Aberdeen’s City of Culture Bid: A Lesson in Mediocrity

Aberdeen’s bid to become UK City of Culture 2017 fell at the first hurdle and has provided the  current Labour administration’s rent-a-quote councillor  Willie Young to jab an angry finger once again in the direction of the Scottish government.

22sept2012 053For those of you unfamiliar with Silly Willie to say he has a bee in his bunnet is an understatement. Each travail affecting the city of Aberdeen can be traced back to shortcomings of the Scottish government in Willie’s opinion. Sometimes he may be correct. On this occasion he is not.

If Willie Young paused for breath just one moment and read the City of Culture judges’ report on the Aberdeen bid he might actually learn a thing or two which could just help Aberdeen in any future bid, or at the very least help the city to tackle its cultural deficiencies.

The major failing referred to by the Bid judges was not the low base from which the city would begin to grow its cultural activities – and Willie Young’s point that Aberdeen fails again and again to get fair central government funding (this happened when Labour was in charge at Holyrood as well) which necessarily limits its cultural life – but the dearth of ideas submitted by those involved in Aberdeen City Council’s bid – criticised for their limited expertise; lack of coherent vision and having  no wow factor.

This is pretty damning and far from spluttering about the Holyrood government Willie Young and his colleagues who agree with him should look closer to home – to the people given the responsibility of developing a programme of ideas worthy of a city of culture and who have been shown to be, well mediocre.

Now this is not to say nothing of note goes on in Aberdeen. The city plays host to lots of great cultural activities and it has outstanding museums and an excellent art gallery which is innovative in its exhibition programme.  There is a thriving artist community and community arts. The theatre often has shows and plays from London’s west end although it has to be said that too often the same ones appear year after year. There is quite a bit of criticism of the city’s main theatre for its tendency to go back to old favourites.  

But back to the bid. Judges concluded that:

‘Despite the potentially compelling need and offer to Aberdeen’s bid, it does not deliver a compelling case in terms of vision or deliverability.’

That is less than complimentary to those with responsibility for drawing up the bid. And it is clear the issue had little to do with the current state of culture in Aberdeen but an unfortunate paucity of ideas for sustaining a year of innovative cultural events.  

Sad isn’t it – and an indictment of those chosen to lead the bid.

When I heard Aberdeen’s Bid Manager was to be Rita Stephen I did raise an eyebrow. She has been around at the council in various capacities for a long time but what, I wondered, does she know about culture?

Not much it transpired.

I groaned when I learned she was surprised at just how much was happening in the arts in the city. Well she shouldn’t have been. The impression given was that Ms Stephen was not familiar with Aberdeen’s cultural life or why would she be surprised? And if she wasn’t someone involved at some level in the cultural scene in the city then why was she put in charge of a bid of this kind?

The reason was surely that Rita Stephen has been at the centre of the council’s economic links with private business for a long time and she was until the bid job came up development manager at Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum (ACSEF) who were behind the disastrous plan to cement over the unique Union Terrace Gardens.

Of the bid she said:

‘The whole process for us is about making sure everyone in this city has access to art and that Aberdeen becomes a creative city.’

What does this mean? Currently everyone does have access to art, if they choose. There are no charges in the first-rate Art Gallery or museums and there are various community arts projects which take place, well in communities around the city.  So what did she mean?

If she envisaged, as it appears those who cobbled together this bid did, that Aberdeen 2017 would be built on community arts projects with the opera Madam Butterfly thrown in for the high brows then it’s no wonder the judges were quick to throw out their dull plan.

If you judge success by the numbers participating then what does that say about quality? How good, how exciting, how worthwhile are the events? What about people who choose not to participate? Will this be seen as a failure? Why should it be?  I’m fairly arty and middle class but take my sister-in-law – she would not thank you for levering her out of her seat at the bingo to sit through a performance of Madam Butterfly and neither would she be interested in any community arts scheme to paint shop shutters in her neighbourhood. It is not that my sister-in-law does not know what is going on, she’s not interested. And there’s no reason why she should be.

I am perplexed by Rita Stephen’s remark that :

‘We see the bid as a catalyst to bring Aberdeen’s culture back into the sunlight, because it has been hugely overshadowed by the city’s reputation as an oil and gas capital.’

This is nonsensical. The wealth that there is in the city should have been just the catalyst for the arts not a reason for their demise. The fact that oil companies have failed to put anything back into the city, other than jobs, is a well-rehearsed argument in these parts and it ill becomes Ms Stephen whose work has involved her directly with the very business people in the energy sector, mainly hugely wealthy, who have failed to invest in the cultural life of the city to any degree.

Rita Stephen cannot get away from her economic background. She emphasises the shortage of workers, sorry employees – no-one is a worker anymore – in Aberdeen which boasts very high employment.  To win the City of Culture bid would be the perfect means of attracting more people into the area and so increase the supply of potential employees.

She wants to anchor business in the city. Well here’s the bottom line Rita Stephen, business will stay in the city as long as the area has sufficiently profitable business opportunities – as it has now – and has had for over forty years sans culture. (I exaggerate) And a few more murals on shop shutters is never going to be the deciding factor.

‘The ethos of the bid is in economic necessity.’

Is the cultural emphasis being lost here to the interests of the industry that Rita Stephen knows so well?

Among other unhelpful remarks was one from Councillor Marie Bolton who said,

‘We have a huge wealth of culture, but it’s all under the surface. This will give us the opportunity to start people talking. They’re beginning to get involved in such cultural offerings as music, arts, drama and food. It’s seeing the greater population actually starting to get engaged.’

Yes well she is a politician and probably doesn’t know that arts is a collective term which takes in music and drama – though strangely not food. Maybe she was thinking about art. Maybe not.

I see what the bid judges mean by saying the vision of the bid group was limited. They wanted more opera, more dance, more music, more theatre but precious little detail emerged in their proposals. Still they had worn out the handbook of council workers, sorry employees, clichés for filling in bid forms.  Lots of:

aspirations, driving forward, transform our communities, cultural identity, community cohesion, renewed engagement with culture,  help close the gap between rich and poor

Oh it takes me back

beacon for culture,  a magnet, an anchor, regenerated communities, fundamentally change people’s perceptions, cultural confidence, bold vision, shared vision, culturally vibrant city.

8

STOP! Enough of this empty rhetoric.

The bid goes on to say that regrettably Aberdeen does not feel like the ‘vibrant city it should be’ which is strange because Aberdeen’s cultural vanguard has been ‘driving forward’ Aberdeen as a ‘vibrant city’ for a long long time. Clearly they’ve failed.

Anyone remember Vibrant Aberdeen2010-15? No?

key drivers

I said stop. Enough of the pen-pushers’ guide to positive terms guaranteed to enhance any funding application.  We’ve all been there. All done that.

 new opportunities, the city already getting behind the bid, the process is already creating a “buzz”

Just over 700 on its Facebook page last time I checked (only time I checked). So less of a buzz more of a zzzzzz then.

empower collaborative thinking and planning, key strategic partnerships, empower partnerships, embedded in the ACSEF Economic Action Plan, Aberdeen Inspired, the city’s Business Improvement District, there is an appetite for culture in Aberdeen

Aye. Read that how you like.

Aberdeen is unique in the UK

Oh yes so it is and so is every city – unique. Aberdeen is unique in the world, in the universe.

Our vision is bold, ambitious and unusual

Unusual?  So it is.

Aberdeen can be an illuminating beacon

Uhu. Maybe not quite yet. Anyway I think I’ve done that one already. Must have picked up His Majesty’s Theatre syndrome.

Aberdeen saw its bid as different as it had –

 potential to make a cultural impact that is well beyond the reach of any other regional UK city

Only words. And meaningless words at that.

There were attempts to pin down what their vision was:

local engagement – does this mean community centres ? and learning partnerships  and not least they were taking the Aberdeen public on a journey.

Think we were all being taken for a ride.

It’s easy to scoff. It is true that Aberdeen is largely ignored by the Scottish, never mind UK cultural media. BBC Scotland has an appalling reputation in this regard and the bid quotes the Arts Commissioning Editor of The Herald saying he had not visited the city in 25 years. That is a disgrace and born of central belt ignorance and laziness. There is a view that while other parts of Scotland, indeed the UK, will shout and make a lot of noise about very little Aberdeen and northeasters in general are far more self-deferential and not given to bumming themselves up.

There is more than a hint of this in the Aberdeen bid.

  • Storytelling: traditional and singing – Aberdeen’s story of fishing, granite and oil and the Doric and the city’s international residents.
  • Working with school kids.
  • Connecting to the rest of the world. Aberdeen – Japan link through Blake Glover  hence  performances of Madam Butterfly, Japanese movies, a symposium on Japans influence on western culture, student exchanges.
  • World acclaimed theatre directors involved in new productions.

Are you persuaded?

And the city’s cultural and artistic strength?

  • The city
  • Our education sector
  • Festivals and events
  • Literature
  • Tradition and heritage
  • Visual arts and crafts
  • Performance
  • Music
  • Film, media and new technology

 

For anyone involved in culture in Aberdeen over the last two decades most of the above is familiar territory. It may be that the same personnel are involved today as they were then and so fresh ideas are thin on the ground. What they offer is a well-trodden path albeit dressed up in inspirational lingo – although not that different come to think of it.

Vision? Vibrant? There’s nothing to show that it is.

Click on culture on Aberdeen City Council’s website and it mentions ‘high quality arts and cultural activity’

22sept2012 014

When you scroll down to SEVENTEEN it refers to the need for ‘a central space for artists and arts organisations’, ‘an information point for residents and visitors’, ‘workshop space for artists and arts organsiations’ – is this different from the ‘central space’? and ‘a flexible meeting and networking space for the arts sector’

All necessary I’m sure but not very ambitious.

The bid’s community arts mentality was never going to hack it for the City of Culture 2017 and unless Willie Young, Rita Stephen et al actually pause to consider and address their shortcomings then Aberdeen’s cultural life will bob along as it has been doing but won’t be wowing the world with its creative originality any time soon.

2 Comments to “Aberdeen’s City of Culture Bid: A Lesson in Mediocrity”

  1. hello Lena! spot on as ever, although I might argue the submission fell short of mediocrity. Maybe next time (for there will be a next time, as our Chief Exec Valerie Watt desperately wants two of these culture city awards) we can spend some time supporting culture and art practice and let it bed in, before we get the usual suspects to make a back of an envelope list of titles (gigs on rigs anyone? no – thought not) and then try to make them work.

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