A Chat With: Culture Liverpool

Culture Liverpool, the winner of the inaugural LCR Pride Awards’ Foundation Award, has faced a challenging year as the pandemic has shut down the city region’s usual cultural events programme.

We caught up with Claire McColgan, Director of Culture Liverpool, and Andy McNicholl, City Events Manager, to find out how they’ve faced those challenges, kept culture alive in the city and supported the region’s COVID-19 response.

Most of us have heard of Culture Liverpool, but can you tell us a little bit more about what you do?

CLAIRE: “Culture Liverpool is the team within Liverpool City Council that is most recognised as being responsible for staging events across the Liverpool City Region, from the Giant Spectacular to the Netball World Cup, LIMF, River of Light and Service of Remembrance. Our events range from small and intimate to large mass outdoor public gatherings.

“We also work in close partnership with local and regional arts and cultural organisations and support 27 cultural organisations with £2.75million of funding. We also support many more in terms of marketing and strategic event operations. As well as this our remit also includes the big and small screen with Liverpool Film Office, Cruise Liverpool, Tourist Information and the city’s three Heritage Halls – Liverpool Town Hall, Croxteth Hall and St George’s Hall which together keep us busy!

“We were originally established back in 2003, after we won the bid to be European capital of Culture. This was obviously a much bigger team. In 2009 we reformed to create the organisation you see now to build on the legacy of that year”

And that turned out quite well didn’t it?

The final song of the Liverpool Sound Paul McCartney concert at Anfield Stadium, Liverpool 2008

CLAIRE: “It did although the journey to 2008 was not always smooth. It was a massive city effort to deliver 2008 but is probably the biggest regeneration project within our lifetimes. Whilst we were developing and running the programme some brilliant people were building the fabric of the city we see now. It is a model for regeneration as people and their stories and the wider story of the city were at the heart of the transformation. The bigger challenge was to make sure that the year with over 15 million cultural visits and an overall economic impact of £800million wasn’t a one off and although it is widely seen as one of the most successful Capital of Culture programmes ever, if that had been it, we would have failed as a city. Quite rightly the political administration saw this and the cultural offer of the city has gone from strength to strength.

“It is a kind of recipe though where all the bits rely on each other so the brilliant grass roots community arts organisations are just as important as the major blockbuster events as they all work to showcase this city in all its glory but you can’t have one without the other.”

You’ve certainly risen to many challenges over the years and 2020 has been no exception. How has the pandemic changed your usual role in the city and what have you been doing instead?

CLAIRE: “Of course our experience of working in the creative sector and the events industry means that our team is expert in reacting quickly to challenges at a moment’s notice. It’s something we always have to be prepared for, in particular when we operate our events, so it’s something that we are all comfortable with.

“At the start of the pandemic it was all hands-on deck – all the team at Culture Liverpool took on additional roles and responsibilities. We thought, like everyone else, this wouldn’t be a long-term issue. From calling residents at risk to arrange medical and food deliveries to operating the city’s food distribution programme – it’s been a different way of working!

“But at the same time, Alicia Smith and her team have supported the organisations we fund and we have been working closely with other sectors to plan the recovery from the word go. An example of this is the pop-up film studios devised by Lynne Saunders in response to the future needs of the film industry. This will be transformational in terms of Liverpool’s film offer, its training potential and its film future.

“I am very proud of the team. They have literally built a food hub from scratch and not one complaint and worked ridiculous hours making sure no one falls through the net. Their love for this city has shone through. They are real heroes and now they are operating the test centres. Creativity will bring us out of this.”

ANDY: “Personally, I’ve been working on the logistical operations at the food hub with part of our team ensuring that residents across the city region are able to get access to essential food deliveries and medical supplies.”

CLAIRE: “We also developed quick fixes to support the hospitality sector like Without Walls , so that we could provide support to businesses across the city to purchase much needed supplies to operate in a COVID-safe manner. Our arts organisations enhanced our hospitality offer further with street theatre, performances and art displays – we embraced the challenge and kept fighting – as did our city!

“We’ve also been operating the test and trace project and our logistical and event experience has helped get the city up and running again, supporting our residents in ensuring they have safe access to a safe COVID testing facility and ensuring the city is safe in turn too.”

How transferrable have the skills of the Culture Liverpool team been in supporting the region’s COVID-19 response?

CLAIRE: “The city’s response to COVID-19 involved being able to research, plan and deliver solutions in a quick, responsive and safe manner which is something the Culture Liverpool team are experts in due to our daily roles and responsibilities.

“We produce and work on large scale events which involve quick planning, organisation and strict safety measures in place. In doing so we work closely with a number of city stakeholders and partners to ensure we are all working towards the same objectives. From event management to marketing to finance and participation – the team is used to working in a highly pressurised and unpredictable environment while multi-tasking a number of projects, it’s what we do.

“I think in these situations we could only do one of two things — spiral into decline, waiting for someone or something else to save you or come out fighting, creating initiatives that spark the imagination and bring us slowly and carefully out of an international disaster blinking into the light but ready to reboot.

“We chose the latter. It’s what we do. We invented a short-term response and a long-term strategic plan and got some quick wins under our belt. Firstly, we gave our investment money out within two weeks of COVID-19 hitting. This was a light-touch process to the 27 cultural organisations we regularly fund from Liverpool Biennial to Africa Oyé , the only criteria we put in was for them to honour freelance contracts.

“Secondly, we devised the Liverpool Without Walls programme. And, thirdly, we developed a ten-year strategy on the back of COVID-19. Without Walls is about turning the city inside out — literally bringing businesses out on to the street with plans in place further down the line to remove barriers to cultural participation. In simple terms we closed streets to traffic and repurposed capital spend to buy outdoor furniture for restaurants to fill those streets. And then you have to bring them back to life.

“The effects of this pandemic mean we have to think differently — and if small things go wrong what’s the worst that can happen we are in the middle of a pandemic? By supporting the cultural sector, we’re supporting jobs and the economy, so doing nothing is simply not an option. We’re not denying what we are currently doing is a cultural sticking plaster. But if we don’t act now the sector will bleed out and the prognosis will be much worse. And of course, we welcome and are working with Government to avert the collapse of this sector and our economy, but we can’t, and we won’t just sit back and wait. Liverpool never has.”

Can you tell us more about the mass testing activity you have been involved in and how people can still get involved?

ANDY: “The Liverpool Mass Asymptomatic Serial Testing pilot aims to inform a country-wide blueprint for how mass testing can be achieved, and how fast and reliable COVID-19 rapid testing can be delivered at scale.

Do your bit. Get tested.

“The whole-city testing pilot aims to protect those at highest risk and find asymptomatic cases so that we can prevent and reduce transmission of COVID-19 into our communities and get the city up and running as ‘normal’ as soon as possible.

“We’re working with the British Army to support and provide opportunities for the public who live and/or work in Liverpool to be able to come to a test centre and take a COVID-19 test in a safe and supportive manner. The public can be assured that all our test centres are COVID safe environments and the team are on hand to help with any questions or queries. By getting tested we will get out of this quicker and that’s what we all want to get back to standing shoulder to shoulder (or on shoulders) again in the streets. It what this city is about being together and we will be again.”

You can get involved by getting tested, which you can find out about here

This year our theme is ‘Young At Heart’, which promotes the right for LGBT+ people to live happy, healthy and carefree lives, regardless of how they identify. How important do you think the role of culture is to people’s wellbeing and mental health?

CLAIRE: “Culture is something that speaks to our soul – it can lift our spirits when we are feeling down, it can transport us on an international journey from our homes and travel through time without missing a minute. To us, Culture is and should be accessible to all and enjoyed by everyone. It’s a beating rhythm that runs through our city streets, it’s in our DNA, it’s who we are and if we lose sight of ourselves, if we are not true to ourselves, then our mental health and wellbeing will suffer.

Claire McColgan MBE, Director of Culture Liverpool

“Culture is a learned truth, it is a set of values and beliefs that we hold and by embracing these values, these intrinsic elements of Liverpool and our history and heritage, we are able to identify ourselves with our city and the projects and events that take part in it. If we don’t enable people to identify with their culture, they can’t identify with themselves and therefore are unable to recognise difference, to support equality and openness to new ideas, attitudes and beliefs.

ANDY: “Regardless of how someone identifies, their background, languages or ability – a culture of a place defines it through its attitude, shared experiences and understanding. As a maritime city, Liverpool has embraced and supported cultural imports from around the world, it’s made us who we are today, and it’s that openness and positivity that the city needs to continue to embrace when it comes to its residents and visitors.”

CLAIRE: “Culture, whether it’s in terms of our attitude, values or experiences (at events or institutions) is of vital importance in our mental health and wellbeing. It provides a platform on which to showcase support, positivity and attitude change, to encourage people to understand that its ok to not be ok, that being different to your neighbour is something to embrace and that talking, engaging and supporting one another are a part of who we are. Cultural activities provide us with the opportunity to open our minds, our hearts and our lives to new opportunities, experiences and challenge known truths together – it identifies us, that we are all in this together and knowing we are not alone can only ever be a good thing for our mental health and wellbeing.”

You mentioned that you are still planning ahead, even while dealing with all of the uncertainty that is around us right now. What have you got up your sleeve?

CLAIRE: “At the moment we are working on the 2021 cultural programme with our arts and cultural organisations across the city region. Recovery will be a long process, it won’t happen overnight, but we are working on making the city safe with a full programme of cultural activities that everyone can take part in – from our communities to our city centre, we want everyone to be able to embrace our arts and cultural scene in Liverpool and enjoy the benefits of taking part.”

To stay up-to-date with Culture Liverpool’s work and events visit www.cultureliverpool.co.uk and sign up to the Culture Liverpool newsletter. You can also find them on Culture Liverpool on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest, where you can chat to the team, download activity programmes and share your photos with them.

During lockdown, why not enjoy reading the Culture Liverpool blog available on Medium.