Things are changing for culture in Leeds.
Nine months ago a small team of three council officers wrote a report to the city council’s Executive Board recommending that Leeds should bid to become European Capital of Culture 2023.
Then a general and local election was held which saw Leeds elect its first female Leader of the Council, Councillor Judith Blake. Councillor Blake in turn appointed one of the youngest and most diverse Cabinets of decision makers in the country, and she also chose to be responsible for Culture and Economy herself. Suddenly culture was at the heart of the city’s agenda like never before.
We knew that, to bid for and ultimately win the 2023 title, the city must have a current Culture Strategy, from which the bid takes its steer. Another great opportunity for Culture in Leeds!
With new leadership, an atmosphere of ambition, anticipation, influence, and excitement where everything seems to have aligned and anything seems possible, writing a Culture Strategy should be a breeze. I really wanted to lead on this and to do something bold and exciting with it, but something didn’t feel quite right.
Leeds’ cultural potential was suddenly more exciting and energetic but ‘strategy writing’ in the normal sense sounded like it could easily stifle rather than amplify the city’s ambition. I wanted to write a strategy that would inspire and to do that I knew that it had to be something people, all people, would actually read, so it had to be written in their language, not the language of strategy and policy. I believe that content and how the story is told is more important than conforming to any agreed framework of how strategies are written.
I didn’t want to start gathering views and evidence on a plethora of post-it notes, followed by commissioning an anonymous writer of strategies to lock themselves away for two months and write it all up into a coffee table set of glossy images and glossy words.
Maybe it’s the rules that come with a strategy that feel so restrictive and binding. Maybe it’s the idea of a code telling us what our decisions will be before we’ve even been asked the question. Maybe it’s a deep seated need to seek the permissions handed down by strategies and policies. Maybe it’s the rebellious naughty child in me. Whatever it is, it seemed at odds with a time of bold decisions and big ambitions in Leeds. A sort of rallying cry for culture, but only if the rule book says it’s OK and it looks familiar enough to be acceptable?
We don’t know what the cultures of tomorrow will be so to write a restrictive document that would date before the ink is dry defining our cultures for the next thirteen years, did not feel ambitious and progressive. To write a Culture Strategy under the same headings that are so familiar to us because we see them in other strategy regardless of the subject, does not feel reflective of the sometimes messy, anarchic and indomitable spirit of culture in Leeds. To create a series of rules that will govern our cultural development for more than a decade with no opportunity to be flexible and responsive for that period, did not seem innovative and bold. To have a strategy which is about knowing where we’re going and having the all answers, seemed to somehow dim the lights on the city’s adventure towards European Capital of Culture and beyond to 2030.
With such an opportunity for change, it felt like time for something more radical, different and uninhibited. But what?
Perhaps an approach to strategy development that doesn’t suggest that we have all the answers, or even that we know the people who do, but instead we’re happy to take a mystery tour into the unknown and see what happens, adjusting and adapting along the way? Maybe we could write something that is flexible, fun, and reflective of the great minds and artistic, edgy and independent attitude that our cultures are already known for?
A strategy that doesn’t start by comparing our cultural wares with other places, but tries to encompass the uniqueness of Leeds. A galvanising force to consider what our cultures might be in 2030, and who their makers will be. A promise to empower the people of Leeds to become the future architects of culture, whatever forms it may take.
I started to feel excited again, but maybe that was just me. So I talked to people, lots of people, testing out ideas, throwing most of them out, bringing a few back in again. Not everyone agreed, inevitably.
So here’s a first stab at a new approach to a new Culture Strategy:
For a start we do not offer up a definition of culture. Culture is so much, from the art forms we use to mark the unfolding of our history, to the gastronomy of life’s celebrations and events, and the heritage that defines our diversity. Culture comes from within, it cannot be placed into a neat little box with a bow. It continues to morph and evolve making it impossible to pin down what’s in and what’s out. That’s the thing with culture we only really know what it is to us, so why would we try to define it for others?
Second we start on line. It’s easy to change and edit as we go so we can be flexible and if we learn something new that says we were wrong two months ago – we acknowledge that and change our course. The digital world calls it ‘agile working’ – never getting too far ahead of ourselves, always testing and questioning, working in short little bursts of energy informed by what we learn.
Third we build a strategy using the cultures of the city. Rather than commission one author to play out our findings in a traditional document form, we commission a range of communities, artists, performers, people, writers, poets, musicians, children and others, to build a creative narrative together, told in a range of languages designed to engage the whole city in a way that suits us, whoever we are.
Fourth we do not make up any prescriptive rules (except this one, rule four is sacrosanct!). Our Culture Strategy will be a framework, not a doctrine. It will be about people not policies. Where policies are needed they will be flexible outlines, rooted in our values, policies that are about finding the right solution, not just a solution.
It’s a start. We are going to give it a go. It might change along the way. It might even end up as the strategy with the headings so recognisable to us all. We don’t know, but it feels like anything might be possible, which is how all adventures should start.
One thing that is already different is that what you are reading, hopefully, doesn’t feel like a council document for consultation. It is written in the voice of a person not an organisation and not just the foreword. This voice is the voice of Leanne Buchan: Council worker; Human with ideas and opinions; Sometimes gets it right, sometimes gets it wrong.
The voice will be mine, but I am trying to just be a narrator of the city’s story. It’s an open, co-authored, co-produced story. I can only share what I’m told and what I learn. You can challenge those things. You can add your own views, knowledge and experience.
Yes currently, it does only reach those on line and we will need to find other ways of sharing this conversation, but that’s a good place to start and an open, transparent repository for what develops out of those discussions. It’s also a good test of how committed we – all of us – really are to going beyond the usual suspects because that only happens if we all make it happen.
In the next post I’ll tell you more about what people thought when I talked to them about this new approach.
PS: just in case you were worried about me throwing out the rule book, we also checked with a grand fromage in Europe that such a novel approach could still count officially as a cultural strategy for the purpose of bidding for 2023. He said it was fine. Everyone relaxed a bit and decided to see what happens.
Image: George Street Mural by Nathan Evans at Leeds Kirkgate Market Image courtesy of I Like Press