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A new approach to a new Leeds Culture Strategy – Part II

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

7 Comments

  1. James Hill James Hill

    What’s a Beetle Drive?

    • Think of it as a kind of colourful, child-friendly competitive bingo:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beetle_(game)

      We did a tournament about six ago years for the Holbeck Urban Gardening project as an alternative to bingo and the Holbeck Community Centre still play it now. Possibly my greatest life achievement right there.

  2. James Hill James Hill

    The idea of leadership from the Council is a really tricky one which I have seen from both sides of the fence in my role on the Arts&Regeneration Team for ten years, and since then working for Pyramid of Arts. I think the relationship between the city and arts organisations has in the past been managed very strategically and the monitoring process been so rigorous that the organisations and the Council have almost trained each other to speak the same language. Speaking the language of LCC & ACE targets has been second nature to arts organisations for so long that perhaps we have lost the ability to think independently a bit.

    Pyramid is lucky in that its work crosses over with the work of different areas of the Council and therefore gest support from different areas (the Arts Team and the Adult Social Care team). The ASC team’s recent Market Position Statement – http://www.leeds.gov.uk/docs/Market%20Position%20Statement%202015-18.pdf – is a really good example of ONE WAY of the Council leading, in that it states, in no uncertain terms, what its commissioning priorities will be with the money that it still has left, then leaves it up to organisations to find ways (‘new and imaginative ways’) to fit into those priorities. This is of course a kind of ‘tell us what to do’ document but is done with a real honesty about what the city can afford in the future, and it allows organisations to be creative in their response to it.

    Pyramid is also an organisation which has to think more about its members (the artists with Learning Disabilities that we work with) first, and potential audiences second. We hope that we benefit our members by supporting them in exploring and developing their creativity first and then getting a wide public audience for that work once it is done. We may not know who our audiences are yet, although we know we make brilliant work and I think the fantastic responses that we get to it at events like Light Night feeds our ‘Build it and they will come’ philosophy!

    Having said that we know that we only work with around 1% of the population who identify themselves as having learning disabilities so there are many many many people out there who could be members but who don’t know about us, or don’t know how to access the money or support to get to us. Often these barriers to involvement with creativity for our potential members are very ‘nuts & bolts’. Rather than being about marketing failures, or people not being inspired, they are about literacy (very few of our members will be able to read or respond to this blog in this format), or cost, or transport, or admin… The area of overlap between cultural agencies and the other agencies with responsibility for the management of our members’ lives is one where there is loads of room for improvement and efficiency but also for better communication and understanding of the value of creativity and cultural activity. As arts organisations we should never assume that those people who drive the minibuses that bring our members to us, or do the staffing rotas in supported living houses, have the same appreciation of the value of our work as we do. But if we can communicate this better, and create a more efficient overlap between all these different agencies, all or funders will get more value for every pound that they spend on us.

    So perhaps it’s not about ‘leadership’ but about mapping the way that all these agencies work together, and trying to improve that way of working so that everyone who wants to get involved in creativity, or wants to try it out, has all the information about opportunities available to them, and the support that they need to get them invovled if they chose to do so. I am really convinced that the same amount of funding, or even reduced funding, could be made to go much further if this were to happen.

  3. Matt Blakeley Matt Blakeley

    Thsi is never an easy element to control and a difficult one in Leed where the cities identity is not even clear so to understand whatculture is, with that backdrop is difficult. I believe we have a strong cultural voice in Leeds and an underlying identity that can be seen if you look closely. It is not in the arena or in the Ballet or Opera but in the Indie food scene, in the re emerging corn exchange, in the small cafes on Hyde park corner, Headingley or Meanwood. It is in the literary festivals of Morley and Ilkley. It’s in the design houses of the city, the graffiti along the river and the communities in Holbeck and Hunslet doing things differently. It is not one thing but many things and it is this kind of challenge that means we have a complex balane to strike.

    What you will never do is please everyone but you can create something that is Leeds, not a reinterpretation of Manchester, Bristol or Glasgow, but Leeds. A city identified by it’s variety, it’s diversity and it’s small communities that surround the hub. We are not a city with a clear identity and that should be celebrated. The city centre becomes more vanilla and more independent in the same breath which again should be embraced.

    The urgency of the city leaders to have a John Lewis to stand alongside other similar cities is frustrating but in a part understood, what those leaders need to do is to step aside, allow the cultue in the cty to breath and allow the innovation, ideas and creativity that is abundant in the city to shine through. Creating space, support and infrastrucutre for independent thinking and creative minds, innovation and creativity in all it’s guises.

    My challenge for you is to create a strategy is less than two sides. A strategy is a vision and a set of values nothing more and anything beyond this will only seek to put off those people who daily add to our wonderful creative fabric we have in the city.

    • Challenge: Accepted.

      I really like the sentiments in this comment. You can’t please everyone but that doesn’t mean we should be devisive. Leeds has many sides and finding a way for them all to flourish seems to me far better than ignoring some in favour of others.

  4. Liam Hirst Liam Hirst

    My name is Liam Hirst. I am a 21 year old artist with autism from Yeadon.

    As an artist I am involved in three arts groups within Leeds. They are Buzz at First Floor on Monday & Tuesday, Purple Patch on a Thursday, and Pyramid of Arts on a Friday. My week is very full with all this activity. I am also a trustee at Pyramid of Arts.

    I’ve been involved in arts projects since I was 13 but the I am proudest of is ideaLeeds, that was a scultpure sound scape that you could conduct to make your ideal city. There where six boxes with sounds from the city – work, green space, home & family , industry, transport, retail&leisure. This projet went to Breeze on Tour, Light Night, and the Howerd Assembly Rooms and was commisoned to go to Luxemburg for their yearly Nuit des Lampions Lantern Festival.This was the first time I was commissoned internationally for mny work.

    When I am not at one of my groups I go to play Darts with my family at Yeadon Liberal Club, and go to the ciname or theater with my friends. I also help out with a charity called HCPT (Hosana House Children’s Pilgrimage Trust) on ther annual pilgramage to Lourdes as a helper. I really think that it’s inportont that a culture stratagey plan celebrates these things in people’s lives, as well as the arts. The arts can be used to celebrate people’s everyday lives!

    This then led on to me doing a successful Arts Council G4A bid in my owne name. This was to create a lantern in response to my trip to Lourdes, which I showed on Light Night back in Leeds. Without the support of the three arts groups I am involved in, this would never have happend.

    • Hi Liam, thanks for commenting. It sounds like you have had an enormous amount of opportunity as an artists from being active and joining the groups that you mention. I’d like to talk to you, other people like you and maybe even those groups as I think that ‘things in people’s lives’ is culture or at least it’s what culture should be to Leeds. I’d like to know what those things are, who makes them, what inspires people to create those things or to enjoy and experience those things. I’d also like to know what barriers people face. James (below) talks about nuts and bolts and systems that don’t work. These things aren’t cultural in themselves but they are vital for culture to happen. I want to know what is hard to do so that the Culture Strategy that we collectively write might be able to make that easier.

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