History is made by those who write the stories

Losing the City of Culture legacy programme feels like a bereavement, but what the sector is mourning is not the Trust, but the glittering story of a city lifted up and made forever better by arts, culture and creativity. Not because this story didn’t happen, but because it is currently overshadowed and in danger of being drowned out by the story of the failure of the City of Culture Trust.

There are many stories that are told about cities, and especially about cities bidding for the UK City of Culture title. And there are many versions of the story of what it might mean to win such a title. And, as with all good stories, this story is fluid, accommodating many adaptations and embellishments as it passes from hand to hand. We attached our dearest hopes and dreams to what we knew, deep down, was a festivalised feel-good marketing slogan. But what is a marketing slogan other than an attempt to shift the narrative, tell a different story, and make people feel more warmly about something (or somewhere)?

On this blog in December 2017, in a post entitled ‘We won? We won!‘, I wrote: “Coventry’s bid…speaks of a people-powered antidote to Brexit by placing trust in its young people, by making spaces for all the city’s people to come together, to discover and celebrate what they have in common, find an understanding: it speaks of a city that is truly the sum of its parts. And it updates the levelling effect of the famed ‘blitz spirit’, its social cohesion and the utopianism of the post-war rebuild by recognising that it is culture that holds society together, and when you mix culture and hope (as you perhaps have to when bidding for something 4 years ahead) there are no possibilities closed off to you.”

Like everyone in this city, I only know a fraction of the stories of hope, revelation, togetherness, joy, healing and love generated by our city winning the City of Culture title. Some of these were facilitated by amazing individuals in the Trust, some of them were crafted by the city’s fantastically talented arts sector, some of them happened because there was a notion that Coventry had won something and that generates its own kind of pride and self-respect, and some of them happened because (like FOMO or a reverse game of chicken) if one person invests in the city, so do others.

Talking Birds and the city’s artists certainly benefited from this: the investment generated by the title allowed the story of The Nest, and the Daimler Powerhouse (among others), to become a reality. As we have said many times, although Talking Birds is the steward of The Nest, it is very much a space for the wider small scale, independent sector to come together, explore regenerative creative practice and imagine and create better ways to be. (By the way, if this includes you and you haven’t yet been to find out where you fit in, please do – you’re very welcome to come to a co-working afternoon for starters.) After 30 years trying to get a shared making space for artists that was more than temporary, this is a big win for the city and it was made possible by Coventry winning a title: by a change in the city’s story.

As well as bringing people together, the act of imagining and telling hopeful city stories also made us bold. Supported by the City of Culture Trust, Arts Council England, Coventry City Council and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation – we brought a group of 50 Coventry people together to ask the question “How can arts, culture and creativity shape a better future for Coventry?” in what we think was the first UK Citizens’ Assembly on arts and culture, reasoning that if we couldn’t do something like this in a City of Culture year, when could we do it?

Over a six week period, these 50 Coventry residents, “ordinary people”, heard from twenty “expert witnesses” – people with particular knowledge, ideas or opinions, different life experiences and perspectives – and it was a huge privilege to watch the process unfold, to see the way that the Citizens grew in confidence and knowledge; challenging themselves and others; working collaboratively with people whom they would not otherwise have met, on a rich new city story.

We were blown away by our participants’ keenly felt sense of responsibility to represent all Coventry’s citizens, and the care they took in their deliberations. And what a story the resulting recommendations tell: an ambitious and exciting future Coventry, offering democratic, regenerative, equitable lives for all citizens, with democracy of access to arts and culture as creator, participant and audience. A story of a resilient, green, welcoming and future-facing city of cultures, where creativity is valued and fully integrated into all communities. What a privilege that Talking Birds’ job now is to work with these Citizens to make those recommendations happen, make that fantastically hopeful story a reality.

I started this post by saying the arts sector is grieving – but that grief is not because the hopeful story of City of Culture has not been realised (because it has, multiple times!), but because this hopeful story is in real danger of being soured and overshadowed by the story of the failure of the Trust. That story is one of many that co-exist – and it does need to be told. It is a story of legitimate grievances, which need to be aired. Of people out of pocket, or out of a job. Of amazing plans and projects which probably won’t happen. Of a city’s loss.

But it is not the only story. Despite everything, winning the City of Culture title gave artists in the city a lift, a voice, courage, ambition. The loss of the Trust can’t take that away but, if we let it, it can tarnish those gains; make us value them less, change how we feel about our place.

In the void left by the Trust’s collapse, the danger is that the Coventry City of Culture Trust and Coventry itself become conflated and – if we let them – the voices telling this simplified story of Coventry’s failure take control of the narrative, and the good news story of our city is buried. I don’t want the richness of the stories of Coventry, our City of Culture, to be reduced to this loss – and if we choose to let that version of the story rise to the top, we can only lose.

What I love about this city, with its messy and contradictory stories, is that it is incredibly resourceful, determined, collaborative, funny, generous and creative. Rather than wallow in our grief, we must use it to craft our own story to tell the world about what happened here, and – crucially – about what happens next.

[Posted by Co-Artistic Director Janet on 14th March 2023]


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