My last post proposed an idea for a new approach to a Culture Strategy, setting the scene for the city to embark on a more radical, different and uninhibited adventure towards a new Culture Strategy.
I talked about how, with a new political leadership and Leeds bidding to be European Capital of Culture in 2023, it was an exciting time for the city and that a Cultural Strategy needs to match that excitement – not dim it.
In talking it through over the last few months I certainly found support for doing something differently but also, of course, talked about what might actually be in a cultural strategy. I asked people how things are in Leeds. What’s easy? What’s hard? What’s it like working with the city council to make culture happen? What are the things you’ve loved in Leeds that we need more of? What drives really, really frustrates you?
Just like the city-wide consultation on 2023, everyone wants the cultural strategy to be for everyone. My conversations however had to start with someone not with everyone. I started mainly with people in the cultural sector but in a broad sense, individuals from flagship organisations to those from independent, commercial and community organisations – the people who are thinking about culture and its role in Leeds on a daily basis. I was aiming to find a starting point to build something that could then be tested much more broadly.
The conversations were almost all 1-2-1 meetings. In and amongst those discussions I found activists, anarchists and pioneers. I found angry, frustrated and proud people. I found humour, honesty, respect, passion, and fire. I also found fear and a sense of bewilderment. A sense that we have the chance with 2023 but few really believe we’ll take it. Hiding behind the gloss of a well-rehearsed rhetoric on the importance of the culture sector, was a sense that we’ve all been here before and it probably won’t be different this time.
I met a great deal of generosity from people sharing their thoughts, for which I thank them. This post focuses on my own perspective of what I learnt from those conversations.
I met the household names of culture in Leeds, with their infrastructure, funding and international renown. I met with great passion and pride. Organisations that made new shows, employed significant numbers of people, toured art made in Leeds, nationally and sometimes internationally. But also organisations that are changing and developing, their artists as likely to be found in a school as on a stage. However their undoubted enthusiasm was sometimes mixed with frustration and an undercurrent of doubt. Quite often the conversations focused on the bilateral relationship between the organisation and the Council. People said that they didn’t know what the city thinks of its cultural offer. When I asked about who they created culture for, some asked me to tell them who the city wanted it to be for. Funding was difficult. Could the city prioritise culture more? Is Leeds embarrassed by its cultural sector? Can’t it fight to protect it alongside community centres and care homes? These people new clearly the benefits that culture brings to health and wellbeing, social cohesion, equality and diversity because they saw it daily with their own eyes. Why then was culture never talked about in this way in the city with such confidence?
With others I had conversations that lasted over an hour never using the words culture, strategy, community, or development. These people wanted to talk about other people and the things they do, that brighten our lives. They talked about local galas, melas, fundraising Beetle Drives and the commitment of others.
We had conversations about local heroes, those dynamos that have utterly bonkers ideas and somehow convince everyone else that it’s perfectly sane. Where allotments, play groups and dance troops converge. Where there was a gap in life and someone filled it, not to make a quick buck, but just to fill the gap. We talked about language, identity and connectivity. We talked about perception, snobbery and often wilful ignorance that cast these ventures in a lesser light when the word culture does eventually surface in the conversation.
We talked of situations when culture as most people would recognise it – a gallery, a music venue, a theatre, wasn’t paid for by the public sector. There was a strange feeling these creators of culture were a hybrid of dirty words like success, commercial, and privately-owned mixed with the new vanguard of culture embodied in independence, freedom, and creative industries. They were neither nowt nor summat, but they were very definitely culture.
They were also very frustrated that they were pigeon holed one way or another, infuriated with the inflexibility of what they saw as an archaic ‘system’ that stops them from thriving and in their view doesn’t value them because they haven’t asked for a grant.
During these conversations some people used the word leadership, but what they mostly described to my ears was management – tell us the answer, tell us what to do, tell us how to fix it. Others thought that the city stifles itself and its people. Throw away the rules and leave us be, we will create the cultures of the future. Others were more pragmatic. Yes we want leadership, someone to set the tone and ambition, but we’re all adults and we see different things that no one leader can ever know. Relax, trust the people who create the culture you can be proud of. It’s not your job to protect us, it’s your job to help us to do that ourselves, and to enable a culture that we can all have share in.
When I talked about a new approach most people laughed. Not because it’s ridiculous or even that ground-breaking, but because it’s so obvious yet we’ve never done it before. No one demanded that I stop this nonsense and start writing a 80-100 page document immediately! Everyone was slightly cautious, wondering what the end result would be, but happy enough to see where this goes.
The Arts Council said: “It’s terrifically exciting. A bit mad and a bit risky but, still, exciting.” That made me feel a bit better, like it wasn’t just some daft idea that I’d end up giving up on half way through and go back to the old ways.
In my first post I said we weren’t looking at a definition of culture, partly because that starts to suggest who is in and who is out. If we are to do away with definitions of ‘Culture’ then no one is in or out. True, these conversations started with those who programme venues, lead clubs and classes, promote and tour the city’s perceived cultural offer, and bring people together to create events and spaces enlivening communities, but then I was directed to other people. People who volunteer, people who prod and poke, people with big ideas for what should be happening on their doorstep. I didn’t get to speak to all 750,000 people of Leeds, and I probably didn’t get to speak to you.
While I was talking to people I was also inundated with reading. Someone would recommend this city’s strategy that was pretty much identical to that city’s strategy recommended by someone else. Someone else would send me the biggest report I’ve ever seen on what the academic world expects of a strategy. People would recommend books, articles, journals and I’d have a go at reading them all.
All of this conversation and reading led me to believe that maybe this approach is actually more ground-breaking than I thought.
As a co-authored strategy of which I am currently the narrator it is within everyone’s gift to change it. Comment on these blogs and tell me if I got the story wrong, tell me what I’ve missed and who I should talk to. Maybe something here resonates with you. Maybe you’re glad it’s finally been said. Maybe it’s important enough for you to tell me so?
Image: Lark in the Park at Charlie Cake Park in Armley, Leeds Kystina Harrison, courtesy of Playful Anywhere