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Culture Clash: the view from Aberdeen

THE question was a simple one: what would you like to see in Aberdeen in 2017?

Photograph: Steve Cox
Photograph: Steve Cox

Thousands of postcards bearing this question have been sent out by bid organisers. Now the answers are rolling back in.

"More performing arts". says one. "A Nordic Noir/Tartan Noir book festival". says another. "Teen week – bands/gigs to Aberdeen to save kids going to central belt", says a third. Dozens of postcards, dozens of ideas.

Aberdeen's bid is being supported by Billy Connolly, singer Emeli Sande, writer Stuart MacBride and Dame Evelyn Glennie, the virtuosa percussionist.

The bid manager is Rita Stephen, who, in her previous post as development manager at Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum, brought large scale events to the city.

"Aberdeen is making the bid because we already have a very rich mix of culture," she says, "but what we don't have is audiences that participate in that rich mix, and a good awareness and knowledge of just how much is going on.

"We see the bid as a catalyst to bring Aberdeen's culture back into the sunlight, because it has been hugely overshadowed by the city's reputation as an oil and gas capital.

"We need to do this, because the energy industry needs 120,000 new employees over the next 20-25 years. It's impossible to grow these 120,000 people from the city, with our population.

"We need to make the city much more attractive, and have a much better offering of quality of life, to get these people to come here. Oil companies tell us how difficult it is to recruit people.

"We've been overwhelmed by the support. We have distributed 65,000 postcards, including 21,000 to schoolchildren, and we've had a tremendous response so far."

Across Aberdeen, there could be as many as 7000 students engaged in arts and other creative studies.

Stephen adds: "We really need to get them to stay once they graduate. They've told us they want to stay, but there are no jobs for them. Winning would be a catalyst that would allow us to encourage students to stay, to run their own businesses and to expand the culture and creative industry, alongside oil and gas, tourism, food and drink, and life sciences, our key industries."

Lord Provost of Aberdeen, George Adam, believes that achieving the UK City of Culture title would "boost the city's profile on the national and international stage and do wonders for tourism and investment".

The council's chief executive, Valerie Watts, has first-hand experience of leading a winning bid: her previous post was in Derry.

Councillor Marie Boulton, deputy leader of the city council, said: "We've based the bid on a lot of elements that make Aberdeen what it is – the granite, the water, the energy – I use that as a generic term.

"We have a huge wealth of culture, but it's all under the surface. This will give us the opportunity to start people talking. They're beginning to get involved in such cultural offerings as music, arts, drama and food. It's seeing the greater population actually starting to get engaged."

Boulton said she had spoken to people who had arrived in the city from London or Paris who claimed they'd had a more cultural experience in Aberdeen than in other cities, because the culture was on their doorsteps.

The city has a wide cultural base – from the Lemon Tree venue to His Majesty's Theatre and the Music Hall.

"Aberdeen deserves to be more widely recognised for its cultural achievements," said Marc Ellington, Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire. "We have one of the finest cultural resources in Scotland. Aberdeen and the northeast is the repository of the greatest collection of historic ballads in the English-speaking world, which has had worldwide influence.

"Aberdeen art gallery and museum is widely regarded as the finest regional art gallery collection in the UK.

"We have buildings of architecturally historic importance, including Marischal College and Europe's greatest collection of castles. We have a vibrant arts scene, due in no small part to Gray's School of Art."

Robert Collier, chief executive of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce, said: "This is one of the few parts of the UK and the Scottish economy which is producing a surplus and delivering GVA (gross value added) growth, largely because of oil and gas. It is pretty much full employment here, too."

Collier said Aberdeen and shire currently employs 9000 people in the culture and creative industries – 14% of the Scottish total.

"That is unexpected," he added, "given the reputation, people's perceptions and misconceptions about the region."

In 2006, the GVA generated by the creative industries in the area was £2200 million.

Up in Aberdeen, fingers are already crossed that the city will emerge as the winner.

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