Chester: City of Culture?

Registering its intent for City of Culture 2017 has led to a welcome upturn in Chester’s arts offer, says Kayleigh Davies…

Chester is a beautiful backdrop of historic buildings, has a stunning riverside bank of charming restaurants and a variety of places to shop, but you knew that. What isn’t an immediately obvious addition to that list is culture. Traditionally, this is a city missing art.

Fine when your economy is based around Roman heritage and shopping, but significantly more problematic when throwing your name into the ring for City of Culture 2017, an initiative that could embellish the city’s reputation, created in part due to the success of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year in 2008. Becoming City of Culture 2017 could be the music that gets Chester dancing.

To that end, new ventures are being explored and rolled out. It feels like we’re at ground zero for Chester’s new cultural offer, and it’s an exciting period for the city, with locals – previously looking to Liverpool and Manchester for their fix of the arts – suddenly finding they have options on their doorstep.

One click on Chester’s 2017 website suggests signs of an evolution in the pursuit to find Chester’s undiscovered talent: the information provides a one-off chance to explore the new ventures being delivered, with Chester Performs at the top of the list as a platform for the MBNA Chester Music Festival, Grosvenor Open Air Theatre (pictured above), Chester Literature Festival and 2013 Rogues’ Galleries, also intelligently favouring site specific events to utilise the hidden beauty spots across the city, as well as filling currently empty commercial spaces.

“Chester isn’t a museum. It is a contemporary, vibrant city”

Echoing this move to shift perceptions around the city, Council Leader Mike Jones said: “Chester isn’t a museum. It is a contemporary, vibrant city,” although until discussions were prompted by the new theatre and library opening soon, there seemed very little support or tangible attempt to create a forum for creative minds within these famous city walls. Council Leader Jones also stated that the city is “… recognised as a jewel in the crown of the north west … the perfect backdrop for a celebration of cultural activity”, providing an array of opportunity for arts lovers and entrepreneurs to assemble and bond into a thriving scene.

Theatre for one has a track record, and if anything is likely to be increasingly successful, as the expensive renovation alongside Chester Performs will cultivate an audience of story lovers; although galleries provided to entertain appear commercial, with culture saved only by the efforts of Chester Grosvenor Museum in showcasing the heritage of the location, supported by exquisite classic paintings.

“There is no Whitworth, Tate or Walker equivalent in Chester”

The city currently plays host to very little contemporary art, with public arts perhaps represented best by Fine Arts at Chester University. There is no Whitworth, Tate or Walker equivalent in Chester, however, the recent Rogues’ Galleries project nods in the direction of more DIY style arts, with empty buildings and shops transformed, if temporarily, into ready-made gallery spaces.

Progressing to gather a musical realm in undiscovered venues across the city, Telford’s Warehouse as well as The Compass are positioning themselves to become alternative locations to the more mainstream fix of  Chester Rocks. MBNA’s Music Festival is also an asset to the area, as more classic styles feature within their programme, increasing the overall offer, hopefully accessing a wider audience across the surrounding regions.

Lack of an expressive output has left the city in the wake of its inarguably cooler siblings, Liverpool and Manchester. That said, there is a place for each of these cities, and each provides their own diverse attractions. If Chester is to follow in the footsteps of current City of Culture, Derry-Londonderry – the title is said to have brought near £100 million to the area – with profits placed back into the city’s long term arts offer, the City and its local communities would benefit immensely.

With public services gaining custom as well as other proximate businesses, the award could, should, mean new audiences and a new lease of life for the existing magic that hides within the city walls.

The people are the heart of any city, with their ambitions and determination playing keys roles in every step towards progress. Chester is finally willing to bare its teeth in the cultural arena, ready to tussle for a prize that could see the city evolve into something other than a touristy shopping destination.

Chester is capable, and deserving, of being more than a heritage site for day trips with a scone by the river, as lovely as those things are. Whether this bid for 2017′s City of Culture is successful or not (certainly, it isn’t a foregone conclusion, but with odds of 4/1 is the current favourite), that the effort is there for all to see could be its making.

Kayleigh Davies

Visit Chester 2017

Posted on 05/06/2013 by thedoublenegative