Dundee in the running for UK City of Culture 2017

Dundee from Newport. Photo: Shahbaz Majeed
Dundee from Newport. Image by Shahbaz Majeed.

And then there were four.

In 1985, the Council of the European Union initiated a program entitled “European Capitals of Culture”, which identified up to two cities in Europe as annual “Capitals of Culture.” Since then, the Council has chosen a sundry assortment of cities across the European continent as Capitals, from renowned cultural hubs such as Paris (1989) to more obscure – though no less deserving – metropolises such as Kosice (2013). The scope of the Council’s consideration strives to underscore a common cultural thread winding throughout Europe, manifested by the diversity of their year-to-year choices. In 2007, the process of selection was slightly altered, the role of the Council henceforth being to choose a country for cultural recognition, whose government would then be at liberty to choose a city as Capital.

The United Kingdom has held two previous Capitals of Culture – Glasgow was chosen by the Council in 1990, and the government of the United Kingdom was granted the power to appoint Liverpool as Capital in 2008. Evaluations published after 2008 (most notably one commissioned by the University of Liverpool) lauded the city as one of the most successful bearers of the much sought Capital of Culture title, citing marked increases in tourism and regional clout that were proportionally larger than those in previous Capitals.

The British government, noting the remarkable publicity brought by the title of Capital, began a similar national program called the UK City of Culture in the hopes of replicating the economic and cultural resurgence of Liverpool in other cities. A long-list of candidates was released in 2009, and in October of 2012 Derry, in Northern Ireland, was chosen. A year-long program, including such eminent performers as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Ballet, was announced, costing a staggering £25 million for a city of just over 100,000 residents. Many hoped that the designation as City of Culture would reinvigorate a stagnant economy and stimulate the job market, as well as unify a population still bitterly divided by religious differences.

Hull History Centre. Image by mira66.

Almost one year later, the latter has been somewhat achieved – mostly due to the myriad of international artists which used the city’s palpable religious tensions as inspiration for striking artwork, thus tactfully moving a simmering conflict into the realm of the abstract. Unfortunately for Derry, the former, and perhaps more pressing, aim was unfulfilled – a cultural catalyst did not, in this case, carry with it an industrial one.

Now, the four contenders for the 2017 UK City of Culture have been chosen: Dundee (Scotland), Swansea Bay (Wales), Kingston upon Hull (England), and Leicester (England). These four cities will have to submit another bid detailing their respective cultural merits and outlining their potential program as City of Culture. Kingston upon Hull, usually referred to as Hull, could perhaps be called the runt of the litter – in 2005, the television show The Best and Worst Places to Live in the UK placed it at the very bottom of the pack, with an exceptionally high crime rate and mediocre educational opportunities serving as the main deterrents for settling there. Its lack of inherent cultural – and financial – capital notwithstanding, Hull has recently made enormous efforts to increase its prominence in Britain, channeling £190 million pounds into a cultural regeneration program that promises to make it a viable contender for 2017 City of Culture. In 2012, Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery hosted an exhibition by the famed English artist David Hockney, drawing tens of thousands of visitors. This May, the gallery installed selected pieces by the iconic Andy Warhol, which will remain in Hull until January 2014. The odds are manifestly against this plucky little city, yet perhaps, as often happens in films but rarely in life, the underdog will prevail.

City of Leicester. Image by kev747.

From Hull we move north to cold and striking Scotland, where the small city of Dundee is nestled close to the east coast. Already an established cultural center in Scotland, the city continuously invests in artistic and cultural initiatives through the DCA, or Dundee Contemporary Arts organization, which regularly hosts both workshops and exhibitions in various venues throughout the city. The DCA is especially supportive of artists who originate in Dundee, of which there are not a few; graduates of the Dundee Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (DJCAD) have gone on to exhibit at the Tate Gallery in London (Christopher Orr) or direct movies shown at the Sundance Film Festival (David Mackenzie). Discovery Film Festival, an international film festival targeted toward middle- and high-school students, was a Dundee initiative and has drawn acclaim from multiple Scottish institutions. Additionally, Dundee contains a large retinue of galleries and other forums for artistic expression, including the Dundee Repertory Theater and the refurbished McManus Art Gallery and Museum, all of which provide a substantial cultural foundation for the city of about 160,000 inhabitants. Dundee’s chances of obtaining the title of UK City of Culture in 2017 are thus significantly higher than those of Hull, though it faces strong competition from Leicester and Swansea Bay.

The former city is the largest of the four contenders, with a population of above 300,000. Proportionally, Leicester has the largest ethnic minority population of any city in the United Kingdom, which could serve as a boon to the acquisition of UK City of Culture in terms of the diversity of its art and culture. In its bid for City of Culture – entitled “Illuminating Culture” – Leicester capitalizes on the colourful background of its denizens, mentioning the Indian festival of Diwali as a popular annual event. In addition to heterogeneity, Leicester offers numerous venues for artists and performers, as well as a plethora of art museums and galleries, including The Guildhall, Abbey Pumping Station, and the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery. New Walk currently holds an exhibition on the life and reign of Richard III, whose remains were found in Leicester last year, bringing to light Leicester’s role in British identity and history.  The Curve Theater, opened in 2008, has made a name for itself as a regional exemplar of thespian talent, and received an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects for its innovative design. Leicester also proudly hosts Dave’s Comedy Festival, which began in 1994 as a week-long laugh-a-thon and slowly gained popularity and funding such that this year 530 comedy events were able to take place in over fifty venues across the city and the country. Leicester’s primary claim to fame is the BBC’s voice of natural history Sir David Attenborough, who grew up in the city near University College, where his father worked as principal. According to betting website William Hill, Leicester’s odds to win are 9/4, or about 31%; it is the second-favorite to win, behind Swansea Bay.

Swansea Bay. Image by Mike S.

Swansea Bay, a scenic region on the South Wales coast, consists of three towns: Swansea City, Neath Port Talbot Neath, and Carmarthenshire, all of which launched a collective bid for UK City of Culture 2017. The bid was supported by television screenwriter Russell Davies (Doctor Who) and actor Michael Sheen. So far, it has been designated as the favorite to win, with odds at 2/1, or 33%. Swansea is best known for its football team, Swansea City AFC, which plays in the Premier League against such football giants as Manchester United. Culturally, it is far behind its fellow contenders for the UK City of Culture title, with a paltry few galleries, most of which feature historical artifacts – such as the National Waterfront Museum, which boasts records of Welsh life from the 18th century, or the Swansea Museum, which promises glimpses of the Swansea life of yore. Swansea’s cultural capital mostly comes from the fact that the timeless poet Dylan Thomas was born there in 1914; multiple venues and exhibitions are dedicated to the life and work of the aforementioned figure. Most of Swansea’s bid for City of Culture rests on the notion of regeneration and cultural resurgence – recognition of Swansea Bay as a City of Culture in the UK would help raise the region’s profile and draw investment and tourism to stimulate a lagging economy and stagnant contemporary art scene.

Swansea’s favorable odds, despite negligible cultural or contemporary investment, are puzzling, even to a native of the region. Celyn Richards, a Welsh postgraduate student at St Andrews, says, “My immediate inclination is to say ‘no, it doesn’t merit designation as a city of culture.’ However, there has been a significant amount of money spent on the Bay Area over the last decade or so, including a new football stadium – the Liberty Stadium – to host the top-tier football club. While I was in Swansea much of this renovation was still in progress, and I believe development is continuously ongoing.”

The deadline to submit final bids for UK City of Culture 2017 is in September, and the winning city will be picked in November.


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