Creative Director Chenine Bhathena reflects upon Coventry's 12 months as City of Culture

 

Twelve months ago, Coventry City of Culture’s year began. So it’s a great moment for us to reflect on some of our most memorable projects, the thinking that went into them, and the impacts they have had on our city.  At the start of our City of Culture journey, we developed 6 core principles to form the heart of our cultural programming in response to our discussions with communities and taking forward ideas from the bidding period.

These principles reflect Coventry’s identity as a pioneering, multicultural, and youthful city. They have helped us create a programme which has demonstrated the vital role culture plays in modern society - how it is a force that changes lives, and how it has moved Coventry forwards.

Co-Creation

From the beginning we have been committed to cultural democracy and putting co-creation at the heart of the creative programme. We have worked with local artists, community centres, charities, cultural organisations, faith centres, schools, nature groups and radio stations across the city, reaching into our many different and eclectic communities to put their voices central to the programme. We have trained and supported citizens to shape, design and deliver activities, enabling their experiences and stories to take centre stage.

For our Wildlife Gathering event, Juneau Projects co-created an art trail with local groups called Time For Nature, which combines Spon End’s clock-making heritage and the wildlife along the River Sherbourne.

Our 18 Community Connectors co-created projects within their communities, giving them a platform to engage with their local area through creating art and producing events, while also providing meaningful participation opportunities for community members. Upcoming projects to get involved with are the Creative Wellness Project led by Viktoria Sesi, the Ground 2 Table allotment project led by Dan De Feo, and The Good Neighbours Songwriting Project led by Steve Jones.

We have our Co-Creation Conference coming up on 26 May, where we will share The Coventry Model, our experiment on how you co-create a large scale £20M, high impact programme. We will reflect on the challenges and successes we encountered whilst creating a programme of this scale of engagement.

Volunteering/Active Citizenship

Enabling Coventry’s citizens to be actively involved in our City of Culture events has been vital. So we launched our City Hosts volunteering programme with the aim of increasing civic pride and encouraging active citizenship. City Hosts have played a key role in helping us deliver events throughout the year. And through this participation many have learned new skills, enhanced their job prospects, improved their mental health and formed new friendships.

We invited our local participants and partners to monthly Community Training sessions, where they learnt more about events management, fundraising and audience development to help with their own programming and production.

We have also seen local community centre leaders train as promoters and join forces to create the brilliant programme Theatre Next Door, where local community centres have programmed exciting shows and brought the excitement of professional theatre to Coventry neighbourhoods. Residents have been engaging with shows on their doorstep and have had an active say in what is programmed.

International/National

Besides creating cultural collaboration within Coventry, we have also been working nationally and internationally to build and strengthen cultural partnerships between artists, community leaders and creative practitioners in Coventry and in countries all over the world, increasing Coventry’s presence on the national and international stage, which has been especially challenging in a global pandemic. We wanted the 2021 programme to reflect and evolve Coventry’s spirit of internationalism, as the originator of the twin cities movement, a home of diverse migrant communities, the only UK city of peace and reconciliation, and a place of sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees.

We have tried to create projects which help put Coventry on the map, highlighting its place as a future-facing, pioneering city in the new digital age. We opened the UK’s first permanent immersive digital art gallery, The Reel Store, which explores new ways to experience the wonder of art and creativity and offers a major new international visitor attraction that puts us up there with other big cultural capitals like Berlin, Paris, Tokyo and New York. The new interactive VR film experience, In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats, had its world premiere in March, where people could explore a virtual world and step into the shoes of rave culture pioneers and will now tour internationally. And most recently, Our Wilder Family was the UK’s longest ever drone display, using the best 5G technology to livestream the event, so that audiences worldwide could experience the spectacle and accessibility was broadened.

The world-renowned Turner Prize came to the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry in 2021, attracting creatives from all over the UK to our city. We also hosted the Sterling Prize and The Booker Prizes in 2021, again bringing more kudos to our city. And we are so excited that BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend is coming to Coventry this weekend, with some huge global icons performing.

We have also brought some extraordinary artists from all over the world to Coventry, from one of the world’s leading circus companies Circolombia from Bogotá and Circus Raj from India (who both returned for our spectacular parade This is the City), to the amazing Gratte Ciel team from France who wowed us with their aerial acrobatics at the world premiere of The Awakening.

The Walk featured 'Little Amal’, a 3.5 metre-tall puppet of a young refugee girl which walked across Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and the UK, travelling 8,000km. It brought light to the stories of displaced children and focussed awareness on the refugee crisis, transcending borders, politics and language to celebrate the power of art and shared humanity.

There have been cultural exchanges between Coventry and Japan for Theatre of Wandering – an inspiring theatre performance which explored the different ways in which people experience and live with dementia;  and Coventry and Tanzania for Rivers of the World - a 2-year international art and education project with Coventry special school students, culminating in a city centre exhibition. We also initiated the International Changemakers Bursary with the British Council to help 20 local artists collaborate with people from countries around the world to promote greater understanding, create new connections and produce meaningful and lasting cultural exchanges.

Youthful

We are young streets and curious eyes. Coventry is one of the youngest cities in the UK, aged 32 on average. Young people have always been the heartbeat of our city, and have refused to accept the way things were done before, which has led to invention and innovation. So we have kept youthfulness at the heart of our programme, creating platforms to amplify the voices of young people, nourish their creativity and encourage activism.

Our Youthful Cities Programme enabled young people from Coventry and four international partner cities - Beirut, Bogotá, Detroit and Nairobi - to collaborate and creatively respond to significant youth-focused issues in their cities through music, poetry, street art and digital storytelling. We put young people’s voices at the centre, encouraging them to actively participate in civic matters and explore how they can help shape our cities.

Our Young Producers programme created opportunities for young people to work as stage managers, gallery assistants, artist liaisons, ticketing staff, front of house personnel, photographers and marketers. These young producers created the fantastic arts activism CVX Festival, which focused on revealing undiscovered local talent in the Midlands and empowering young people to find their voice, explore identity and stand up against violence, using creativity as a tool.

Forest Camps took young people who are at risk of exclusion out into green spaces to explore the impact our environment has on us, and they have been working with professional artists and trainers to learn music production, photography, film, cooking and bush craft.

There have been so many great opportunities for schools and students to get involved, from designing creative window displays for Window Wanderland and The Show Windows school design competition; to creating banners for Coventry Moves; to taking part in the sustainable recycled fashion show Haus of Kraft: Junk Kouture in response to the global impact of fast fashion; to signing up for BBC Academy Workshops on Creative & Career skills; to becoming filmmakers and actors in ‘River City Detectives’ as a part of the Uncover Discover programme for Coventry special school students.

But you don’t need to be young to be youthful. Youthfulness is being open to ideas, considering new perspectives and different ways of doing things. It is being curious and unapologetic, questioning the norm, and not being afraid to take on a challenge and enact social change.

Social Action

Coventry has a long history of social activism from Lady Godiva, to George Eliot, creating the Green Party and the 2 Tone movement, and we wanted our programme to reflect and further encourage this. We wanted to demonstrate how the arts not only spread joy in challenging times, and enable individual and collective expression, but also how they are a driving force for social, environmental, economic and political change.

The Change Festival encouraged us all to rise up and tackle the climate crisis and imagine a better future. The Strike A Light show I Stand for What I Stand On saw four young creators explore what it means to be a teenage climate activist and how theatre can be used as a tool for activism. The Walking Forest project, led by local female change-makers, also provided a creative space for environmental activists, bridging performance and social action as a felled tree was carried through the streets of Coventry as a mobile artwork.

Our Reform The Norm arts-activism programme has challenged and reimagined public preconceptions that we have come to accept as ‘normal’, and has called for social, political and cultural reforms. Story of Us gave marginalised individuals a chance to be heard and share their stories through poetry and music, which stimulated discussions about the key issues many in our city are facing and how we can create a more equitable society for all. Hungry Nation saw 10 people with lived experience of being hungry share their stories, which culminated in a spectacular piece of new theatre that encouraged debate about food poverty and what Coventry’s ‘Right to Food’ pledge really means.

Symphony of Us told the stories of six Coventry residents who are quietly changing the world through an epic theatrical symphony played by Orchestra of the Swan.

We commissioned broadcast projects to spotlight the voices in our city who have faced social issues and who have been silenced and unheard for too long. SKINT features seven touching monologues about life in poverty. 2 Tone: The Sound of Coventry explores the history of the 2 Tone movement in Coventry and The Specials, who raised awareness of the issues of racism at a time when racial tensions were very high in England. You can watch both programmes on BBC iPlayer.

Inclusion & Diversity

Coventry is a diverse city, home to many people from all over the world with many different lived experiences of 21st century Britain. We have worked hard to uncover talent from our many different communities, especially sharing the voices of those who are rarely heard, to promote and strengthen their place in the city.

We celebrated Coventry’s cultural and religious diversity and united disparate groups through Faith, where new plays directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company were performed throughout the streets, and faith centres across Coventry opened their doors to share more about their beliefs and practices.

We acknowledged amazing, pioneering women and promoted gender equality in events throughout all of March, like Her Day Opera, This is Africa – She Speaks, Culture Conversations: Amazing Women and Deliaphonic.

We supported creative work from people of colour and other artists from minority ethnic communities to give them equal platforms, like through our ground-breaking South Asian festivals Abundance, Presence and Unapologetic, which gave brown women a space to tell their stories through multiple art forms.

We worked with Unlimited to ensure equal opportunities for deaf, disabled, and neurodivergent artists through 10 micro-commissions.

We celebrated the LGBTQI+ community in the Pride and Joy festival with Coventry Pride, and commissioned Pride – Classically Queer which gave local LGBTQI+ musicians a platform to share their stories and some incredible classical and contemporary music in the Cathedral ruins.

We amplified the voices of people with lived experiences of homelessness in the Arts and Homelessness Festival, which had a visual arts exhibition, homeless monopoly, a Coventry sleepout, The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency theatre performance, and the second ever International Arts and Homelessness Summit.

Throughout our programme, we have been championing difference but also trying to bring everyone together – moving two tones into one voice.

A City of Movements

Coventry is a city that has always been on the move – from physical movements transforming raw steel into racing machines; to social, environmental and political movements.

We want to keep moving Coventry forwards with the Trust's Green Futures focused legacy. We have two major green futures events in May. We had the incredible drone show Our Wilder Family recently in War Memorial Park, which explored the family of wildlife around us and our role in protecting the planet. And Wildlife Gathering happened last weekend with over 30 different events, walks, community gatherings, workshops and exhibitions in green spaces across the city.

With Coventry’s role in creativity and innovation placing us as a pioneering city for green futures, especially being the birthplace of the Green Party, we believe this is absolutely the right direction for the city to be taking.

Although we are coming to the end of what has been an extraordinary and memorable year as the UK City of Culture, a million and more journeys begin here. Coventry will keep moving because the power to move is always in our blood

Coventry 2021 Creative Director Chenine Bhathena