Coventry UK City of Culture 2021 – Then and Now

Coventry UK City of Culture 2021 Trust has gone into administration.

I remember the sunny summer evening a few years ago when it was announced that Coventry had won the bid to be the UK City of Culture for 2021. I was helping front of house at the local community theatre; the audience was already in their seats but one of the lead performers was stuck in traffic about a mile away. The Front of House Manager was thinking that any minute now she would have to go in and explain why there was going to be a short delay before the performance started. Then the volunteer on the bar shouted out that he’d picked up on Twitter, or some such, that Coventry had won.

So, instead of having to issue an apology, the FoH manager sailed through to the auditorium, announced the good news – and the audience erupted in cheers. As Coventrians, by birth or by adoption, we were all delighted to be The Chosen City. By the time everyone had settled down, the missing actor had raced through the foyer into the dressing room and was ready to go on stage. Despite the excitement, the show must go on!

Fast forward to mid 2020, when the first Covid lockdown was in force but optimism about being the CoC was still high. I wrote an essay for an anthology (Telling Tales – see link below) that was scheduled to be published in time for the start of the city of culture year. It was titled Coventry Stars of Stage and Screen, and was a quick run through famous names linked to acting and directing in Coventry during the past 1,000 years. I was greatly assisted in this by a dossier the local theatre had put together for the bid, detailing the strong cultural history of a city better known in recent years for the motor trade and being bombed in the Second World War.

Few of us properly appreciated then that the first thing the people appointed to the City of Culture Trust had done was decree that there would be no ‘looking back.’ The emphasis was the be on modern concepts with a focus on ‘new’ ‘inclusive’ ‘diversity.’ All very worthy, except that nobody, including the organisers, seemed to know quite what any of that entailed. Hence a need, it seemed, to appoint an endless stream of advisors, and consultants, but almost none from Coventry – probably afraid they might resort to ‘looking back,’ I suppose. And a need for trips (first class) across the globe, including to Australia and South Africa, for inspiration,.

For many residents, the city of culture year, which was delayed by 6 months because of Covid so ran from May 2021 to May 2022, proved to be something of a damp squib, and there were relatively few visitors from elsewhere. It is not surprising therefore that, far from the Trust leaving the city with a legacy of ongoing cultural activity, it has have left it with massive debts, compulsory staff redundancies, and a host of creditors who may never be paid for their contributions.

The figures are staggering. Filed accounts for March 2022 showed that the trust was spending £1,500,000 more that it received in donations and charitable activities, including paying out £371,000 on advisors (almost exclusively from outside the city), and £122,000 on travel and subsistence. By contrast, a measly £5,000 went on community engagement projects. All in all, nearly £13,000,000 (you read that right) was spent on events and less than £500,000 was made from ticket sales.

Amid much controversy, the Council lent the trust £1,000,000 a few months ago, only for that money to disappear, perhaps on redundancy payments to staff of which there were around 100, despite the evidence that there was no realistic chance of recouping the money already spent. It seems that the City Council is now owed £1,600,000, and Assembly Festival – one of the few aspects of CoC that local people seemed to appreciate, is owed £1,500,000.

The city’s legacy to date has been unfavourable press reports about the trust’s financial mismanagement; the sky-high salary costs, and a string of so-so events that much of the money not spent on consultancy was spent on. Its not surprising that many people (including the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, who – as the former boss of John Lewis – knows a thing or two about running a big business) are calling for an independent enquiry into how the money was (mis)spent.

Bradford has been selected as the next city of culture. I’m sure everyone in Coventry wishes them luck – and hopes that they learn the right lessons from the this city’s experience.

Links to my books, social media, & Telling Tales

You can find all my books and short stories on Amazon books, At least one story always free. ALL BOOKS FREE ON KINDLE UNLIMITED

Twitter: @meegrot

Telling Tales: Anthology from Coventry Writers’ Group to mark Coventry being the UK City of Culture in 2021. £5.99 paperback. £1.99 e-book.