When Spirit of 2012 first awarded funding to Coventry UK City of Culture 2021 to develop and deliver its Caring City strand back in 2019, we never could have predicted what lay in store.
A fruitful few months of partnership-forming, alliance-building, programme co-creation, and community consultation was soon overshadowed by a global pandemic, which threw into question the very likelihood of a 2021 year of culture in Coventry.
Now, as we cross the six-month mark in Coventry’s year, you might be forgiven for assuming that the events of 2020-21 caused a scaling back of the Caring City’s ambition. On top of that, a programme that relied so heavily on working directly with members of the community surely would have stalled when we were all forced indoors, right? Wrong. Visiting Coventry this Autumn, I can tell you that this is quite far from the truth. In fact, I don’t need to tell you. Ask the people of Coventry, particularly those who co-produced the Caring City programme, and they will delight you with stories of collaboration, creativity and genuine co-creation.
So, why is Spirit of 2012 funding the Caring City programme of Coventry 2021? The answer goes back to our roots: founded by the National Lottery Community Fund in 2013 and emerging directly from the hugely successful Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012, our mission has been to build sustainable social impacts from the inspiration of events. We do this by funding activities that connect people through creative, active and volunteering activities that have the potential to create happier people, living in happier places. Our belief in the power of events is only strengthened by the lasting legacy of projects we have funded around mega events, such as the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 (see Fourteen, delivered in 14 communities across the UK), and Hull City of Culture in 2017 (see Hull 2017, and the ongoing volunteer programme). In 2017 we learned a great deal about civic pride, and the role that cultural participation on a city-wide scale plays in creating a healthy and happier community. When Coventry was awarded the 2021 title, we were excited to learn the approach that the next UK City of Culture would take. The Caring City programme was born shortly after Coventry was awarded the designation, and immediately instilled an ethos of genuine co-creation. This collaboration has led to a programme that sees real people, their experiences, their hopes, their struggles, their triumphs, their ideas, but most of all their stories take centre stage. As one of the participants of the Arts and Homelessness Summit put it, ‘nothing about us, without us’.
It is difficult to distil the past six months into a short blog post. Caring City producers have worked closely with host organisations Positive Youth Foundation, Grapevine, Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre and Central England Law Centre to create a community-led series of projects and events that sit centrally in the City of Culture year. The past six months represent the culmination of years of community-led co-creation and, we hope, are but a milestone on what will be a long and fruitful journey of cultural collaboration in years to come. The pandemic began right at the moment when the producers’ work was beginning to take shape, and while the lockdown introduced many challenges – which we all know very well by now – like many, the Caring City team pivoted its approach, and delivered entire programmes remotely. Producers and host staff alike have told us this time cemented the place of arts and culture in the service they provide – a testament to the value it adds.
In June, Coventry Welcomes marked the first major transition from virtual programme work to in-person delivery and was a joyous celebration of Coventry’s role as a City of Sanctuary. The festival saw a performance of Can You Hear Me Now, a celebratory, large-scale outdoor performance created by people who sought sanctuary in Coventry, as well as stand-up comedy performances by aspiring comics from refugee and migrant backgrounds. In August we celebrated the creativity of Coventry’s young people at the launch of CVX Festival, which will have its bigger moment next year. On a warm September weekend, 115 audience members joined Theatre of Wandering, a promenade performance created by members of the public exploring dementia, chronic pain and rest. In October, HOME Festival brought the views, creativity and singing voices of people who have experienced homelessness directly, into a host of city centre spaces, and included a major flash mob in Millennium Place. At the end of the month they welcomed Little Amal – a 3.5-metre-tall puppet of a nine-year-old girl fleeing conflict – to the city, and even awarded her UK citizenship. Following months of training and workshops, in November Reform the Norm came to the stage, with participants from across the city sharing the Story of Us. Their stories, which explored through lived experience the key issues that people face, asked us to consider how we can create a more equitable society for everyone in Coventry.
Suffice to say the Caring City team has, by all accounts, been busy. And the events we’ve seen to date are the tip of the iceberg. If you look closely, it’s the change processes happening behind the spectacle that tell the greater story of why the UK City of Culture designation possesses such power. This year of culture has already sparked genuine collaboration between the arts and law enforcement (the flash mob dance at the end of HOME Festival was performed by several community officers and filmed using a drone!), policy makers (who were inspired by Little Amal’s visit to hold Coventry’s first citizenship ceremony for children) and various strands of local government (who now actively commit to working with Coventry’s Arts and Homelessness Forum). It is my belief that stories lay at the heart of these new collaborations. Coventry City of Culture simply gave the city a creative space for people to share and to listen. And how fitting it is that a year of culture should lead to greater collaboration between those with the largest platform and those whose voices are rarely heard.
There is a lot more I could say about what has happened in Coventry since Spirit began its relationship with the Trust. And there is a lot we can say about what this programme teaches us, not just about including, but about meaningfully centring the stories of real people. But there is more to learn, and the next six months will certainly have us considering what we do with this learning to achieve similar outcomes in future designate, and non-designate, locations.
We look forward to the second half of Coventry UK City of Culture 2021 and the stories, collaborations and insights it will generate. For now, I’ll leave you with a brilliant line from Theatre of Wandering that for me sums up the spirit of Caring City: “Stories don’t just happen. People make them happen. And, if we look after each other, the story will look after itself.”