Armed with a massive pile of homemade pizza and a collection of Ikea’s kids’ cups and plates, Talking Birds convened the first meeting of what was to become the Friday 13th (or F13) network in December 2013 (Friday 13th December 2013 to be exact!). At that point, as the notes reveal*, Coventry City Council had a new leader and there was the first mention of City of Culture in the air – presumably because Hull’s win must have just been announced.
It’s funny looking back at this photo (below) taken at that meeting – not just at how much younger we all look – but to remember what the city was like then, and why we decided to get people together. It was around the time of an Arts Council NPO round and we were keen to talk with others who might be applying – in a grown up, joined up, citywide ‘what direction do we want Cov to take?’ kind of way.
The City Council’s Arts Development was, at that time, sub-contracted out to Artspace – and, though born of lack of funding, it had proved a really bold and successful move, making the city’s artists feel much more connected to the Council and to arts policy than we had for a while (although it was demanding and exhausting for Laura at Artspace).
The other thing that was in the air was a general optimism, a spirit of possibility that had emerged out of the collaboration on the city’s (unsuccessful) bid to the Portas Pilot scheme. As I remember it, this was the result of a few connected things: a Void Spaces Strategy for the Council that Dan Thompson had been commissioned to write via Artspace; the work the wonderful Theatre Absolute had started in the Shop Front Theatre; and a conversation between void-space/meanwhile space users Artspace, Theatre Absolute and Talking Birds about creating a ‘Pop Up City’ Festival (which didn’t happen, but it’s descendant is surely the inaugural Shop Front Festival which happened here in March 2018?!). The City Council generally seemed more in touch and in tune with the arts community – particularly through David Nuttall and Martin Reeves and their involvement in the Portas Pilot bid. We felt, perhaps, like culture was being taken more seriously – both in the city, having been moved into the City Development Directorate, and perhaps more widely (it wasn’t really on my radar at the time, but perhaps Derry’s stint as City of Culture also had something to do with this…).
We talked at that first meeting about Coventry perpetually being poised on the edge of greatness (yet never quite making it); a place where the people at the grassroots are really active, making all kinds of things happen; that it is the grassroots-up initiatives that are most successful; that it is the grassroots that actually lead…
This loose network (or flow, as it’s been described) of artists has continued to meet and to grow and when, a couple of years after that first meeting, the City got serious about throwing its hat into the ring for 2021, F13 (as we had decided to call the group) found itself perfectly placed to be a kind of one-stop-shop for anyone who might want to talk to the city’s independent artists and organisations, and so F13 represented the voice of the independents throughout the bidding process. In practice, as the galvanising process of bidding developed, this meant that independent artists sat on the Steering Group and Programme Reference Group for the City of Culture bid (guided by, and reporting back to the network), we were heavily consulted during the writing of the City’s Cultural Strategy and, later, sat on the selection panel for the 2021 Creative Director.
F13 has established an interesting cross-artform conversational dynamic across the independent arts sector in the city – which is important, inspiring and a little bit of a haven, in these stretched-capacity times. What happens next is yet to be written, but if we keep talking to each other, we have found that it will always, always be better than what happens if we don’t.
F13, or Friday 13th (named after the date in 2013 that we first met, because we had to call it something) is a loose network of independent artists and organisations in Coventry & Warwickshire, which, amongst other things, is proudly amplifying the voices of the city’s independent organisations and artists in the run up to Coventry’s term as City of Culture in 2021. If you are an independent artist or arts organisation in the city and you’d like to become involved in F13, add a comment below and we’ll get back in touch.
* writing that, this post suddenly felt like one of those press reports when government papers are released after 20 years, which isn’t really what I was expecting when I started writing it!