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Culture Clash: Dundee and Aberdeeen vie for 2017 City title

IT was a busy day on Friday at the Dundee Contemporary Arts.

DCA, one of Scotland's best-known venues, was putting the finishing touches to Wonderlands, a new exhibition by Johanna Basford, a graduate of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. Film fans were queuing for its annual horror film festival, Dundead. The print studio was busy and the Jute cafe bar was thronged.

Opened by Donald Dewar in 1999, DCA is a key part of Dundee's arts scene, which will be galvanised – along with the rest of the city – if the bid to become UK City of Culture for 2017 succeeds.

 DCA director Clive Gillman said: "Dundee is a small city but it massively punches above its weight in terms of its artistic community. That is driven by some circumstantial things which are quite historic, including the fact there's a very strong arts school here.

"Duncan of Jordanstone is right in the city centre, which means there's a massive presence of art students in the city. These people connect with, and create things in, the city. They create institutions, build artist-led spaces, create new work that travels beyond the city."

Gillman adds that Dundee also has DCA and the "incredibly successful" Dundee Rep and the Scottish Dance Theatre, with collaborative working a common feature.

Dundee's cultural armoury also includes the Caird Hall, the McManus art gallery and museum, and thriving theatre, popular music and am-dram sectors. Key cultural contributions are also made by Abertay and Dundee universities.

The ambitious £1 billion regeneration of the waterfront will include the V&A and three new hotels, including the city's first five-star hotel.

Dundee feels its City of Culture bid – which has the backing of actor Brian Cox, TV presenter Lorraine Kelly and Sheena Wellington, Scotland's classic ballad singer – has a genuinely strong chance.

Civic leaders are aware how Glasgow's reign as European City of Culture in 1990 had an impact on perceptions of that city.

North East Scotland MSP Jenny Marra said: "Dundee City of Culture 2017 would be fantastic timing for our city. We need to seize the momentum of the V&A and launch more opportunities for everyone in Dundee."

Councillor Ken Guild, chair of the Dundee Partnership and leader of Dundee City Council, said there had been grass-roots pressure to put a bid in.

"At one point we were looking at the European Capital of Culture, which is a big tourist boost," he said. 'But we worked out that it is a sort of Buggins' turn round the European Community, and it would have been something like 2022 before we could put in an application.

"I was getting pressure from a few artistic groups within the city to go for [UK City of Culture] so we decided to.

"We think we have a very, very strong bid. I understand that Derry [the current holder] spent a great deal of money on their bid and had to create a lot of, perhaps, temporary infrastructure. Dundee already has the infrastructure. The city will be transformed without the title but it would certainly help to accentuate that."

In her office at City Quay, Sandra Burke, the recently appointed chief executive of Dundee & Angus Chamber of Commerce, said: "Within the business community there's a heightened sense of excitement and interest in the potential of the bid for the city.

"There are so many other things happening at the moment. The waterfront redevelopment has already created a huge buzz. The business community feels there's already a spotlight on the city and we want to take advantage of that and maximise the potential across a range of sectors.

"That includes culture and tourism and we increasingly want to promote Dundee and the surrounding areas. Dundee has an important role at the centre of what is effectively a city-region.

"The city's population is around 145,000, but the city-region population, within half an hour of the city, is over 300,000. Success with the bid would be another reason for more people to notice Dundee, come here, and experience the 21st-century Dundee.

"It's an extremely exciting, dynamic, positive place to be. The bid enhances that and plays to Dundee's cultural credentials."

Guild quotes with approval the words used last week by Sheena Wellington, who sang at the opening of Holyrood, when she said that if you flew over Dundee and lifted the lid off, any night of the week, you'd see music groups, painters, musicians and actors all at work.

"Dundee has been one of Scotland's best-kept secrets for far too long," he added. "It's high time we started getting rid of that image and pushing ourselves."

In Aberdeen, the question was a simple one: what would you like to see in the city in 2017? 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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