Rooted in the people - Museums Association

Rooted in the people

How Coventry, the UK City of Culture 2021, is working with residents to produce a programme that addresses activism, radicalism and social change
City Of Culture
Profile image for Simon Stephens
Simon Stephens
The Tides Within Us, an outdoor audiovisual experience that will be part of the City of Culture programme, will explore how the natural world connects to the flow of oxygen within us
The Tides Within Us, an outdoor audiovisual experience that will be part of the City of Culture programme, will explore how the natural world connects to the flow of oxygen within us

Cities of culture are nothing if not ambitious. Not only do they all want to stage memorable artistic events that have local, regional, national and international appeal, they also hope to nurture long-term engagement in the arts and an improved cultural infrastructure. There is also pressure to be bigger and better than past cities of culture while delivering economic gains that help make their areas better places to live, work and visit.

In this respect Coventry, the UK City of Culture 2021, is no different from its predecessors – Hull in 2017 and Derry-Londonderry in 2013, but Coventry’s planning has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, the organisers insist that the year will meet the many aims outlined in its bid, when it beat off competition from Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland and Swansea. The bid was won on the strength of the city’s diversity, youthfulness and opportunities created by its central location in England.

“I’m delighted by the progress that the team have been making to work with the local cultural sector, regional partners and our third-sector partners to create a programme that lives up to the promises during the bidding process,” says Martin Smith, the chief executive of Coventry City of Culture Trust (CCCT). “We continue to be determined that culture will make a significant social and economic long-term impact on the city.”

Coventry-born rapper Jay1 is part of the CVX Festival, a three-day arts activism event curated by young people in the city

Smith and his team also want the programme to reflect what makes Coventry special but at the same time address contemporary concerns such as the climate crisis, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the challenges of an ageing population and the treatment of refugees.

“Being a City of Culture means always looking forward but never forgetting the rich heritage that sets us apart, understanding what brought us here and how everything and everyone will shape our future,” says Chenine Bhathena, the creative director at CCCT.


But what will this look like in practice? Activism, radicalism and social change all run through the programme. “Coventry is a place where movements, ideas and activism come to life,” Bhathena says. “We’ve always been home to movements, many of them artist-led, that captured the zeitgeist and drove social change.”

Coventry does have a rich history and is known for being heavily bombed during world war two, which led to its status as a city of peace and reconciliation. More recently, it became known as the birthplace of Two Tone, a 1980s genre that fused Jamaican ska with elements of punk rock and new-wave music.

But there are also lots of other stories to tell about the city and its residents. The Coventry Biennial is a good example of how the City of Culture programme is linking the city’s history with contemporary concerns. The biennial will begin on 8 October and is called Hyper-Possible.

By residents, for residents

The exhibitions, events and activities that make up the biennial will focus on three art movements that were centred on Coventry and Warwickshire. One of these is Art & Language, a group of artists, students and lecturers who met at Coventry Polytechnic in the late 1960s. The group had a huge impact on what was becoming known at the time as conceptual art.

The second is the BLK Art Group, comprising black art students based in the Midlands in the 1980s who had a significant exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in 1983; and the third is the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit – researchers associated with the philosophy department of the University of Warwick in the 1990s and early 2000s who had a big impact on contemporary thinking and international artistic practice.


One of the City of Culture projects addressing the climate crisis is Rivers of the World, which also starts in October. This artwork, led by the Thames Festival in partnership with the British Council with support from Coventry’s Open Theatre, will encourage young people to consider their relationship with the environment.

Little Amal, a 3.5-metre-tall puppet of a young refugee girl (c) Bevan Roos

The City of Culture programme is also  thinking about older residents. In September, the Theatre of Wandering, created by director Naoki Sugawara’s company, OiBokkeShi, working with Entelechy Arts, will build on the experience of those living with dementia, while allowing others to experience the changed boundaries of fiction and reality that this brings.

The theatrical experience will take place across Coventry and will involve shopkeepers and care home residents working together. Other significant events include The Walk, a public artwork that tells the story of the 5,000-mile journey of Little Amal, a 3.5-metre-tall puppet of a young refugee girl (see box).

Another key aspect of the City of Culture programme is the involvement of Coventry residents, particularly young people.

“We wanted to uproot the traditional relationship between a major cultural festival and its citizens, and create a programme that is for them, with them and by them,” Bhathena says. “Our focus has been on working with communities, groups and individuals to ensure that we are creating a programme that is led by the city. Our programme is rooted in the people of our city and our culture.”

The Walk

In June, Coventry will see the arrival of The Walk – a public artwork that is centred on the 5,000-mile journey of Little Amal, a 3.5-metre-tall puppet (pictured) of a young refugee girl. Amal will begin her walk in March, starting in Turkey and then on to Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and the UK. The aim is to focus attention on the urgent needs of young refugees.

Little Amal will arrive during the Coventry Welcomes Festival. Coventry UK City of Culture is working with the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, schools and local residents to greet her.

“We are creating the walk with a clear idea that the story of refugees is not only told by them, but also by how a community welcomes them,” says Amir Nizar Zuabi, the artistic director of the project. “When we were thinking about our route, it was clear that Coventry was going to be a key stop. The city is known for its history of pilgrimage, but also as a place of sanctuary and an international city of peace and reconciliation. This is a big cultural event but also a humanitarian cause.”

The project has been developed by Good Chance Theatre and the Handspring Puppet Company, which created War Horse for the theatre.

In practice this involves what the City of Culture describes as a “producing team model” comprising teams that are designed to reflect the diversity of residents. The three producing teams are Caring Cities, which is based on a movement that started in South Africa and strives to offer a better quality of life and is guided by values such as humanism and sharing, and providing comfort and dignity to citizens; Collaborative Cities is related to a global movement that investigates city making, leading to new forms of participatory governance and inclusive economic growth and social innovation; and the third is Dynamic Cities, which is inspired by a European movement that seeks to make cities attractive to talent, resilient to disruptive technology and leaders in the knowledge economy.

The CVX Festival is one of the activities being led by young people. The three-day arts activism event takes place on 12-15 August and its themes are community, unity and social change. Coventry-born rapper Jay1 will co-produce the music for CVX.

Ryan Christopher is one of the young people involved in the City of Culture programme. He is an artist from Coventry and will be part of the biennial. He says he uses sculpture, video and painting to “explore ideas of resistance in very poetic and very gentle ways”.

“I’m excited to be a part of the biennial and the City of Culture because I’ve grown up in Coventry and nothing too exciting happens in the city,” Christopher says.

“But now we have something to be proud of and, especially for me as an artist, having that platform to finally speak about my ideas and share my work is great.”

Deeper engagement

For Culture Coventry, the trust that manages Coventry Transport Museum, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, and Lunt Roman Fort, the City of Culture priorities around diversity, community programming and addressing issues such as the climate crisis fit well with its own ethos.

“The City of Culture  comes at a financially challenging time and we have had to be creative about programmes,” says Francis Ranford, the director of audience engagement at Culture Coventry. “But what has been nice is the community programming element. We want increased but also deeper engagement, so we are looking at how we can have conversations with local communities.

Turner Prize

It has become the norm to hold the Turner Prize in the UK City of Culture after Derry-Londonderry in 2013 and Hull in 2017. This year is no different, as the show heads to Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum (pictured), which is undergoing a £1.2m revamp.

The exhibition of the shortlisted artists will run from 29 September until 12 January 2022, with the winner announced on 1 December. The annual £40,000 art prize is organised by Tate.

“We are fantastically excited that the prize is being held in the Midlands for the first time in its history and in particular
in Coventry,” says Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain and chair of the jury for the prize.

“The Turner Prize brings audiences into direct engagement with new developments in contemporary art, which might otherwise take quite a few years to become more broadly known,” Farquharson says. “It is that encounter between innovative art today and
a broad audience that is the magic offer that the Turner Prize presents, and nowhere more so than when it is shown outside London.”

“This formula of going back and forth between its home at Tate Britain and finding a new home every other year has been a successful part of the prize’s history.”

Ranford also wants to tell a wider story of the city than the wartime one that many people are familiar with.

“For Coventry, it is always about world war two and the blitz, but that means some of the stories that should be told are missed,” explains Ranford, who says the city’s museums will also be telling the story of medieval Coventry as well as its more recent history in terms of science and innovation, and the role diversity has played in driving that.

City of Culture status often helps places become more ambitious and Ranford wants museums to reflect this.

“City of Culture will allow us to be bolder in the things that we do,” she says. “Museums here have a history of being quite neutral, but we are using the City of Culture to be louder about our values, to tell bold stories and to be more vocal about things such human rights.”

Like the wider events, the BLM movement, environmentalism, and LGBTQ+ rights will all feed into the programming at the city’s museums.

As well as looking to develop a more self-assured museum service, Ranford’s other aims for 2021 include building on the partnerships, innovation and collaboration that have flourished during the planning of the event. But at a deeper level, being a City of Culture is about changing how places are perceived and understood. For Ranford, this will be a key outcome of all that is happening in Coventry in 2021 and beyond.

“The City of Culture will transform how people view us,” she says. “But I would also like it to transform how we see ourselves.”

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