I spoke to Kris Donalson, late of Liverpool Culture Company in 2008 about his return to the city and his reflections on our Capital of Culture year.
Kris, you left in 2009 after a succesful 5 years, why leave then?
I’ve got to say it was a personal decision. I am an Australian citizen have spent 20 years of my life there and my partner and I had purchased some property down there prior to the Capital of Culture opportunity coming up. There were also family connexions in Australia so it was entirely a personal decision.
Obvious follow up question, why come back and what is your role now?
I have had some great jobs in my career, quests really. Having worked for the Sydney Olympics the Capital of Culture job was really a similar challenge. It was a great opportunity to help people and the city. It was akin to a religious experience.
Liverpool was in the midst of a renaissance and the Capital of Culture gave the city the impetus to grow further. What struck me was the attitude of the people of liverpool and the pride in their city. There is now self belief which contrasts with the trepidation which existed when we first started. It was wonderful to be part of that.
Why have I come back? Well there wasn’t the opportunities in Australia that I thought there would be. Personal reasons aside the opportunities are here and a role came up in Destination Liverpool that I have decided to take, I have the contacts here and so it felt right to take the role. I can help chart our course in the changing circumstances we now find ourself in.
The key thing now is how we engage the private sector in a way we haven’t done before.
You are in a unique position in that you were intimately involved with Capital of Culture, moved away for a while, and have now returned. What changes have you noticed in the city?
I can’t get over all the new restaurants in the city! Jamies restaurant has just opened, there’s a new Italian, a Japanese! Quite extrodinary. When I first came here is 2003 there was not much choice at all.
The streets of the city have improved but the waterfront is now amazing. I have lived in a number of cities with great waterfronts but Liverpool’s ranks amongst the best in the world. Also culturally the city remains incredibly vibrant. When you get into a taxi cab there is a sense that the city is improving from the attitudes of the drivers.
The image of Liverpool has improved since the Capital of Culture year. Is there more to do to further improve the image of the city and what is key to this?
It was almost mission impossible to change the image of the city within the UK. TV programmes etc and also fear of crime is an issue. Local people believe this image of crime and in a way spread this image even though Liverpool is one of the safest cities in Europe.
Liverpool has the ability to project itself as a cultural capital in the widests sense. Science, education as well as more traditional cultural things. Liverpool can say a lot of things about itself. We need to use the social media to spread the word, invite Liverpudlians around the world to come back! The waterfront is a key gateway and we need to use this to project the ‘new’ Liverpool around the world.
The thing about this place is that people love it when they get here, so lets get them here and the city will sell itself.
Culture is now firmly on the cities agenda, lots of debate around funding, the RLPO, Mathew St Festival, Biennial etc are all now valued by the citizens of Liverpool. But, what else is needed aside from cultural activity to enhance Liverpool as a place to work and live?
Liverpool needs a lot more businesses setting up here, a lot more investment and jobs. Retaining graduates is key.
The economic future is compelling and there are four strands to this;
Tourism, everybody has to take responsibility for how the city look, throwing things on the ground etc. There seems to be a disconnect between the peoples pride in the city and some of the behaviours.
The superport is key and can create jobs.
The low carbon economy is key and fourthly the knowledge economy. The universities are important and the games industry also. Liverpool leads in these fields.
There is an economic blueprint for the city covering those four areas. In the tourism economy for example, Brits do not like to work in the tourist economy, but this is an area for growth in jobs. The hospitality industry will grow in the city and people have got to want to work in the hospitality industry.
Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you could do the Capital of Culture again?
Oh! That’s a tough question!
I think we would engage local people and artists earlier. It would have avoided a number of issues if we had done this. Fortunately it happened anyway and the Capital of Culture became for the people and by the people. We eventually realised that we had to engage from the grass roots up. If I had to do it again I would make this happen earlier.