Director of Culture Liverpool, Claire McColgan standing in front of a Liverpool sign.

BLOG: Liverpool – a changing cultural narrative

This year’s prestigious LGA Annual Conference will showcase the innovative work of councils, and Liverpool is taking centre stage. In what is expected to be one of the highlight talks of the conference, Liverpool’s Director of Culture, Claire McColgan will showcase just how the city’s cultural landscape has transformed over the past two decades.

Liverpool’s cultural credentials are known the world over. At one time the Beatles and our football clubs would dominate the cultural conversation, but there has been a definite shift in focus over the past 15 years.   

A colleague has just returned from a remote Greek island, and in response to her telling a restaurant owner she was from Liverpool, he exclaimed “Ah, home of Eurovision!”.

I’m not saying we will now be forever defined by this incredible moment in our city’s events history – but experience tells me never to underestimate the power of these seminal moments.

Eurovision didn’t make Liverpool. Liverpool made Eurovision.

This year marks 20 years since we won the bid to be European Capital of Culture 2008 – without a doubt, a game-changing moment for Liverpool. We were the underdog and despite us being home to Tate Liverpool, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and some of the best museums and galleries outside of London, there was bafflement surrounding the city being put on this cultural pedestal. Even in our own city, people questioned whether we could live up to the hype and deliver – kickstarting a 20-year journey of us delivering at any given opportunity and drowning out any doubt with creativity and a healthy dose of Scouse pride.

Having lived and breathed this sector for my entire career, I know the transformative power culture has, I’ve seen it first-hand – not only in terms of it being that rocket fuel for regeneration, but also the vital role it plays in that pride-engendering, powerful sense of place it gives to those who live, work and play in this great city of ours.

Two decades ago we were given four years to plan an unforgettable year. We put the city and the people at the heart of everything we did – we’re a city of storytellers and whether it was Sir Paul McCartney on stage at Anfield, or youngsters walking the city streets following a trail of Superlambananas, telling our story was the thread that ran through everything we did and was one of the reasons it is still hailed as the most successful Capital of Culture year ever.

Fast forward 20 years and we had just over six months to deliver the biggest music event on the planet – and just to add another layer of complexity, it was on behalf of a country at war.

It would have been much easier to follow the formulaic approach to hosting, and delivering what other cities had done before. But that’s not our style. So we supersized it.  Everything we programmed was bigger, more complex, more creative than anything that had gone before. It was bonkers, brash, authentic, brilliant, inspirational – and importantly, every activity had Ukraine at the centre of it.

This was an arts event. It wasn’t the Olympics, or the Commonwealth Games – it was about music.  We showed the UK and the rest of the world that if you invest in culture properly, if you have the right people with the right attitude, magic can – and will – happen.

If councils across the country are looking at Liverpool now they will see the power of investing in culture over the long term.

Because this city learnt how to do this in 2008. That year was never going to be a one-off – back in 2003, before our year in the spotlight had even happened, we were talking about legacy – what did this mean for our city and our residents, how were we going to build on that?

Quite simply, we continued to invest in culture.

Post 2008, Culture Liverpool honed its reputation as an exemplar for best practice when it comes to major events – curating an annual, year-round programme, bringing stand-out spectacles to the city and the wider city region, and always throwing our hat in the ring to stage events which put us on a global platform.

Liverpool’s culture and leisure sector makes up nearly 40 per cent of our city’s economy, so to say Covid was a challenging time would be an understatement. It was a devastating moment for the industry, but as a city we refused to sit back and watch the decimation of something we had spent over a decade building up. Stepping up for a mass testing pilot was astart, but in true Liverpool fashion we blazed a trial and thanks to respected event management reputation we staged the first post-Covid events which would ultimately help shape national policy and breathe life back into the culture and leisure sector.

And here we are, in the afterglow of hosting a Eurovision like no other (sorry about that Sweden). But even before that last sequin was swept up we were already looking at what’s next – what’s the legacy of this experience, how can we build on this success with a continued passion and commitment that genuinely hasn’t waned for 20 years. Our learning on this is invaluable, our partnerships have been strengthened and our delivery and creativity pushed boundaries. Which can only bode well for the future.

Claire McColgan CBE

Director, Culture Liverpool

Liverpool Waterfront