City of Culture 2021: Coventry’s reign is just getting started

Photography by Dylan Parrin

After a year of uncertainty and pandemic-induced delays, Coventry is bracing itself for a 12-month cultural renaissance. Coming like a ghost town? Not if the city’s art scene can help it…

It’s a dreary, overcast morning in May 2021 and Coventry is getting ready for the biggest cultural event in its history. In just a few days, it will be launching as the UK’s new City of Culture and organisers have planned an epic, extraordinary” all-day street spectacle to celebrate. It should be an exciting moment, but on the morning of my visit, the atmosphere is uneasy. The streets are silent, the shops are shut and the city is half demolished. Practically everything is being remodelled and redeveloped,” says Ruark Jon-Stevens, Marketing & Communications Manager of Culture Coventry. He’s giving me a brief tour of the city and gesturing at a gaping hole where the city’s old train station used to be. In theory, everything should be completed by early June.”

It’s a bold claim, given that it’s nearing late May when I visit. But much of Coventry tells the same story: In almost all directions, on every street in the city centre, you can see cranes, scaffolding and sprawling chasms of empty space. These half-built construction sites feel particularly chaotic amongst the city’s hodgepodge architecture, where solitary Victorian houses and ancient churches, still partly ravaged by blitz bombs, sit under the shadow of towering brutalist blocks. The harsh sound of echoing hammers and drills add to the chaos, making it hard not to feel viscerally stressed for the City of Culture organisers. How are they going to pull this off post-pandemic? Is this really the best moment for a multi-million pound, tourist-driven culture festival?

And yet for the next year, until May 2022, Coventry will be playing host to a series of music, dance, theatre and large-scale spectacle events, as well as The Booker and Turner Prizes. These now silent streets will soon be illuminated with art installations, light shows, site-specific theatre and flamboyant dancehall performances. As it’s one of the most diverse cities in the UK, there will supposedly be something for everyone, whether that’s a transcendent lunchtime organ recital or a canal-side performance of electro rock-sitar. The goal, according to organisers, is to attract new visitors and empower every Coventry resident – regardless of age, background or postcode – to reap the benefits of cultural participation”.

Dylan Parrin

In a normal year, this might not be as much of a challenge. The UK City Of Culture award, which has been running every four years since 2013, is known for bringing in tourists, creating jobs and rejuvenating the local economy. The previous 2017 winner, Hull, had a reported 95% of residents participating in at least one City of Culture event, and has gone on to receive a reported £1 billion in investment. The programming also attracted glowing reviews, with Arts Council England calling it a rip-roaring, awe-inspiring success”. Similar things can be said for Londonderry, which was the first to win the City of Culture award in 2013. It was apparently transformed” economically by the boost in tourism, with visitors continuing to increase year on year.

For Coventry – or Cov”, as locals affectionately call it – this boost is much-needed. The city has struggled a lot over the years and its reputation has been left to rot. In 2017, it was named the most dangerous city in the UK and the seventh in Europe overall. It has also been torn apart by Redditors and dismissed by bloggers as a miserable hellhole” that drains you of life”.

Look back at its history and you can see how it might have gotten here. Coventry was obsessively targeted by Nazi air raids in the second World War, which flattened vast swathes of the city. The destruction continued in the 1970s and 80s, when Margaret Thatcher’s policies wrecked Coventry’s engineering and car industry, shuttering most of its factories. After beginning the 20th century as one of the UK’s most lively and respected manufacturing hubs (the home of the modern bicycle and the jet engine), it ended it with a profound, trauma-induced identity crisis.

Justine Themen

But while all of this was happening, Coventry’s arts scene was flourishing. In the wreckage of the war, the city started experimenting with a community-based approach to culture, building the world’s first civic theatre, Belgrade Theatre, and founding the Theatre In Education movement. When everywhere else was rebuilding infrastructure post all the war bombing, Coventry was really forced to envision what a city should be like for its citizens,” says Justine Themen, a co-artistic director of Belgrade Theatre. “[There was] a real utopian vision for what a city should be. At the heart of that it believed passionately that every citizen should have access to arts and culture.”

Coventry’s diversity has also shaped its cultural identity. The city has always been one of the youngest and most racially mixed in the UK, with one third of its population now from minority ethnic groups. But that doesn’t mean things have always been harmonious. In the 1970s, as the National Front rose to prominence, racist violence and anti-immigration protests became increasingly common, and tensions on the streets were high. In an effort to diffuse them, young white and Black musicians in Coventry joined forces to create 2 tone: a politically-charged music genre fusing Jamaican ska, new wave and punk rock. The sound, led by The Specials, came with its own Mod-inspired aesthetic, with band members wearing pork pie hats, Harrington jackets and black and white chequerboard patterns (to symbolise Black and white people coming together). 2 tone ended up being the source of the city’s unofficial anthem, Ghost Town by The Specials – a Cov-inspired track about government neglect, disenfranchised youth and dancefloor riots, immortalised with a spooky flute riff. (A major exhibition on the genre will run at Coventry’s Herbert Gallery this year, to tie in with City of Culture).

Today, Coventry’s cultural scene can be defined by that same grassroots, community-minded spirit. When I speak to artists from the area and ask what they love about it, the words political”, grassroots”, DIY” and activism” are mentioned repeatedly. The city’s racial diversity, combined with its historic lack of funding and socialist leanings, means that Coventry’s arts tend to be centered around social change and community empowerment. And if there’s no money – which there often isn’t – locals are happy to innovate, creating their own underground venues and galleries in unexpected spaces. Coventry is a city that doesn’t show itself on the surface, you have to discover it,” says Anne Forgan, founder of experimental Coventry arts organisation Ludic Rooms. It’s a very closely knit community of theatre and performance-based companies, but also visual artists and musicians. It actually has a really thriving cultural scene.”

This reputation helped Coventry beat Stoke-on-Trent, Swansea, Sunderland and Paisley to win the City Of Culture 2021 bid. At first, hopes were high about how the honour would transform the city, but they were swiftly scuppered by the pandemic. The shock arrival of Covid-19 completely derailed the City of Culture planning process, causing a four-month delay and a forced reevaluation of the programme (it was supposed to start at the beginning of this year, but was moved to May 2021).

There have been challenges,” admits Simon Fitch, a Senior Manager of the Arts Council, one of City of Culture’s principal sponsors. He explains that the pandemic has disrupted programme planning and resident participation, with the latter being one of the central tenets of Coventry’s bid. The city’s original plans were very much about reaching out and engaging and involving the community, but some of those groups are especially vulnerable during a pandemic.” As a result, much of the funding that would typically be funnelled towards the arts is now being directed towards audience involvement and laptop distribution, so vulnerable groups can enjoy the programming online, from the safety of their home.

Ahsen Sayeed

For the artists and performers, the pandemic has been particularly frustrating. Part of me wishes it could have been postponed [for longer than four months], though I understand the logistical nightmare that would have been,” says Edie Jo Murray, a Coventry-based digital artist who is exhibiting at this year’s City Of Culture. That said, she – and everyone else I speak to – is really impressed” with the organising team’s adaptability, and is hopeful about the way the event will turn out.

People are nervous,” adds Forgan. Audiences and participants are rusty and trying to come to terms with how they can get back to doing the things that they love. And organisers are experiencing that, too.”

I think they were right not to postpone any longer, if it can be done safely. It can be a huge power for good in helping the recovery of the city. It’s not just about culture and art. It’s about getting under the skin of what it is to be a citizen here, and how we celebrate our stories and connect to other people in the city.”

Taiwo Owatemi, the Labour MP for Coventry North West, agrees. The reality is that our arts, hospitality and entertainment sectors have been hit hard by the pandemic,” she tells me. “[But] Coventry is a resilient city of innovators, it always has been. I know organisers and creatives alike have been working hard to overcome obstacles while prioritising safety so the show can go on. Equally, I know audiences are keen to enjoy arts and culture again after a year at home.”

Justine Themen

For organisers like Themen, who is directing the City of Culture opening ceremony on 5th June, the pandemic presents an opportunity perfectly in keeping with Coventry’s past. While Londonderry and Hull were defined by their bustling crowds and street parades (with up to 3.5 million people in on-site attendance), the Midlands city is happy to blaze its own trail, drawing on its historic narrative of triumph over adversity. Themen says that the pandemic will draw out the hope, aspiration and activism” in residents, and she is positive about its long-term effects. I hope [arts exposure] drives people to think more creatively and to see alternative pathways when they might feel limited.”

This hope and aspiration starts to reveal itself the more you walk around the city. Despite my first impressions of Coventry, the signs are everywhere – you just need to look closely enough. Amidst all of the chaotic new builds and weather-worn brutalism, you will see flashes of colourful mosaics and soaring street art murals. In the middle of the city, tourists can be seen gathering expectantly outside its most popular landmark, a 1960s-built mega-cathedral, with film crews slowly beginning their setup. The organisers, too, are infectiously optimistic about what lies ahead for Coventry, talking lovingly about the city’s history and brushing off any of the pandemic’s challenges. It is going to be an amazing year for Cov, and they are going to make the most of it.

I live in a city that has a unique beauty to it,” says Themen, finally. Coventry has this reputation for being a phoenix rising up from the ashes. After the Second World War, it became a beacon nationally for this utopian vision for a city. It’s not just about getting back to normal now; it’s about building something that’s better than it was before… We have an opportunity to create a new city narrative, to say that we’re not going to let this defeat us. Actually, we’re going to let it inspire us to continue to grow and move forward.”

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