Five Questions with… Karen Durham, Arts Council Relationship Manager

Karen is currently Partnership Manager, Cultural Cities at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, but returns to her role as Combined Arts Relationship Manager at the Arts Council later this year. Here she tells us all about her experiences working with the city.

How did the Arts Council first get involved with Hull City of Culture? 

We were involved in helping the city get to the stage where it could to apply to be City of Culture. For many years, we were aware that Hull didn’t get its ‘share’ of National Lottery investment – we simply weren’t receiving many applications. At the same time, Hull City Council was also keen to grow the independent arts sector in the city. We worked with the local authority for a number of years, finding ways to build capacity against a backdrop of political change and budget cuts.

Can you give us an example of this development work?

In 2008 a major redevelopment of an area close to the marina collapsed. The unfinished spaces were made habitable and we worked with the council’s arts development team to encourage organisations to apply for Grants for the Arts funding.

Nearly 10 years later it is the successful and popular Fruit Market regeneration area and cultural quarter in Hull. It has also been the base for the annual free outdoor event Freedom Festival. We worked with the city council and other partners to develop the festival’s offer, and it is now one of our National Portfolio Organisations and one of the UK’s major outdoor arts festivals attracting thousands of visitors a year. Both the Fruit Market and Freedom Festival were central to Hull’s bid.

We hear a lot about how the city has embraced its year as City of Culture.
hy do you think that the community in Hull has got so involved?

If you spend any amount of time in Hull you realise that people are really up for a challenge. They are independent and incredibly proud of their heritage. It was important that they didn’t feel that outsiders were coming into their city to ‘do’ culture for them – the programme had to be owned by the city.

An important decision was insisting that the 2017 team all lived in Hull. I think I knew it was going to be okay when 5,000 people signed up almost immediately to get naked for the Spencer Tunic commission Sea of Hull. The opening season, Made in Hull, was unashamedly for the people of the city. It spoke about their lives, their history and I think this helped sustain the interest and imagination of the people of Hull for the rest of the year.

Another really positive thing is that the volunteering programme was given as much care, attention and prestige as any part of the artistic programme. The hundreds of volunteers have been hugely important, illustrating how the community has taken the opportunity and experience of the City of Culture to its heart.

Tell us about some of your highlights of the 2017 programme.

Blade, a 75 metre off shore wind turbine blade which was temporarily installed in the main square in the middle of the night, was a technical and artistic stroke of genius! It was quirky, surprisingly beautiful and audacious – a bit like Hull really – people loved it. It isn’t often that a new contemporary gallery space opens anywhere so the opening of Humber Street Gallery was another incredible moment.

What do you think the legacy of 2017 will be to Hull? What do we need to do to ensure
that arts and culture remains a priority in the city?

The groundwork is there. People have responded to what the City of Culture offered, getting involved in arts and culture and often with more challenging work. You can see this just in the huge increase in visits made to the Ferens Art Gallery and Hull Truck Theatre.

The challenge to the city council and the arts and cultural sector is to keep providing the same kind of work and opportunities. The decision for the Culture Company, which delivered the Hull 2017 programme, to continue as a permanent national arts company based in the city is a great start – and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for Hull.