Lines of Thought… It’s Never Dull in Hull

It makes you think, all this culture business. And it is a business. A report early last year estimated that nearly £9.6m per hour was generated by the UK’s creative industries. The leader of Hull City Council claims that the city has attracted over £1 billion in investment since the announcement that it has been awarded City of Culture status. In particular it demands that you define, or maybe re-define, your own cultural boundaries.

Because I’m a theatre aficionado and read The Guardian, am I a more cultured person that someone who reads The Sun? (Talking of which, there was a huge backlash in the city against The Sun after it branded Hull ‘The Scrapital of Culture’ publishing pics of drunken behaviour taken on New Year’s Eve which could have been taken in cities the country over.) Indeed, using the term aficionado rather than, say, geek immediately says something about my cultural pretensions! On the other hand, generally I find opera too highbrow and much modern art makes me feel stupid. Does that mean I’m therefore part of the much-derided middlebrow? Virginia Woolf called this debate ‘The Battle of the Brows’ (aha, I know my Woolf. Perhaps a move upwards on the cultural snakes and ladders board!)

A lot of the time these assumptions about what’s ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture are class ridden and revolve around self-perpetuating codes of behaviour, an obvious example being that of knowing when to clap, or more importantly when not to, at a classical concert. However, Lines of Thought at Hull University is a wonderful example of how to collapse cultural barriers.

Here, in an exhibition originating from the British Museum, is a selection of drawings created over 500 years featuring artists who are household names: Degas, Michelangelo, Matisse, Rembrandt, Picasso. As a visitor, one might have expected a hushed reverential atmosphere and to be placed at a distance – literally and figuratively – from these hugely valuable and significant works. Yet the opposite is true. You are greeted by friendly smiles rather than bag searches and are free to wander around without feeling intimidated. You can get up close, relax and simply enjoy the experience.

A similar approach can be found at the recently refurbished Ferens Art Gallery where the annual Open Exhibition, celebrating its 50th anniversary, resides comfortably alongside Francis Bacon’s The Nervous System. A new acquisition, the 14th century masterpiece by Lorenzetti, Christ Between Saints Paul and Peter, is there also, sitting quietly in another gallery like the important guest who wants to keep a low profile. By contrast, all three thousand of those who, last summer, bravely painted their naked bodies blue for Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Blue will, in April, be able to see the completed artwork at Ferens (as will all those of us who wimped out). Incidentally, I was very pleased to see that the Ferens café hasn’t become too gentrified: you can still get a fish finger butty – even if it is in a brioche bun.

A new venue to check out is Humber Street Gallery in the regenerated Fruit Market area of the city near the Marina. Its curator, David Sinclair, promises us art that is ‘innovative, politicised, ground-breaking and daring’ and to ‘expect nudity, profanity, explicit content and more than a little anarchy’. It’s in this café, with plans to feature a rooftop bar, where I’m looking forward to seeing Dead Bod, the graffiti featuring a dead bird which was painted on the side of a corrugated iron shed at Alexandra Dock in the 1960s and which came to symbolise Hull’s fishing heritage. In keeping with the Gallery’s ethos, I’ll also be hoping for something a bit more radical on the menu than fish finger butties!

As February closes, we await the announcement of what to expect in Seasons 2 and 3, Roots and Routes and Freedom. The first two months have been exciting, energising and engaging (not to mention alliterative) and the anticipation that surrounds the programme for the rest of our year is palpable. The brief for Martin Green and his team was to provide 365 days of ‘transformative culture’ and clearly this is already starting to happen. Critical voices have been muted – some might argue stifled, by the avalanche of positive press. It’s worth noting that however you choose to define the word ‘culture’ (the critic Raymond Williams called it a ‘loose and confused term’) it’s not something that can ever be a crude import. Rather it’s a rich vein of ideas, beliefs and customs to tap into and build upon. Here in Hull its foundations are deep and solid!

In the early 90s you could find many a badge and t-shirt bearing the well intentioned but nevertheless misleading message ‘It’s Never Dull in Hull’. Now, twenty-five years later, that slogan has come into its own.