Thoughts & observations on Hull – City of Culture 2017

Hull was UK’s City of Culture for 2017. The City of Culture award is a government initiative, administered by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport with the aim of replicating the type of success Liverpool experienced as a result of the city’s year as European Capital of Culture 2008, which had significant social, cultural and economic benefits for the area.

Hull City Hall illuminated at the opening event for Hull City of Culture 2017 event – photo credit: Kim Dent-Brown (CC BY-SA 4.0 – via

Hull is an industrial port city on the Humber Estuary on Yorkshire’s North Sea coast, which is home to around 256,000 people. Although it has been home to a range of grassroots arts and cultural activity, prior to the City of Culture announcement, it may not widely have been thought of as an obvious centre for the arts, or as a tourist destination. However, the 2017 events brought Hull into the national spotlight, receiving increased investment, and more visitors and media coverage to the city.


Here’s a report from VAP Activator – Pete Davey…

Hull is a fantastic, vibrant city and, I must say, a 100% friendly place and a place that people feel proud to live in. It is a city that is steeped in its rich history – from a military supply port, fishing and whaling centre, industrial metropolis, WW2 Blitz and the Hull Eight who fought the Nazis and joined the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s (and one of whose families I had the honour to meet on our trip to Hull in a local pub outside of the City Centre).

Hull weathered a period of post-industrial decline with a loss to its fishing, shipping industries leading to social deprivation, high crime, isolation, poverty and crime and poorest city in the UK. At the time, there was no support from central government, huge numbers of people in the city were unemployed with major skills shortages, and Hull was seen has the worst place to live. But fast-forward to 2018, and Hull has transformed into a leading city – thanks in part to £310m invested in the city by Hull Siemens and Associated British Ports to build turbine blades and wind farms that can be seen all over the UK. This helped the city to get Hull’s UK City of Culture for 2017 creating an imaginative place helping with its culture-led regeneration throughout Hull.

Community Leaders in Hull – photo credit: Pete Davey

In my short stay, along with community leaders from Plymouth from across whole sectors including The Racial Equality Council, Visual Arts Plymouth, Culture and Arts Events Network, Disability Groups, Theatre, Prison Service and others, we got to know the city via presentations and talks with the Hull Community Development Programme, HEY 100 Leadership Programme, The Rank Foundation and Hull UK City of Culture team members. The group was full of creative minds and much networking was created and links made.

We got to meet truly inspirational community champions and leaders from Humber All Nations Alliance, Men in Sheds Hull, Rainbow Gardens, Pinewood, Rooted in Hull (Eco Friendly Inner City Community Farm), pop up galleries, artists, and the family members of the Hull Eight.

Men in Sheds Hull – photo credit: Men In Sheds

But I wanted to see more than slides, talks and presentations. The projects we visited were well run and established and aided by Rank & EF funding but none felt as if they wouldn’t exist without it and thus sustainable. Has a documentary maker, I wanted to see the real Hull. Walking around the city centre and heading into the neighbourhoods of where people live said it all for me. Visiting local record shops, social clubs, pop up galleries, shops, bars and meeting artists, working folks, the unemployed, students and shop owners. One thing became clear everybody in Hull is proud to live in Hull and think the City of Culture was good for their city.

However many folks did say that they never got to see most of the events staged or did not have the money to pay the prices for tickets. The leaflets and flyers were often out of date once it was published and distributed with social media lacking in detail. It was also interesting to find out that it was the low-cost or free events that had the best attendances and most involvement from the public due to high costs.

It is clear that these things should be addressed for Plymouth and we need create the incentivise to get it right – to make sure the folks of Plymouth play a part not just in volunteer roles but in paid work and be able to access tickets at the right price for events and to feel part of the landscape.  The networks in Hull and investments from the likes of The Rank Foundation and Hull Community Development Programme have created the networks needed to bring about this change.

Pete Davey visiting Rainbow Gardens in Hull

Plymouth is in a period of change and it’s easy sometimes to forget this. The visual arts, literary scene and history scene is in good shape but just needs networks between the bigger players to take Plymouth to the next level – with all the groups talking and working together from the bottom up and roots level to the top level and more funding and support from the press.  I also think the networks in Hull are a good example for Plymouth and are something that we can build on here and keep the links made between Hull and Plymouth and build on them.

Our next stage should be to ask Hull Community Development Programme, HEY 100 Leadership Programme, The Rank Foundation and Hull UK City of Culture team members to come to Plymouth to talk about how they have all been a voice for change in Hull and what lessons can be shared between the two cities.  Then you can make your own minds up by meeting them and talking to them.

Pete Davey & others from Plymouth enjoying Hull’s hospitality in a local pub.

I loved Hull with its culture and rich history and friendly welcome and litter free streets mind you – only in the city centre not elsewhere but it’s something Plymouth could copy for our city.  Hull is a place full of new buildings and cultural spaces and it’s a place of fun, but Plymouth feels like the city has taken a battering with empty shops or half developed spaces and run down places like Union Street. The improvements to the public realm for the City of Culture of Hull is very positive and Plymouth is on the verge of a similar exercise prior to Mayflower 2020 but without the same kind of rush. I do wonder will our America visitors see a battered old city and think it’s a shame? Perhaps Hull has shown how to raise up from the ashes and reclaim their city and be proud.

Pete Davey is a Visual Arts Plymouth Activator, artist, photographer, writer and independent arts & community coordinator steering projects like Stonehouse 100 Homes and Plymouth Culture & Arts Network (CAN).

The PlymouthGoSee Bursary programme is part of Horizon – a collaborative two year programme of visual contemporary arts with an aim of providing a major ‘step-change’ in Plymouth’s visual arts ecology. It is funded through Arts Council England’s Ambition for Excellence fund and delivered by a partnership between KARST, Plymouth Arts Centre, Plymouth College of Art, Plymouth Culture, Plymouth City Council, Plymouth University and Visual Arts Plymouth.