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Creating Space for Culture

A dad, cyclist and percussionist, Cluny Macpherson is also Chief Officer for Culture & Sport at Leeds City Council. At a recent meeting of the Leeds Chamber of Commerce Property Forum the subject of cultural infrastructure was debated, here’s Cluny’s thoughts from the discussion.

Cultural activity in all its forms has to take place somewhere.  Leeds like anywhere else needs its spaces for culture.

Some cultural activity, like reading (which happens to be the most popular one) can happen virtually anywhere.  Increasingly culture can be created and seen in virtual spaces. But more often it requires a particular sort of space or environment; sprung floors for dancing,  raked seats for watching, glass cases for protecting,  great acoustics for listening, walls and floors for mounting.  A half-decent roof is helpful (but not always required). We need spaces to make culture as well spaces where we can experience it. When the culture is a thing, we need spaces to store it when not in use.  We need rehearsal rooms, artist studios, conservation workshops and repair facilities.  We need spaces where the next generation can learn their craft and where all generations can improve.  We need spaces where people can meet and create culture together.

Where our cultural spaces are located is also important.  The bigger, grander spaces tend to have grown up for good reason in the centres of cities and this is true in Leeds with the Grand Theatre, Art Gallery, City Museum, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Arena, City Varieties and the Town Hall all very central.  But we also have major cultural spaces out of the centre; Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Chapeltwown, Armley Mills and the Thackeray Medical Museum in Harehills to name but three.  New, less traditional cultural spaces often grow up where costs are lower. The model has been well documented where artists move into a run-down area due to low costs, the area becomes more attractive as a result, prices go up and artists are forced out.  Leeds has its own examples of this.

First Direct Arena. Image: Hannah Webster
First Direct Arena. Image: Hannah Webster

Among many other dedicated cultural spaces are Otley Courthouse, Chapel FM in Seacroft and Seven in Chapel Allerton.  Recently the people running some of these smaller Leeds venues outside the city centre have got together to share experiences and expertise – which can only be a positive development. In addition there are numerous community and faith centres which are also regularly home to cultural activity.  There are 35 libraries in the city. There are cinemas, pubs with stages and cafes doubling up as galleries. There are of course hundreds of school and village halls.

Outdoor spaces also host cultural activities, and we have in Millennium Square one which unusually was built for exactly that purpose – with underground storage and green room facilities included.  Our nine major parks and 63 community parks host rock concerts, brass bands and, famously, Europe’s oldest West Indian Carnival.

On the face of it we have a great richness of spaces hosting innumerable cultural activities and events.  Sorry if in all this I missed out name checking the cultural space you love most.

However the downside is that these spaces are expensive to build and to look after. The amounts involved can sometimes be eye-watering. It is estimated that the recently proposed new concert hall for London would cost a whopping £278m. This sometimes leads to controversy – as people think the funds are better spent on other cultural projects, or not on culture at all.  It’s worth noting at this point that central government, local government and the National Lottery effectively have separate bank accounts for capital and for running costs. It’s very hard to move money between them – so you can’t use money set aside to build theatres to pay actors and writers a wage, or to subsidise ticket prices. Although you can of course argue about how much should be put in each pot in the first place.

As well as being a bit pricey to build, cultural spaces are often pretty expensive to operate – any income from ticket sales is rarely enough.  In order to meet costs the spaces often also benefit from ‘secondary spend’ by running retail outlets (café’s, bars and shops) or sometimes from parking.

However, the majority of this secondary spend generated by culture doesn’t get back to the cultural organisation that prompted it.  Audiences spend their money in local restaurants, hotels and petrol stations.  The fact that culture can have this economic impact without benefiting directly from it, is one key rationale for the continuance of public subsidy.

A particular Leeds example shows how important alternative income streams can be to survival: The Leeds Library, a subscription library situated upstairs on Commercial Street in the centre of town will be 250 years old in 2018. A remarkable organisation, I am told it’s the building in the city with the longest continuous cultural use.  Its long term survival and resilience is not unrelated to the 248 years of rental income it has received from the shops it leases below.

So in the context of the next 13 years and beyond, how do we want to plan, support and develop Leeds’ cultural infrastructure?  There are big choices to be made.  What about an interactive maths and science museum? A new concert hall?  A major independent gallery? Dedicated workspace for new graduates? A stage fit to host the world’s best dancers? A city centre park? As it happens all those have been suggested in the last few months.

It might equally mean upgrading and improving the existing facilities to make them either fully accessible, or more resilient, more welcoming or even just more waterproof.  It could mean new cultural spaces at the heart of all our communities, incorporated into the plans for the 70,000 new homes we need to build.

So then we just need to prioritise, then plan them and then deliver them?  Simple.  Except…. it doesn’t really work like that in the world of the cultural space.

Whilst the Council doesn’t currently have a strategy for its own investments in capital projects for culture it certainly could develop this, and it has a strong history of both developing and funding them in the past. It’s something we will probably look to do as part of the cultural strategy.

The Council has neither the authority nor resources to do this alone.  Land ownership is diverse, there are national laws governing buildings and development and there clearly isn’t enough money do everything everyone aspires to.  The people and organisations that have the money to invest are clearly more influential than those that don’t.  The lottery, in recent years the biggest funder of cultural capital projects, is also in a sense to blame. Lottery regulations don’t entirely favour a planned place-based approach to strategic investments, instead each application is assessed mainly in isolation, on its merits, and as and when it lands in the in-tray.

Art Hostel
Art Hostel

It’s worth a note about Leeds’ South Bank as a possible exception to the challenges of planning on a big scale. It’s been hailed as the largest regeneration area in Europe and cultural considerations are already high in the discussions about what it should be like to live, work and visit it in 2030. (These discussions are also concerned with the public realm, public art and the spaces between buildings – which is likely to be the subject of a separate post on this site).  With the South Bank we might have the ability to ‘culturally-design’ what will effectively be a new city centre and way of living for the 21st and 22nd centuries. No pressure there then!

Any cunning plan we put in place also has to be able to flexible enough to respond to changing events, perhaps responding to an offer of investment or a new funding source.  In all of this we also need to believe in our entrepreneurs and visionaries.   From Charles Thornton, the publican who built City Varieties, to the work of Karen Watson and John Wakeman in establishing East Street Arts at the forefront of creating workspaces supporting hundreds of artists, we need to support people with energy, ideas and tenacity without whom nothing will be realised.

With all that in mind what might a strategy look like for the next 13 years?

  • Look after and make most of what we have already got
  • Work with lottery distributors to plan better
  • Put culture right at the heart of the South Bank
  • Get our house(s) in order for 2023
  • Embrace ideas with realistic revenue streams!
  • Expect the unexpected

Investment in any new infrastructure or in care of the current spaces is not worth consideration if we don’t have shows on the stage, floats on the parade and artefacts in the museum.  Or more importantly the people to create build and care for them.  Or a public that wants to join in in their richness.

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