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Culture

‘Culture is who we are and what we do, not something for any sort of elite’

Fighting back from the devastating impact of Covid on the cultural economy is a major challenge – so it’s no surprise when City of Culture 2025 opened for applications this year it got an unprecedented level of interest. Southampton is one of the final eight in the running for the title and SO25 Bid Director, Claire Whitaker, explains why the taking part could be as important as winning the game…

“Culture is who we are and what we do, it’s about how we live our lives,” says Claire Whitaker OBE, explaining why the bid she is directing for Southampton to become the UK’s capital of culture in 2025 is something everyone in the south coast city should unite passionately behind. “It’s not something for any sort of elite,” she continues, “it’s something for all the people of Southampton. It’s about telling Southampton’s story to the people of Southampton, the people of the UK and the rest of the world.”

Its Premier League football team and its mighty gateway port help transport Southampton’s name around the globe. Yet, how well do most people really know the city and its rich history and heritage of creativity, innovation, exploration, and arrival?

It’s the city from which legendary ships such as the Mayflower, the Titanic and the Queen Elizabeth have all set sail. It’s where the iconic WWII fighter plane the Supermarine Spitfire was designed and built, and where many of the Windrush Generation of Caribbean immigrants first set foot on British soil. Famous sons, daughters, and residents of Southampton over the centuries have included novelist Jane Austen and artist Edward John Gregory.

The vibrant, dynamic face of the city today is represented by the likes of pop singer Craig David, fashion designer Jenny Packham and chef Shelina Permalloo – all three of whom are among official ambassadors for Southampton City of Culture 2025, alongside the likes of guest editor of The Big Issue’s Windrush Special Edition, Baroness Floella Benjamin, and footballer Lawrie McMenemy MBE.

Southampton’s cultural spaces – which include iconic grassroots gig venue The Joiners, the John Hansard Art Gallery and the Mayflower Theatre – serve top class offerings year-round. City of Culture status would “amplify that, makes more things possible,” says Whitaker, an OBE with 30 years of experience steering major cultural organisations nationally and internationally. She points to Hull’s year as City of Culture in 2017, encompassing huge public art installations, fireworks displays and exhibitions which together attracted more than five million people and £220 million of investment, as an example of the benefits to be reaped.

“In Hull nine out of 10 residents went to at least one event in City of Culture,” says Whitaker. “This is something which can really touch a whole city. Hull is a similar size to Southampton, and we hope we could exceed their achievements – which would mean more than 90 per cent of the population in Southampton gaining something from being City of Culture.”

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Whitaker is determined that such a cultural windfall should permeate the city from the centre through the suburbs and beyond, touching every area of Southampton life. “It’ll be about the food we eat; it will be about the sport we watch,” she says, “it’ll be about how we enjoy our green spaces, how we enjoy waterfront and our rivers. It’s going to be a city-wide experience.”

As well as celebrating and amplifying Southampton’s many qualities and achievements, the SO25 bid for City of Culture is a chance to face up to some of its challenges too. Around poverty and deprivation, for example – problems which Southampton struggles with disproportionately to its southern English neighbour cities. Or poor urban planning, legacy of a rushed rebuild from heavy bombing during WWII.

It’s also an opportunity to celebrate modern Southampton’s incredible sense of diversity. “We are a port city and we’ve been a city which people from other countries have made their home for centuries,” says Whitaker, “so we have quite an international outlook. I think we have 55 languages being spoken, so in terms of Britain’s place in the world, we are really a very good city to invest in because I think we can help make Southampton and Britain even more international in its outlook.”

A record 20 cities applied to be in the running for the title of UK City of Culture 2025 – so to make the final eight longlisted is a significant recognition of the strength of Southampton’s bid.

And, while Whitaker has every faith that their bid is good enough to triumph, she and her team are working to ensure that, whatever the outcome, the bidding process alone will benefit the city going forward. A huge, robust and healthy collaborative consultation process has taken place “with the widest possible public, reflective of our city,” says Whitaker, from artists to businesses leaders and ordinary citizens. The findings of that consultation will feed into Southampton’s culture strategy for many years to come.

“Whatever happens, we’ve got to keep working collaboratively because people have really enjoyed coming together,” says Whitaker. “There are things that have emerged in the consultation which I think will be great things for the city to implement. I think whatever happens now there will be a legacy for Southampton.”

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