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A new approach to a new Leeds Culture Strategy

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


    • Hi Richard We’re looking for events, groups, meetings, gatherings of all kinds to talk to people about what a new Culture Strategy could mean for them, the the aspirations that they have but currently struggle with, and where culture might help. We don’t care if it’s a formal presentation or a cup of coffee, just want as many voices as possible to feed in. Also please keep commenting and giving your views, sharing with colleagues and friends and encouraging them to comment too.

      • Maybe you could talk to the woman I say next at a Playhouse production in community centre in Burmantofts. She enjoyed the production but when I asked her how many times she hAd been tdown to the Playhouse she pays for she said ‘never been love’ and she could virtually see the place from her house. Where is her voice in all this? Maybe it is there. If not, it needs to be front and centre.

        BTW…agree with much of your thinking and want the city to win the bid.

      • It’s not currently there and I agree it needs to be there. However that person you spoke was engaged in culture at some level. I think that we also need to speak to those not experiencing culture at all and ask why? I also think that in some ways it’s OK that the woman you spoke to hasn’t been to WYP provided that as a city we recognise and value the cultures that she and others enjoy every bit as much as we recognise and value our fantastic cultural giants.

        That said if I was able to find that woman and others like her and ask them, they might set me straight.

        I liked your idea of using ward councillors to nominate who some of those people might be.

    • Harry monk Harry monk

      I saw your flyer. Excellent idea. Personally all I’m looking for is beer, bicycles and pictures of minion type things.
      You seem to have everything under control

  1. Love this. We’ll only create stand out for this wonderful city if we do something other than what you might expect an obfuscating, official document to include. Massive generalisation alert, but the good people of Leeds have always been straight-talkers. This is a great start.

  2. Chris King Chris King

    I am happy to share a coffee and discuss what I could get from the city as a lost soul, where culture is concerned.

    • Great, send me some contact details on the contact form and we’ll set something up, how much of a lost cultural soul you are depends on your definition of culture – I think Leeds’ definition should be vast but might be proved wrong by this process.

  3. Tracy witney Tracy witney

    Sound great, happy to host an open coffee and chat in chapeltown

    • Hi Tracy that would be brilliant thank you! Could you send your contact details via the contact form and we will plan some dates.

    • Through the city council’s Children’s Services team yes but formal and informal routes are good so if you have any contacts/suggestions that would be brilliant!

      • Hasn’t this got links to ACE’s drive for Local Cultural Education Partnerships? Paul Brennan gave an inspired presentation at Cape UK Cultural Education Challenge launch in November 2015.

      • It doesn’t currently but it would be great if it did! I’ll contact Paul.

  4. Way back in 2001 tapping into online public forums like chat rooms and bulletin boards, Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen created “Listening Post,” an art installation of a grid of screens that could read sound bites to create a series of statements, usually starting with “I am.” The work explored the ways in which we communicate online, but more importantly gave a ‘voice’ to all and sundry, excerpts of what was going on were captured randomly, compiled into sentences and passed through the hundreds of small screens that made up the installation. See:“Listening+Post&&view=detail&mid=73FD717A292482FDB3B073FD717A292482FDB3B0&FORM=VRDGAR

    We are in an age of data proliferation and as more and more of us work on-line and become used to mass on-line voting, crowd funding and other similar systems, perhaps it would be interesting to see if it was possible to try and capture the various cultural voices of the city in a similar way. The screen on Millennium Square would be a wonderful place to see something like this operate in real time.
    Your proposal feels as if it is an opportunity to tap into open source cultural data, from any and all the possible sources in a city made up of many cultures but perhaps the one that unites us all is the fact that we are now part of an electronic ‘global village’. The city is host to several companies that will all be trying to advertise their skills in visualizing data, could this be a way to both give these companies exposure and create a focus around which to watch your project evolve.

    • Wow Listening Post looks great! Further in the process the intention is to have a series of commissions that will explore the themes that are agreed in this part process from a cultural perspective e.g., rather than putting the themes into a document what if we used culture to express the themes of a culture strategy and created film, music, dance, visual art, poetry, literature, and a whole range of other cultural activities to play out the strategy and find new audiences for it? This is sort of what I’m inarticulately waffling on about in my third suggestion of this post, and there’s no reason why data couldn’t be included in that as , if everyone agrees, we’ve already said that the definition of ‘culture’ can include whatever we want it to.

  5. Live Art Bistro will be happy to host a little get together and chin wag. Will report back on the results

    • Brilliant! Thanks for helping and supporting. Would you mind doing a write up or video or whatever suits that we can share here? I’m happy to come along or if you’d rather just crack on that’s fine too

  6. James Hill James Hill

    This all sounds great. I’ve always felt that Leeds is an amazing city for cultural activity but a terrible city centre for it in the sense that so much of the fantastic activity happening in the city is hidden away, ‘underground’ or on the periphery. I know that Leeds is a city where there is something, culturally, fantastic going on every single day and that, if you ever say you are bored in this city, it’s cause you’re not looking hard enough. But I’ve had 25 years of looking to get to this point… I always think that Leeds’ failing is that, if someone were to come on a ‘city break’ for a weekend, and stay in the Radison, they would see next to nothing of all the good stuff that is going… because there isn’t enough exhibiton space in the centre for visual art, and music is all hidden away in places like the Brudenell. A knock-on effect of this is that there are doubtless many (thousands of) people out there in Leeds who would like to get involved in cultural or creative activity but who don’t know of the many opportunities available to them to get invovled. Our intention in setting up Light Night 11 years ago was to attempt to reverse this, at least for one night a year.

    Of course there has been a huge amount of investment in cultural infrastructure in the last 25 years (new museums and theatres and arenas, and refurbs of most of the older ones) and there are our ‘majors’ (Opera North, Northern Ballet, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Yorkshire Dance) who already have a great national profile. I think the problem with previous cultural strategies is that they have been like brochures highlighting these headline things, which people can already see, already know about. While they are of huge importance to the city, if they have already ‘arrived’ in our consciousness and the national consciousness, do we need a strategy to promote them further? No! Similarly, the strategy should not be written by those who work in those institutions or their existing audiences. It may be contradictory for me as an arts professional to say so, and it may be very difficult to achieve, but the strategy should be for all those people who don’t currently attend cultural events or work in arts organisations and if possible, should be written by them.

    What I think is needed is firstly to raise the visibility of the massive amount of work already being created in the city, and secondly to make sure that anyone in the city who wants to get involved in creative activity knows about all the opportunities that are available to them to get involved. I think this open discussion forum, and the idea that the strategy should be open to all cultures, and all definitions of cultures, is a brilliant start to that and hopefully the website will end up documenting some really interesting discussions, and some new creative works.

  7. I Huddleston I Huddleston

    The definition of “culture ” doesn’t mention

    A Competition

    or even City

    A given place is a collection of people, a family, and we have to look after each other. Seven years ahead , “culture” can change
    What is culture?

    • I really like that you’ve included family in your definition. I think this is a huge part of who we are, and being able to live with family in the way that we want to is one of the most important aspects of life.

      The only slight correction I have is around competition. Although very connected the Culture Strategy and the bid for European Capital of Culture 2023 are two distinct projects for the city. The bid will be rooted in the Culture Strategy but will explore a specific element where the strategy aims to take a broader view of the city. We also have the added bonus of an extra seven years with the Culture Strategy up to 2030 😀

  8. Chris Glen Chris Glen

    St George’s Day should be celebrated as we have ( I believe the largest St Georges Day celebrations in Morley) Perhaps including something on St Georges day at the Royal Armouries.

  9. Sam d Sam d

    I think culture in Leeds would massively benefit from having regular free public events in millennium square. There are some (for example Vamos), but only sporadically. The square is so under used and would go such a long way in producing identity for the city and making it an exciting place to live.

  10. Jimbob bungle Jimbob bungle

    I work with a group of committed and creative people who are trying to continue to run a social group for care leavers in the south of the city. Over the past two years we have encourgaed many young people to access culture in a lots of different ways. E.g. Partnering arts groups, workshops, visiting speakers, film work, creative consultations, visits, gigs, trips etc.. I would love you to meet us so we can tell you all about how we do it. The sad bit is we are finding it more and more difficult to resource and manage as its voluntary on top of our day jobs in the council

    • Leanne Buchan Leanne Buchan

      Hi James it would be great to meet you snd find out more. Can you send me some dates & times that work for you to

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