Simon Wallis: How to create a cultural powerhouse for Yorkshire and the North

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WE are, arguably, still finding our feet in defining the geography and priorities of what comprises the so-called Northern Powerhouse. One thing we can be sure of is that Yorkshire will be central to it, and so will culture because it is embedded in our everyday lives.

Culture is about a unique spirit of place: it means where we choose to eat, drink, watch and play sport, see a film, performance, dance or a concert. It’s the shops and markets we use, our multi-cultural mix, the influence of landscape, architecture, design or the quality of education.

We all contribute to creating this living and changing thing we call “culture”. This region excels in making environments in which creative people thrive.

Yorkshire is where deep relationships between the urban and rural, and the local and global, connect people and ideas in ways that give our cultural offer a unique character. Creativity in the UK is what we are now known and valued for worldwide. It defines what is often called “soft power” through which we remain internationally significant by creating exceptional in-demand storytellers, visionaries, performers, thinkers and pioneers.

The measurable effect of this “soft power” is achieved by culture playing a crucial part in expressing new thinking that responds to our accelerated globalised times.

We need culture’s inspirational power to provide us with a compelling nuanced vision of a Northern Powerhouse that’ll work to add real value to our region.

After all, we all rely on culture for high quality entertainment, spiritual nourishment, and as a catalyst for better-connected thinking no matter what our profession or background.

Our contribution in Yorkshire to the UK’s cultural identity is immeasurably strong. We produce and engage with world-class culture as part of nurturing and developing an ancient Yorkshire identity that has helped encourage politicians to consider devolution for our major cities and regions in the North.

Our acclaimed cultural offer in Yorkshire gives us a compelling voice to add to the Northern Powerhouse to ensure we are the authors of our own fate and rather less subject to the influence and agenda of London and the South East.

Our unique regional experience of culture is also essential for business, as it characterises places where leading professionals want to work and live in a global marketplace. A thriving cultural scene tells a compelling local, national and international story signalling ambition.

All major cities across the globe see culture as a vital part of their economic strength and future strategy. It can be no coincidence that many of the great philanthropists for culture and the arts are also our most successful business people: world-class culture and business always go hand in hand.

Yorkshire now has a superb opportunity to further develop its own bold vision for the role of culture in driving growth, international profile, well-being and talent retention.

Hull has been chosen as UK Capital of Culture in 2017 and it is already acting as a catalyst for multi million pound developments of its public realm. It will deliver huge artistic ambition and events on a scale never seen before in the city to entice visitors from the whole of the UK and beyond.

Leeds City Region is developing its considerable reputation for creativity and is therefore bidding to be European Capital of Culture in 2023. Artists, performers and the creative industries are flourishing here, as are the cultural, tourism and business institutions that support and grow them.

The strength of our cultural offer and talent across the region has long made us a form of Northern Powerhouse, well before the term was coined, and this is great news for our economy.

The recent independent report The contribution of the arts and culture to the national economy (2013) commissioned by the Arts Council, and conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, was the first comprehensive analysis to determine the value of arts and culture to the modern economy on a national scale.

It concluded that arts and culture generate more per pound invested than the health, wholesale and retail, and professional and business services sectors. It also found that at least £856m per annum of spending by tourists visiting the UK can be attributed directly to arts and culture.

Recent official statistics published in a report this June by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport states that employment in the creative economy across the UK increased by five per cent between 2013 and 2014 (2.6 million to 2.8 million jobs) and by 13.7 per cent since 2011. This compares with an increase of 2.8 per cent for total UK service exports.

However, the value of culture is never only about economics. It’s also addresses quality of life, wellbeing, feeding our imaginations, nurturing and educating our children, and improving access to culture for all so we thrive and don’t just survive.

Political, business and cultural leaders in the region now need to develop a shared vision. We need the Northern Powerhouse to ensure cultural value is woven fully into our lives to stay competitive and ensure a rebalanced UK in which Yorkshire is key.

Culture leads effectively on regenerating urban areas, growing tourism, encouraging international dialogue, feeding the creative industrie and creating civic and regional pride. But all this is achieved because powerful art has always been a central human endeavour: not merely nice to have, or a luxury.

Culture comprises no less than the self-consciousness of a society. We need therefore to keep clear sight of its crucial significance in our public life: our wellbeing and success depends on it. Culture improves and graces everything it embraces and there can be no meaningful and inspiring Northern Powerhouse without it.

n Simon Wallis OBE is director of The Hepworth Wakefield.