the city’s economic prospects by transforming external perceptions of it as an attractive and liveable place, encouraging tourism and investment.
However, none of the main building blocks of the bid are dependent on Birmingham winning the competition. Plans for the Birmingham Autumn Festival emerged from the recommendations of consultants who have been looking at the city’s portfolio of festivals since March last year.
It follows the success of the biennial Manchester International Festival, which has brought Birmingham’s north-west rival huge publicity since it was launched with Damon Albarn’s Monkey: Journey to the West in 2007.
Coun Martin Mullaney, Birmingham’s cabinet member for leisure, sport and culture, said he was confident that the new festival would be affordable. “We will put ArtsFest into that, which costs £4-6m,” he said.
“I’ve said all along that if we don’t get City of Culture we will deliver all this anyway. If we do, it will be the icing on the cake. We’re also growing all the niche festivals like Rhubarb Rhubarb and Supersonic. There is also some money to start new individual festivals which may be a bit quirky, a bit wacky.”
The new autumn festival, aimed to establish Birmingham as a major cultural centre, will fit more than 250 performances into nine weekends during October and November. Each weekend would see a “mini-festival” from Friday afternoon until Sunday evening.
It is anticipated that it would sell 152,000 tickets in its first year, raising £3.3 m at the box office and attracting £3.5 m of media coverage. Attendances could double in three years, with a net impact of £50 m on the economy and 35 per cent of its audiences from outside the West Midlands, 15 per cent from abroad.
Coun Mullaney said he believed that the scale of Birmingham and its ability to make a big impact, was in its favour.
“We need to make a step change, in that the view of the city in the rest of the country is not good,” he said. “We’ve still got a long way to go to sort out perceptions from London.”
* The Competition
The 22 cities and regions which declared their intention of submitting an initial bid in October are Aberdeen, Barnsley, Birmingham, Bradford, Brighton and Hove, Cheshire West and Chester, Chichester, Cornwall, Derry, Durham, Gloucester and Cheltenham, Hull and East Yorkshire, Ipswich and the Haven Gateway, Lancaster, Manchester/Salford, Norwich, Pennine Lancashire, Portsmouth and Southampton, Sheffield, Southend-on-Sea, Swansea Bay, and Wakefield. The definitive list will be announced by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport early next week.
Birmingham’s bruising experience of bidding for European Capital of Culture 2008 demonstrated how difficult it is to anticipate a process which could be deeply political.
Manchester would seem to be the biggest threat, and in September Paddy Power made it the favourite at 4-1, with Birmingham second at 5-1. But to award City of Culture to Manchester so soon after Liverpool hosted European Capital of Culture might look too much like north-west favouritism.
A shortlist will be drawn up next month and those chosen will have until May 28 to submit a full and final bid, with the winner being announced in the summer.