In October last year I wrote about the visual identity for Hull City of Culture 2017. I’d mostly only ever heard negative things about the city but vowed to go there this year after seeing this deliberately attention grabbing piece of branding. Claire and I duly booked our summer holiday in the beautiful Lincolnshire Wolds for last week so that we could take a day out in Yorkshire, and Hull did not disappoint.
Crossing the Humber Bridge on the day its Grade 1 listing was announced, the Museum Quarter made for our first destination on reaching Hull, with the Streetlife Museum dramatically depicting the town’s everyday history. Time limited, we then veered towards the Fruitmarket ‘cultural quarter’ that friends had recommended, via some fine brutalist structures.
When town planners or developers use phrases such as ‘cultural quarter’ as a demarcation I tend to feel slightly nauseous. I find it insulting and somewhat elitist in its automatic suggestion that there isn’t any culture anywhere else in a town. On initial investigation the Fruitmarket area came across like Hoxton on the Humber; all regenerated warehouses of boutique shops, coffee houses and art whatnot. But while the whiff of gentrification hung in the air, (though some dispute this is possible in Hull, see here and here), it is slap bang in the middle of what otherwise appears to be deserted wasteland next to the old pier and marina. Previously neglected, at least there is now a use for this area and new life is being encouraged into it.
There seems to be mixed feelings about whether both the development of the old fruit market and the City of Culture status in general is causing/will cause economic cleansing, but it is good that local dissenters are active and making themselves part of the discussion. Only last week environmental protesters, angry at BP’s sponsorship of the City of Culture, gate-crashed a lecture and requested a minute’s silence from the audience in protest against the oil company’s poor environmental record.
As visitors though, and presented with such a comfortable, attractive and welcoming environment that the new Fruitmarket undoubtedly is, Claire and I couldn’t help but settle in and start to enjoy ourselves. Original ghost signs have been left in place, and the Humber Street Gallery had an engaging, inventive and accessible show called States of Play. Interactive exhibits and very friendly gallery staff meant that adults and children alike will go away with something memorable from a visit. I particularly liked the balancing chairs by Pascal Anson, which we were challenged to try and balance, and the mechanical talking crows, by Ting-Tong Chang.
The fact that Humber Street Gallery seems routed in their community is a major bonus. They have a forthcoming exhibition: Hull, Portrait of a City, in collaboration with Magnum photos, who have commissioned the likes of Martin Parr and Olivia Arthur to take photographs of how the city presents itself to them. Made North’s British Road Signs project is also due for an unveiling and will spill out into the surrounding streets—it is good to see a graphic design focused project getting gallery space as they are generally few and far between. Further to this, The House of Kings and Queens is an exhibition opening in September as part of Hull’s LGBT50 celebrations. It aims to capture the daily life of a home for transgender women that has become a sanctuary for the LGBT community in Hull’s sister city of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Such a programme presents the gallery as being part and parcel of the city and its wider culture. Whether this is all just artwashing or not, and disappears after the City of Culture status evaporates having paved the way for further economic cleansing, will remain to be seen. I’d like to think not, and the signs are there that the locals will fight this as critical debate about the artworld is happening as part of Hull2017, as demonstrated by Hack and Host’s discussion events on whether all art is political.
Walking around the Fruitmarket, which only closed as a market in 2009, you can’t escape the defiant and positive branding stating ‘Change Is Happening’. This ‘get used to it’ declaration, while slightly arrogant, is vibrant and shares some of the attitude of the City of Culture’s visual identity and copywriting. I wonder who it is aimed at though: dissenting locals or new comers? Either way, there is much about this that sets out a provocative position. It is both cheeky and a two fingers up gesture, much like The Housemartins first album title: London 0, Hull 4. After years of neglect, and being ignored by the South, (or even other Northern cultural powerhouses such as Manchester and Sheffield), it is refreshing that the city presents itself as valuing progress and personality over corporate blandness and heritage tourism as the only solutions to a city’s economic and cultural survival. That, and the fact it appears to be routed in the locale.
We left Hull having only scratched its surface, but it really did feel like a welcoming, down to earth and honest place full of exciting possibilities. Walking around the old pier area there was a healthy mix of people sitting on the communal benches: office workers out in the sun having their lunch; a group of people with learning disabilities and their carers out for a picnic; couples taking a break from shopping; a TV crew interviewing a local historian about Hull’s public toilets; and sightseers like us. It felt full of life and inclusive with a keen sense of community.
While relatively near-by we wanted to push on to Spurn Point that afternoon, otherwise we could have spent much longer in Hull and explored what other delights it might have to offer. This visit has confirmed to us that we want to return and we have earmarked it as somewhere for a weekend break in the future. It will be interesting to see what the post-City of Culture ramifications are. Whether gentrified or not, what seems certain to me is that its inhabitants will be on the city’s case, for defiance and pride is part of its people’s culture. In that respect alone, Hull is wholly deserving of the 2017 accolade.