What culture does in its civic role is that it allows people to feel part of something that goes beyond their own individuality.
If you invest in culture seriously and understand its civic role then it is transforming and creates community cohesion in times of great austerity, and Liverpool has been hit very hard by austerity. We provided hope through culture, through having the Giants, playing on the streets of the city.
I think we have done that well in this city because such a huge amount of what we have done is free, accessible, and it has local stories right at its heart. In Liverpool we fund our cultural sector well and culture is part of what makes this a great city. This city is known for its football teams and its culture. Culture has become part of how the city sees itself and how it is portrayed. The city has become a stage on which the stories of its people are told. A million people gathered on the banks of the Mersey to see the Queens come in because the story of the sea and the story of what the sea and shipping means to them over the years is huge.
It is that historical memory, transported and framed by the modern day, that we need to capture so we can reflect a city’s story back to a new generation. It’s important for people to know where they have come from. Without that there is no civic pride, there is no pride in the place. You have to build the pride. We have done that by using culture, and what culture in its civic sense can do is create a city that has a sense of ambition and a real sense of itself.
I was originally a community arts worker in Speke and Toxteth in the late 90s. One of things I realised was that if regeneration stood a chance it was necessary for local people to get their voices heard and one of the best ways to do that is through culture and community arts. We learned a lot doing that and doing it over a long time. One of the reasons we won ‘Capital of Culture’ was because of public engagement. We put people at the heart of the bid because we saw how culture was a powerful tool that could transform the future of the city. There are stories all around the city of change in communities and that change has grown from the belief that it is communities themselves who can have the idea and it is the artists who will respond to that idea, rather than the artists leading.
We’ve seen that working in places all over the city and in many ways. We’ve had a long run at it and we have had very strong, consistent political support that might not be the case in other places where politicians have not yet realised that culture is at the very heart of regeneration. We have a mayor who says yes before he says no. The mistake is when people think that culture can be a quick fix. It isn’t. The Liverpool story has been 20 years in the making.
Because I work in the council and I sit next to the person dealing with social care or children’s services you have got to believe in what you are doing and its value when you are talking about budgets. I see my role as fighting to make the city the best place it can be. You have got to believe in the transformational effect of what you do. We are not putting up one service against another, we are working together and with many different organisations within the city. We are managing a whole city, but we are very clear a whole city has different parts to it and one of those parts is about growing; without great cultural activity we are not going to grow, and people are not going to want to come and live here. It’s storytelling. I’ve been here nearly 30 years and over that time because of the way culture has been used in a civic setting I have seen that story change. We don’t need to tell a story of deprivation, because that is what people think about Liverpool in their first breath. Instead we can tell the stories that have not been heard, the stories about resilience and joyfulness. The real moments of social justice and what makes this place tick. So yes, I do think that civic responsibility is central to my job and the cultural work we do.
When austerity came in, we did a poll and 80% cent of people said: do not shut the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Of course, we weren’t considering shutting it down, but it shows how important cultural organisations and the cultural offer is to a place and its people. It’s their Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, not the city council’s and that is the key thing for councils to understand: that we are only custodians for a short period of time. It belongs to the people who pay their council tax and who live here — and who love the place.
What we’ve done well is to create real moments when you can come with the whole family, and tourists can come too, and you feel so proud of your city. For me it has always been about quality, not about second best. That’s why we always strive to work with artists who are the best at what they do. Liverpool’s people deserve the best.
Claire McColgan, Director, Culture Liverpool